Guns on the Somme | 24 Jun 1916

One man and his throne

Signaller Dudley Menaud-Lissenberg is a telephone operator with a British artillery battery on the Somme. It’s early morning, miserable and wet, and he’s found himself in need of some quiet time. So, as is traditional, he’s gone to the latrines to think things over.

I was sitting on the pole over a deep and narrow trench, with a sandbagged roof supported by spars of timber overhead, situated at the end of a long communication trench running parallel to and 20 yards in rear of the line of guns. I, of course, knew the barrage was to commence that day, but with other personal matters on my mind I sat on the pole in contemplation and alone. The silence was indeed eerie!

Suddenly, as if struck by an earthquake, the ground shook and the roof fell in, as hundreds of guns opened fire simultaneously. I extricated myself from the debris. Seeing blood on the shoulder of my jacket from a wound somewhere on my head, which was numbed, I panicked for a moment. I heard the lads at the guns lustily cheering and hurried to the command post, hoisting my slacks the while. Here I found Gunner Roach seated at the telephone.
‘What happened to you?’ he enquired, as he looked at my blanched face and bleeding head.
‘Is it a “Blighty”?’ I asked.
‘No!’ he replied as he examined the wound, ‘It’s only a scratch on your earlobe!’ I must confess I was disappointed, but relieved.

It is my overwhelming ambition to find a toilet joke for the beginning of every major battle of the war. All up and down the Western Front from Ypres to Frise and beyond, British and French guns are opening fire. This is “U” Day. “Z” Day, when the men will go over the top, is the 29th. And it’s not just the big guns that are getting fired today, as Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler well knows.

The parapet was lined like the dress circle at a theatre, with our 18-pounder guns all busy wire cutting. In the face of such fire no Hun sniper dared to show his head, and we spent a very cheery and useful afternoon. I passed the grounds at Maricourt chateau; the noise there baffled all description. About 30 light, medium, and heavy trench mortar batteries were in action near the chateau. Being in the apex of a salient, they were all firing at once in three different directions.

This will be the first time the BEF has attacked with plenty of portable, modern Stokes mortars and light Lewis machine-guns to support their advance.

We do night firing the whole night through on various special points. On “U” Night there was a gas discharge on a wide front, as the wind was very favourable. In order to cover [the sound of the discharge], on the stroke of 10pm every French and British gun simultaneously opened at gun-fire. It was a marvellous sight to watch the brigade of French 75s just behind us. Within five minutes, the Hun SOS rockets were going up, and what with the heavies searching their back areas and approaches, and the heavy gas discharge, his losses must have been heavy.

We’ll see about that. Unsurprisingly, only a minimal guard remains in the trenches. Most of the Germans are now locked deep inside their dugouts, far deeper than can be reached by the heaviest shell. More soon.

Battle of Verdun

The weather is still dry around Verdun, but it’s horrendously, punishingly hot. These are the hottest days of the year so far, and the German infantry is not nearly as fresh and battle-ready as its commander would like it to be. They’re right at the gates of Fort Souville, but they simply don’t have the strength or the spirit left to storm the fort, or to break through on its flank and surround it. French counter-attacks are starting to arrive, but in the main, today at Verdun is a day of hopeless confusion, as Henri Desagneaux demonstrates all too well.

There is no question of our being relieved. Behind us, on Fleury ridge, the Boches continue infiltrating. We have been turned. There is no longer any doubt. We can see enemy columns invading the terrain, and their machine-guns are attacking us from behind. Our artillery has had to move back. Now, something worse: my men are becoming demoralised. The word “prisoner” is being whispered. We must fight against this notion, raise morale. But how? What are we waiting for? We don’t know. We can only wait for it. The attack which will kill us, the bombardment to bury us, or exile, even.

Our batteries have taken up new positions and are opening fire. The Boches reply. Impossible to eat. Our nerves can’t stand it. If we have a call of nature, we have to do it in a tin or on a shovel, and throw it over the top of our shell-hole.

Ah, an opportunity to test out how true the saying “it went like shit off a shovel” is. Do they have it in French, though?

German East Africa

There are quite a few things going off in German East Africa over the next couple of weeks. How dare they schedule them during what’s shaping up to be, for this blog, the busiest period of the entire war? It’s damned inconsiderate is what it is. Anyway, the first thing to note is that, despite considerable opposition from their British allies, a Force Publique column from the Belgian Empire has just conducted a swift march out of Urundi to Lake Victoria, routing isolated Schutztruppe patrols en route, and not letting such trifling matters as an enormous bush fire interfere with their advance.

