German counter-attacks | 4 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

A huge rainstorm has blown in. Even if the BEF had been in position to launch a major attack on the German Second Line today, it may well have been postponed. The French advance to the south is suffering; they not only need dry weather, they need serious reinforcements, and they have neither. To the south, the BEF is starting to run into trouble again. They’ve taken most of Bernafay Wood and a few smaller areas nearby, but General Rawlinson is unwilling to move into the much more difficult Trones Wood without French support, which won’t be available in a couple of days’ time.

Once again I say: a bolder advance would have taken Trones Wood by now; but for all they knew at the time, it might also have walked right into undetected German positions and got slaughtered. The question of whether Rawlinson was being prudent or just dithering is unanswerable, and therefore a perfect Matter of Some Debate. A new plan is emerging, once they’re in position to strike at the German Second Line. North of the Albert to Bapaume road, offensives are to be abandoned for the moment. The main push will be a strike, very roughly from Contalmaison and Bazentin towards Pozieres, and from Longueval and Trones Wood toards Ginchy and Flers.

Meanwhile, the BEF has now secured La Boisselle; but that’s not the end of the story. Many Germans, cut off inside the village, are refusing to surrender. They have food, and ammunition, and a series of dugouts and cellars that are connected by tunnels. Here’s a new map.

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

It’ll take another few days to winkle out all the last holdouts, and that while fending off German counter-attacks.

German counter-attacks

But those German counter-attacks seem rather easy to fend off, don’t they? Nowhere is the BEF going further backwards than about 50 yards at a time. There’s a simple reason for this, and it’s rooted in von Falkenhayn’s order to hold every inch of ground and to counter-attack wherever possible. In their desperate attempts to comply, mid-level German commanders are not allowing any time for units to re-organise themselves after they’ve been forced to retreat from a position. They’re scraping together scratch forces of whoever’s available, and throwing them right back into the fight again without any thought for unit cohesion, mostly with diminishing returns.

The only casualty figures that people remember from the Somme are the 60,000 British from the first day. However, now, as these piecemeal German counter-attacks are battering hopelessly against the BEF’s Stokes mortars and Lewis guns (and the French crapouillots and Chauchats), the German casualty figure is starting to rise sharply. It’ll take a good while to reach parity, but it seems that they’re determined to have a bloody good try.

Our little wet home in a trench

The BEF is now occupying a large number of German trenches; for the first time it becomes clear just how good they are. General Haig has just had word about this…

General Headlam visited the captured positions about Fricourt yesterday. Some of the dugouts were 30 feet below ground, and in places a double tier! Also there were places arranged for shooting upwards from below at anyone in the trenches. [He considered] the effect of the artillery shooting was good, and the fire accurate.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Lionel Ferguson of the 13th Cheshires is looking around some trenches elsewhere.

This trench was dug about 15 feet deep and duckboarded. We must have gone through a mile of this, which was just wonderful; each fire bay had a ladder to it, also a deep dugout quite near; and after all our bombardment the trench was little damaged. If it had not been for a big mine we put up, we should surely never have been able to penetrate this system. We then selected a dugout for company headquarters; the best thing in dugouts I have ever seen.

It had two entrances being about 40 feet deep, extending underground about 30 yards. The inside room was fitted up with glass-doored cupboards, these contained detonators and mining implements. A large stove was fitted, also a periscope looking over the old British line. In an anteroom at one end was an engine for working the electric light of the trench system. At the opposite end was a tunnel large enough to place about 100 men.

There are, still, by the way, occasional casualties crawling back across the original No Man’s Land to the old British front line. They’ve been surviving off the iron rations and water bottles of the dead.

Battle of Erzincan

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus. Vehip Pasha’s recently-reinforced Third Army has surely done more than could have ever been expected of it by now. The end begins now; there’s been a breakthrough near Dencik, and elements of a Russian division are now securing the road to Bayburt. When the men immediately around the road realise this, they begin falling back. Panic quickly begins spreading, battalion by battalion, as every commanding officer notices the men on his flank executing a hasty advance to the rear. Nobody’s in a mood to get captured, or to fight to the last anything.

Eastern Front

Quick check in with the Brusilov Offensive, which we last saw a few weeks ago beginning to stall out due mostly to the need to give General Brusilov’s men a rest. Now the Russians have joint offensives ready to go at last. To the south Brusilov himself is launching a battle on the River Styr, near Kostiuchnowka (yes, I copied and pasted that). In the north, General Evert has finally been bullied into attacking something. Let’s play a game; one of these two attacks is going to work, and one is going to end in horrible failure. Who do you think succeeded in doing what?

