Gommecourt | Boulogne | Executions | 15 Jun 1916

German East Africa: The Northern Railway

No, this is not an extremely boring classic film for railway enthusiasts. A couple of weeks ago, with the rainy season at an end, General Smuts began an advance down the now poorly-defended Northern Railway towards Tanga. The local Schutztruppe have done their best, but all Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s eggs went into the basket marked “Battle of Kondoa”. If he can’t fight and win a second battle there, his only hope of halting the advance on Tanga is if literally everyone gets malaria at once. Which is not impossible; disease casualties are again reducing most British Empire battalions to half strength.


You may recall that part of the plan for the Battle of the Somme is a major diversionary attack on a small but annoying German salient at Gommecourt, about 30 miles to the north of the battle sector. Here the men have been making deliberately obvious preparations to attack. They want to be seen by the Germans. It’s just part of the horrible reality of war. If these men can attack and take some of the heat, the casualties they sustain may prevent other casualties during the main attack.

Their activities, as it happens, are having the desired effect. The German 2nd Guards Reserve Division has been brought out of, ahem, reserve, along with six heavy artillery batteries, and moved to Gommecourt. That’s a lot of blokes who will be unavailable to the Germans at the sharp end during the critical first few days.

Haig briefs the armies

At Montreuil, General Haig has called his army commanders together to let them know what’s going to be happening. This does not mean that the 4th Army’s staff officers have done no planning, mind you. General Rawlinson submitted his first draft back in early April. This is more in the line of making sure everyone knows the basic facts.

The length of each bound forward by the infantry depends on the area which has been prepared by the artillery. The infantry must, for their part, capture and hold all the ground which the artillery has prepared with as little delay as possible. The effect of the artillery depends on (a) “accuracy of fire” and (b) “concentration”. Commanders must insist on these points.

Pause. The other day we considered that the artillery’s accuracy is in fact suffering badly due to inconsistent wear patterns on the gun barrels. Haig appears unaware of this. However, what he is surely aware of is that concentration on the German First Line has been compromised because some Scottish commander-in-chief insisted on also directing significant weight of fire on the Second Line in order that both could be attacked on the first day. Surely. He must be. Right?

I may have mentioned before, how the concentration of fire in terms of guns per square mile of front will actually be less than at the Battle of Loos due to this decision. Irony time, strap in please. Haig has done this because he is trying to learn the lessons of that battle! As you may recall, Haig’s 1st Army broke clean through the German first line at Loos, and then as the army attempted to advance on Lens, they got stopped dead by an untouched German second line. The solution: attack the second line on Day 1.

There’s a logic there. It only seems faulty because we know what happens next. Admittedly, Haig’s not accounted for the very much stronger first-line trenches on the Somme, or that everyone will be attacking uphill. I still think the point stands, though.

And here’s another point to consider. I don’t think Haig could have known the impact on concentration caused by his order to attack the Second Line. As mentioned yesterday, artillery in the BEF is considered a corps or division-level asset; it’s reasonable to assume that all Haig knows is his army now has a lot more guns to play with. In order for Haig to know what effect his order would have, a divisional commander would have to know what the concentration was at Loos, think to compare it with the Somme, then pass it up to his corps commander, who would have to pass it to Rawlinson, who would have to pass it to Haig, who would have to recognise the problem.

And, very possibly, more than one divisional commander might have had to make the same observation before it were taken seriously above him. Perhaps some bright staff officer at GHQ might have considered the problem and gone direct to the Chief. Perhaps someone else might have tried. Maybe they did, and their concerns never made it up the food chain. There’s a lot of documents that have survived the last hundred years and which have been sitting, unread, in the archives somewhere. If any historian’s found evidence of that, I’ve not seen it.

Anyway. Resume.

As regards the objective of the 4th Army attack, it was firstly, to gain the line of the Pozieres heights, organise good observation posts, and consolidate a strong position.

All this he expects to be done on Day 1.

Then, secondly:

(a) If the Enemy’s defence broke down, occupy Enemy’s third line (on line Flers-Miraumont), push detachment of cavalry to hold Bapaume and work northwards with bulk of cavalry and other arms so as to widen the breach in Enemy’s line, and capture the Enemy’s forces in the re-entrant south of Arras. The hill at Monchy-le-Preux with intermediate points between it and Bapaume, seems a suitable line for the cavalry to hold as a flank guard for covering the operations of other arms.

Once the German Third Line is occupied, any further advance takes them squarely back into open warfare and the use of cavalry in this way is entirely reasonable; this is what cavalry is for. As long as everything goes to plan. (The precise role of the cavalry will be refined considerably before Z Day; more on that to come.)

(b) If Enemy’s defence is strong and fighting continues for many days, as soon as Pozieres heights are gained, the position should be consolidated, and improved, while arrangements will be made to start an attack on the 2nd Army front.

The 2nd Army lives in the Ypres salient. It is of course very far from certain that the French would have agreed to this plan, or that an attack could have been planned and executed in enough time to avoid the famous Flanders autumn rains. (It is sometimes hard for outsiders to distinguish them from the summer, winter, and spring rains; but I should also mention that for the past fifty years, Flanders autumns have trended dry…)

To conclude. This is a very, very optimistic view of how things might play out on the Somme. It’s not come from nowhere, though. This is not out-of-touch dreamers making up bullshit to fit their prejudices. This is all based on the very best information available. Just yesterday, the GHQ intelligence staff under General Charteris has provided a summary of reports received from British agents in Belgium.