Biharamulo is now in Belgian hands, and the local Schutztruppe is now in quite a lot of trouble. Yesterday they were forced to abandon Bukoba for good, along with a bumper rice harvest, in the face of the King’s African Rifles. This 800-strong detachment is now trapped; Lake Victoria is to their east, the KAR in Bukoba is to the north, and the Force Publique has now cut off their escape route through Biharamulo. It’ll take a large dollop of luck for them to slip the net; they have only the advantage that neither of their two opposing forces knows exactly where they are.

Meanwhile, the advance out of Moshi down the Northern Railway is continuing. Major Kraut’s men here (yes, it’s still his name) are just about out of mountains to hide in. Today a composite force of Kashmir Rifles, King’s African Rifles, and the Legion of Frontiersmen under General Hoskins has forced a 750-man unit of Kraut’s men to fight by the River Lukigura. The Schutztruppe escape with a broken and bloody nose, and now it’s time for them to quit the region altogether and head off to rejoin Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck on the Central Railway.

Speaking of whom. There’s a very interesting happening today at Kondoa Irangi. The good colonel has many qualities as a commander, but he does not have a massive amount of patience for just sitting around and waiting for something to happen. Attacking Kondoa again is off the table; he’s seen the reinforcements arriving and no longer has a numerical advantage. The gamble of forcing a major battle has failed. Time to wind his neck in and go back to his strategy of being as big a pain in the arse as possible for as long as possible. He’s now planning a retreat east to Morogoro and Mahenge to guard Major Kraut’s fallback.

Emilio Lussu

Emilio Lussu has had a few days of rest as the Battle of Asiago ends, but now he’s going forward again to continue the pursuit of the retreating Austro-Hungarians.

Despite his advanced age, the brigadier-general put himself at the head of the first company of our advance guard and was killed in a skirmish between patrols. It was a huge loss. The soldiers loved him. When the divisional commander heard…he lost his usual calm. He climbed a fir tree and installed himself on the top, like the commander of a ship, and shouted “Forward, brave soldiers! Forward to avenge your brigadier!”
“If we really wanted to avenge him, we’d have two dead generals today”, Captain Canevacci said to me. “If the general stays up in the tree and builds a nest there, the division will be saved. If he comes down, the division is lost.” Even if our soldiers had been endowed with ferocious determination, it would have been mitigated by the hilarity provoked by the general’s urgings, shouted from such an extraordinary position.

I’m beginning to detect a particular kind of insubordination here. Louis Barthas complains about his officers, but it is very rare that he directly wishes death upon them…

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson gets a quick response to yesterday’s complaint, and he finds that he enjoyed it so much…

Beautiful morning. No porridge and dry bread and coffee for breakfast. Littleton moved to the next tent so I took his place next to the tent flap. Major Thompson and Lieutenant Dare visited us and promised to look into our food question. Lodged a complaint to the doctor about our food shortage. Leg getting on well still. Zinc ointment applied. Four weeks to day since I burnt it.

Four weeks, and still I have not much sympathy for eedjits who slop boiling fat down themselves.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is waiting for the order to go forward.

I have just been out at the back of the garden of our Mess billet, watching the horizon jumping into flame with our shells and, I suppose, the German shells too. The Sucrerie and the trenches beyond are now a new world, no longer the scene of humdrum working-parties drawing tools and looking forward to breakfast on return, but a region transformed by the beginning of the Great Battle.

[The barrage] began this morning early, quite unobtrusively, but very steady and continuous. There is not much noise here, as none of the batteries are within half a mile, and the Bosche shells are bursting over a mile away. From the south and north there is no sound, but an occasional flash. A very lazy day for me, and pleasant. I read and wrote and received a fine mail.

Not long now.

Evelyn Southwell

In an entirely different rest billet, White’s friend Evelyn Southwell is rambling a bit. I’ll see if this makes more sense with a carriage return in it.

I think the wood, or small copse rather, within 1,500 yards of where I sit, is the loveliest of its kind I know. A real picture from fairy land. Like so many pictures in war time, do you know. Many, I say advisedly (if only because the few are so very unlike); and not only out of the trenches either, nor (necessarily) during the quietest times. It all depends on one’s state of mind, I suppose, at the time.

Certainly my gloomiest moments have been in billets; which doesn’t mean that during a strafe of any kind one always has a jolly time (because that is only silly!), but that, whatever it may be, it is not usually a tedious or depressing affair, but something less passive, as it were, in the way of feelings!

Yeah, I think I get what he’s driving at now, after a few minutes of staring at it. After all the eloquence we’ve had from him over the past few months, we’ll permit him a moment of struggling with his emotions. Especially as he’s probably worked out that Malcolm White will be going over the top on Z Day and he will not.

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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