Yeah, so the Austro-Hungarians are on the run again, and only a large and determined rearguard stand from the Polish Legions, a very interesting unit who we’ll learn more about in 1917, prevents complete disaster. Evert, meanwhile, totally unwilling to learn anything from the debacle of the Lake Naroch Offensive, presides over another bloody slaughter. So that’s fun. Offensives on both fronts, yo! Give it another month or so and I’m sure General Cadorna will be ready to join in. As it is, he’s still ordering pokes at the edges of the Asiago plateau, mostly for the look of the thing.

This is not all of note, though. The opening of the Battle of the Somme has won the Entente a diplomatic coup. During the summer of 1915, there were intensive negotiations between the Entente governments and Romania. Although the Prime Minister, Ion Bratianu, eventually backed off after the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive got rolling, he did manage to secure an important concession in principle. If Austria-Hungary survives the war, it will be stripped of large amounts of territory in which ethnic Romanians live.

Bratianu now thinks he sees which way the wind is blowing, and now signals that he’s ready for negotiations to restart. He has three conditions; two of them are easy enough to satisfy, but the third, not so much. The first two are that the Romanian army should be supplied with arms, and that the offensives on all fronts will be maintained; they were doing that anyway. The third, on the other hand, is that Romania should be guaranteed that as soon as they join the war, the Bulgarian Army won’t just turn round and stroll over their large land border to the capital Bucharest, barely fifty miles away.

Why is Romania worth making such lavish territorial promises to? Simple. Their army, fully mobilised, and including men fit only for rear-area duties, is 1.2 million men strong. A free 1.2 million extra men is, at this point, absolutely nothing to be sniffed at. More on all that to follow.

The war at sea

Admiral Scheer, commanding the German High Seas Fleet, has now finished an official report to the Kaiser on the Battle of Jutland. It starts well enough, with some thrilling narrative and a hopeful suggestion that he’ll be ready to put to sea again in mid-August. But, after the sugar, there comes some less palatable assessments. “Even the most successful outcome of a fleet action in this war will not force England to make peace”, he suggests. Jutland has made him a born-again convert. Unrestricted submarine warfare, he says, is the only way of using naval power to win the war.

Battle of Mecca

Some British artillery pieces have now arrived at Mecca, to help Hussein bin Ali and his rebels end the stalemate in the streets. With no artillery of their own, the Ottoman garrison is now faced with a choice between surrender and death, and they will, over the course of the next few days, choose to surrender. The fight for the Hejaz is now well and truly underway; more to come from the Arab Revolt.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien, as a second lieutenant, is now learning very quickly how to supervise a working party. As working parties go, he’s being thrown in at the deep end. No easy jobs building supply dumps in the rear for him. His men are expanding an official cemetery at Bouzincourt, mostly to take men who are dying of their wounds at the aid posts in the old British front line. And as he’s doing this, he’s had no news of either of his two friends who led platoons over the top on Z Day.

Alan Bott

We first met Lieutenant Alan Bott of the Royal Flying Corps early in June, with rumours of an imminent departure for France flying everywhere (hohoho). The rumours have continued for about a month; now, a serious development.

On July 4 a large detachment departs, after twelve hours’ notice, to replace casualties in France. Those remaining in the now incomplete unit grow wearily sarcastic. More last leave is granted. The camp is given over to rumour. An orderly, delivering a message to the Commanding Officer (formerly stationed in India) at the latter’s quarters, notes a light cotton tunic and two sun-helmets. Sun-helmets? Ah, somewhere East, of course. The men tell each other forthwith that their destination has been changed to Mesopotamia.

A band of strangers report in place of the draft that went to France, and in them the NCOs plant esprit de corps and the fear of God. The missing identity discs arrive, and a fourth Date is fixed, July 21. And the dwellers in the blinking hole, having been wolfed several times, are sceptical, and treat the latest report as a bad joke. “My dear man,” remarks the subaltern-who-knows, “it’s only some more hot air. I never believed in the other dates, and I don’t believe in this. If there’s one day of the three hundred and sixty-five when we shan’t go, it’s July the twenty-first!”

We’ll check back on July 21 to see who was right. At any rate, the role of the RFC on the Somme is often grossly overlooked in favour of mud and blood in the trenches. Having Bott around will help to correct that; once he finally gets out there, that is.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley has reached Ras-el-Ain. He’s survived the desert marches.

The column grew weak and slower, and at the end we had to use three carts to move the sick on in relays. The march to Tel Ermen was the worst. We were raided by Turkish troops on the march, and lost our boots and lots more. Above us the famous old town of Mardin lay perched up on its altitude, a high-walled and ramparted city of the Ancients looking over a waste of desert and enjoying a secluded life. We wondered how many treks like ours it had seen. We left more and more of the men and orderlies behind. The last stage was terribly trying, and we were doing forced marches by night and day.