Apparently a large number of trains have passed through Belgium and proceeded deep into Germany. This appears clear evidence that the Germans are withdrawing plenty of men from France and sending them to Russia. If the reports are accurate. More soon.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux has been quartered briefly in the Citadel of Verdun. He now waits for orders or peace; whichever comes first.

Huge shells crash down, causing serious damage. I walk as far as the town. It’s in ruins and deserted. One can’t stay outside for long. The Citadel is a real underground town, with narrow-gauge railways, dormitories, rooms of every type. It’s safe here, but very gloomy.

At 9 in the evening we leave, not knowing our destination. We advance slowly through the night. At every moment, huge shells come and explode on Verdun, at the crossroads, and in the direction of our gun-batteries which are stationed on all sides. We march in silence, everyone conscious of the seriousness of the moment. At 1am we arrive at the Bras-Ravin Quarries, where we remain in reserve. No shelter, nothing. We are in the open fields at the mercy of the first shell.

This is a very lonely account, isn’t it? Louis Barthas’s story is all about him and his mates facing death together. Most of the British officers we know admit that there are other people with them, at least from time to time. So does Sergeant Robert Pelissier. I guess that tells us something about how much Desagneaux likes his brother officers. If you have nothing nice to say, and all that.

Bras, by the way, is right on the edge of the River Meuse. You pretty much can’t be any further west and still be on the east bank.

Evelyn Southwell

Like a good little boy, Evelyn Southwell is writing home from the 14th Divisional School to his mother. He’s really rather impressed.

These schools are excellent things; and it ought to do you good, I think, to know that the Army is really using its brains far more than it used to do, in the instruction of its more ignorant members. I suppose I oughtn’t to say too much about numbers of schools, even if I have beyond the vaguest guess how many there are. But it is at least fair to say that it is most improbable that in a few more weeks (or say months at most) there will be any officers at all who haven’t been sent away to some course or other out here, under people with the very latest tips from the Front.

If we can be trusted to reproduce in our men (and this is the hard part really, perhaps even harder for many people than for me; for with all my military stupidity, I think, if anyone succeeds in teaching me anything, I can make some sort of show at teaching others) if, as I say, we can teach them half what they are all trying their hardest to teach us, we really shall be getting on.

Aren’t you supposed to be a master at a public school, Southwell? If you can’t make some sort of a show at teaching, then who will?

Maximilian Mugge

We close today on a rather nastier note than we have been accustomed to from Maximilian Mugge. From not being accepted for service, to being dumped into the ranks rather than anyone trying to make use of his language skills, to being further exiled to the Non-Combatant Corps for no good reason, to the medical farces concerning his heart, he’s been as good an Englishman as he can be and kept mostly in good humour.

That is not possible today. Today he must stress-test his stiff upper lip.

It was a quarter to seven. Like a gigantic silver dagger resting on greyly-greenish satin lay the light of the westerning sun on the sea. About a thousand men had been drawn up, lining the Square from which at times a keen eye might catch the outlines of the Kentish chalk-cliffs. But to-night a fine haze veiled the Land of Freedom and Renown. There was a movement amongst the officers in the centre of the Square.

Four bare-headed NCCs were paraded in front of the small cluster of officers, and one of these stepped forward and began to read: That these four conscientious objectors had been found guilty of wilfully disobeying lawful commands of their superior officer given in the execution of his duty. That their sentence had been pronounced and promulgated by duly constituted court-martial. That they were to be shot!

A faint murmur ran through the ranks of the thousand men that lined the Square. Like the wind soughing through limetrees on a rainy autumn night. And the haze over the Kentish cliffs seemed to grow thicker. There was a pause.

After a while the same officer’s voice could be heard again: “but commuted to ten years’ penal servitude.” !!! One of the men standing near me cried like a child. “And they promised in the House of Commons,” he whimpered, and broke down. What was it they promised? Who were the “they”?

The four prisoners had been marched away whilst I listened to my neighbour. Words of command rang out and we were marched back to our huts. The dagger of light was gone, and the green glitter of the sea had turned a hue of dull and leaden grey.

From the 10th of June through to the end of the month, these scenes will continue until 34 “absolutist” conscientious objectors, men who refuse to obey any military orders, have been sentenced to death in France and then reprieved. They’ll then be put on boats home to serve their sentences in civilian prisons.

And, as it happens, “they” are the Government, particularly in the person of Harold Tennant. Since 1912 he’s been what we might now call a junior minister at the War Office. His job is to do anything that the Minister of War can’t be bothered with. So he’s spent a lot of time in the last six months speaking high-mindedly of the grand legal protections offered to conscientious objectors, and then fending off a large number of questions from awkward MPs pointing out the reality of the situation. And he has indeed promised quite a lot. But then, the White Star Line’s investors were promised quite a lot about the Titanic.

By the way, I’ve worked out where “Lianeville” is, which wasn’t difficult after a big event like this, one that lots of others have referred to. The River Liane tips into the Channel at Boulogne. It seems a bit trivial now.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina

Further Reading

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