Gorizia | Sixth Isonzo | 7 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

Yesterday we had a rather odd concept to digest; there’s been a battle on the Isonzo and there is good news for the Italians. Here’s another odd concept; it’s day 2 of Sixth Isonzo, and things are still going well! The defenders of Gorizia don’t have enough of anything; not enough men, not enough artillery shells, not enough barbed wire, and not enough morale. The situation continues deteriorating through the afternoon, and the evening. The local commander, General Zeidler, has been both promoted and ennobled over the last year for his efforts leading the defence.

As the witching hour ticks round, he’s decided that the position is no longer tenable, and it’s time to leave before they’re forced. This will mean letting the Italians cross the upper Isonzo without much opposition; but with little artillery ammunition and not much more for the machine-guns, it’s not worth it. Behind Gorizia is a fresh line of mountains, and they’ve been excavating a second line anchored on three peaks: Monte Santo, San Gabriele, and San Marco. There’s more high ground behind. Holding Gorizia is great for propaganda purposes, but they can hold the mountains almost indefinitely.

Off to the south, the defenders have given up the summit of Mount San Michele, and they’re now trying to sidle off to the rear without being noticed. Now it’s irony time. Just as Zeidler is making his decision, General Cadorna is reminding us how much he’s learned from 1915 by drawing up an order reminding subordinates that they should be careful and their job is to establish bridgeheads over the Isonzo only. For a few hours, there’s going to be a chance to inflict some serious damage on the defenders as they retreat across miles of open ground to their new positions.

And, thanks to the Italian army quite correctly learning from 1915 and not trying to do anything rash, they’re going to entirely miss the opportunity. If you’re not biting massive grooves in your knuckles right now, you’re better than me. Irony!

Battle of the Somme

After another extended round of fruitless counter-attacks on Pozieres, the Germans are giving the hilltop up as a bad job. Try as they might, they just can’t stop themselves being forced backwards, losing position after position after position. The attention of the BEF now switches back to Guillemont, where they’re going to have another push, on almost exactly the same lines as last time, and likely doomed to exactly the same failure. It’s been arranged with at least one eye on the jolly that’s beginning today. King George V is at the front; so too is President Poincare and plenty of other members of both governments.

General Joffre has used this as a chance to drop in on General Haig, and he’s in rather a better mood than he was last month. From Haig’s diary:

Extremely pleased at everything we had done, and full of compliments. He was also greatly delighted at the remarks which I had made about him in my message to the French on the third anniversary of the war. “As long as [you] get on well with [me], there is nothing to be feared from the politicians”, he said. My message appeared in Le Matin of 2 August. [Joffre] brought me a box of 50 Croix de Guerre for me to distribute as I thought right…a sort of “peace offering” after the previous interview between us here! I managed to get together 10 officers who had rendered “good service under fire” and he presented the crosses himself.

The Croix de Guerre is the standard French military decoration for bravery; it looks rather like a Victoria Cross but should not be mistaken for having the same rank. Le Matin was a popular daily newspaper that fell into collaborationism in a later war and quietly disappeared after the liberation of Paris. Haig has also just been told by Wully Robertson that both his and Winston Churchill’s assessments of the battle have been presented to the War Committee, but that nobody’s listening to Churchill.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley and his fellow officer-prisoners are settling in, if that’s the right word, to life in captivity at Kastamonu.

Malaria returned. The ague was more severe this time. Quinine we have at last procured in small quantities at the rate of five piastres a cachet, which means that one’s malaria medicine bill will be fifteen shillings daily. A cold snap in the weather has sent several others here down with malaria. Kastamonu is said to have a cold winter, so we hope to get this fever quite out of our system. It is raining steadily, the first rain since arriving here. We have no books as yet, but it is to be hoped the Turks will allow them to come through later on.

I have finished the Bible, a complete reading now since Baghdad. What a vigorous teacher is St. Paul. No mundane considerations seemed to prevent his putting the true value on this transient existence, and from that probably sprang the facility with which he decided always for the Lord.

The men from Kut are now mostly working as labourers, on precious little food, all along the Baghdad to Berlin railway.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman spends most of the day trying not to think about his broken leg, waiting to be taken away. It seems that the German advisors have been teaching the Ottoman soldiery a thing or two about how to taunt Tommy Atkins.

There was still no sign of our being moved to railhead, and as some of us were suffering considerable pain, our wounds were re-dressed. At midday we were visited by several friends from our regiment who were on their way up to the front line. We heard that cholera had broken out amongst the Turks and that some cases had occurred amongst our troops. It appeared that after a stiff resistance the Turks had evacuated. They had left a note saying that Lieutenant [name removed], of the Australian Light Horse, was safe and a prisoner; that he had dined with the officers of one of their batteries the night before, and that he was a gentleman.

Another note said “How did you like the six ladies from Katia?” This referred to their heavy guns, which they had succeeded in removing.

By evening they’ve been loaded onto a train and despatched to Kantara for further evaluation; most are being sent on to hospital at Cairo and Port Said. Teichman won’t easily forget the train journey, though.