We were done to a turn. Only the driving power of one’s will made one press on. At last we are arrived in the wretched village, but as I write I hear a locomotive puffing and puffing. We are on the railhead. No sailor after being tossed amid shipwreck in a frantic ocean ever felt happier to be in port than do we, to realize the long march is done. There are other marches ahead over mountains, but they are short, we hear. The desert is crossed.

I have just visited secretly a German NCO camp of mechanical transport close by. They gave me coffee and biscuits, and, in exchange for a khaki jacket and jodpurs, some tins of bully, a bag of coffee, and some cheese. They were on the point of giving me some more, but I had to go. They told me a lot about Germany, and of the German victory at Kattegat, of which I saw a description in a cutting just received by one of them. We believed, nevertheless, the German had in reality been well hammered on the sea.

The Germans couldn’t understand my incredulity, and said they didn’t see why they shouldn’t do on the sea what they had done on the land. Verdun, they said, would be taken in two weeks. They admitted the French defence was a surprise. Lord Kitchener’s death at sea I didn’t believe. Nevertheless, one feels one has reached partial civilization to be able to speak of France and the fleet, even to a German.

They’ll soon be moved on again, but as he suspects, the worst is now over. The “victory at Kattegat” is of course the Battle of Jutland.

E.S. Thompson

More bullshit to swallow for E.S. Thompson, the South African machine-gunner.

Anniversary of the July Strike. Cold morning. Shook blankets and had a good wash. Bought 4 chickens for supper tonight. Mac went to see his pals in town. Rest during the morning and had a shave. Paddy’s brother came along again and told us he was being sent back to the Union. He is suffering from heart disease. Read again during the afternoon and examined my clothes for ‘greybacks’ finding a good few. Mac returned bringing Alf and I a piece of shell each fired from the German gun. He told us that the ‘Supplies’ were betting that peace would be declared on Thursday. An armistice is supposed to be on.

The July Strike, in this context, was a major 1913 strike in and around Johannesburg by gold-miners. The government response, led by one J.C. Smuts (now transformed into General Smuts and presiding over the South African contribution to this giant cake and arse party in Tanzania), was to attempt to break the strike by force. July 4 was the day when railway workers called a sympathy strike and violent clashes followed on the streets.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has now been taken away from his gas duty at the Bois de Chenilles and sent to rear-area billets. Colonel Douce has just been promoted; there’s a new boss, and he’s intent on making his mark.

From dawn to dusk we had nothing but long exercises, maneuvers, and marches in a withering heat. It made us miss the trenches. This pounding and bashing came at the orders of the firm-handed colonel sent to the 296th Regiment, it was said, to shape us up, or to get us back into shape, because evidently someone had noted a slippage of discipline in the regiment. This was Colonel Robert.This terrible fellow stuck his nose into everything, watching, surveying first-hand to make sure that the numerous rules he issued each day at roll call were being observed.

What bothered him most of all was seeing the tail flaps of our uniform coats even a centimeter out of place, when they were folded back.
Even if you were a hero, brave as could be, or as smart as anyone, you were nothing but an idiot, a good-for-nothing, if you showed too much of the pocket underneath the flap.

The newly-restored Corporal Barthas, meanwhile, has been put in charge of a squad of new recruits in his battalion. Perhaps this is Commandant Quinze-Grammes’s idea of a punishment?

Some came right out of reform school; others, as delivery boys, had neglected to hand over to their bosses some money from a client; some, employed by the post office, had had the indiscretion to peek into the content of private letters. One of them had found nothing better to do than to kidnap a young miss of fourteen whose folks didn’t want to give her to him in marriage. Finally, there were those who, young as they were, had been convicted as pimps, and they proudly showed off the letters, packages, and money which their faithful “hens” sent to them.

To these kids precocious in vice, they had opened the prison gates in exchange for enlistment for the duration of the war. This was offered as a form of rehabilitation. Among them were a number of unfortunate orphans who, to free themselves from the tutelage of Public Assistance, had enlisted. They had been snared, dazzled by life on the front lines as depicted in the newspapers, and now they came to live out fantastic adventures and gather up stripes and medals with ease.

Let me hasten to say that these young rascals always treated me with respect and, I’d even dare to say, affection. It’s true that I didn’t use a rough manner. I reprimanded them as a comrade, as an older brother rather than as a superior in rank. I took an interest in their fates, writing applications for charity awards for these disinherited ones. And these poor little guys, many of whom would have only me to weep over their deaths, in exchange for my solicitude to them, took on a true and touching attachment for me.

He’ll have about two weeks in the rear, being drilled, getting to know his new charges, and letting them know he’s on their side.

Actions in Progress

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

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