A trooper in a New Zealand regiment who lay next to me, and had been shot through the spine, kept up a pitiful wail until he was finally exhausted. He was just alive when eventually taken out, but could not have survived long. After we had been going for a time the noise of the train overcame the groans of the sufferers. On reaching Pelusium our engine broke down and the train waited for a considerable time; then the shrieks and groans of the wounded broke the stillness of the quiet night. But worse was to come: we had to be shunted in order to let a supply train pass through.

It seemed a cruel thing to shunt a train full of wounded in open trucks, but it had to be done. Every bump in our springless truck was extremely painful.

Yeah, that hurts just thinking about it.

Max Plowman

From physical to mental pain now with Max Plowman, who’s been summoned along with all the officers by the battalion’s commanding officer. He’s a new replacement; I’m trying to work out whether the former lieutenant-colonel was wounded or killed on the 1st of July.

Officers, many of whom I have not seen before, crowd into a small room, each one saluting as he comes before a grey-headed, red-faced man, wearing a Scottish uniform, who sits writing at a table. Standing by his side is another Scotsman, tall, raw-boned and of very sour expression. He is our medical officer. The faces of the two men offer a contrast in red and grey; but they both look unpleasant. Without preamble the colonel begins:

“The discipline in this battalion is damnable. Some of you officers don’t know your job at all. You think the men will respect you just because you wear a belt. They won’t, and I don’t blame them. You’ve got to command these men before they’ll respect you, and the sooner you make up your minds to it the better. I see officers talking to men as their equals. I won’t have that. If there isn’t an alteration at once I intend to make it devilish hot for you. I don’t know what you’ve learnt at home. I don’t know who sent you out here. Some of you fellows have only just come out.

Well, you may as well understand, this isn’t a picnic. If you don’t know your job and show a very different idea of discipline, I’ll have you sent back and reduced to the ranks. You think you’ve come to France to loaf about. You’ll find your mistake. There’s got to be a drastic alteration, or back you go. I’ll not allow the men to be under the command of inefficient officers. Just understand that. You can go.” We salute and file out.

This seems a strange introduction. What does he know about our efficiency? The majority of us have only been with the battalion a matter of days. Why should we be cursed by a man who has never set eyes on us? We are volunteers; most of us joined in ’14, and our prospects of dying for our grateful country are the brightest in the world. Is this the way the modern commander spurs his men on to victory? I am stung with resentment. Captain Rowley sees this and smiles indulgently. He declares it is all “eyewash,” prompted by the doctor who regards every man who was not in France before July as a skunk.

Yes, Colonel. Because it was officers having civil conversations with their men that caused the disasters of the 1st of July, Colonel. Please feel free to have a shell drop on your head at any moment, Colonel.

Oswald Boelcke

Oswald Boelcke has continued meeting with the great and the good in Bulgaria. He’s managed to inveigle himself worryingly close to the front for someone who’s supposed to be off flying duty.

I was with General von Mackensen, and sat next to him at the [meal] table. Mackensen talked with me for quite a while. He is serious-looking, but not nearly as stern as his pictures lead one to believe. Later, I went by train to Hudova, and reached aviation headquarters, where I was given a fine welcome in the barracks. The aviators all live in wooden shacks, in a dreary neighborhood. This is not an enviable place to be, especially since they have had nothing to do for months. I flew up and down the Greek front. Then I went back to Uskub, where I spent the night.

Let’s now continue exploring the Dicta Boelcke, his rules of air combat for German pilots. Rule number 2:

Always carry through an attack when you have started it.

It’s very important that Boelcke has noticed what’s happened when other people start an attack, then attempt to break it off. Our man’s seen plenty of comrades shot down this way; and a flyer who’s been shot down often can’t tell the story of why he got shot down. Breaking off after starting to attack is a terrible idea, since first you alert the enemy to your presence, and then you obligingly turn round and make yourself vulnerable to him as you run away. Much better to just keep attacking and hope to force your opponent (who, after all, is being attacked) to make a mistake.

Maximilian Mugge

Recently, Maximilian Mugge was complaining that every time he’d applied to the War Office to become an interpreter or translator, they’d responded by transferring him. Except this latest time, which until now has not drawn a response. But no longer.

If amongst those mates of mine who were sitting outside our tent last Saturday even a bomb had dropped, nobody could have been more surprised than we were. A sergeant came just before the First Post was sounded and gave me orders to report the next morning at the Orderly Room in order to proceed to England. Of course we were convinced that the Fairy-Godmother-Department at the War Office had yielded to my 2001st application.

Whilst the boys munched up the contents of my two large parcels which had only arrived that evening, I had to listen to congratulations without end. “Fifty pounds I’d give milad!” said one of my mates,”if I were in your shoes.”

Fifty pounds in 1916 would be more or less a year’s wages for a private soldier.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani
Battle of the Isonzo (Sixth Isonzo)

Further Reading

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