Haig’s joke | Flora Sandes | 12 Aug 1916

Battle of Romani

Time to close up shop in Egypt for the forseeable future. The Ottomans have lost just about two-thirds of their force. General von Kressenstein has had enough; he’s ordering a full-scale retreat back across the desert to Arish. Even if anyone on the other side might have wanted to chase him, they simply don’t have the water. There have been plans made to pipe water forward from the Suez Canal to support an attack towards Palestine, but they’re still a good four months at least from completion. Nothing can be done until that’s done. So now we’re bidding farewell to Egypt for a while.

One last note. Getting an Ottoman division across the desert and then back again is an amazing feat of logistics from General von Kressenstein. Making a horrendous bollocks of the following battle is an amazing feat of tactics, although not in the same sense. Defending, as he will probably have to do from now on, is also going to require some tactical thinking…

General von Falkenhayn

Let us now pause for a moment and consider the position of one Erich von Falkenhayn. He took over as German commander-in-chief in 1914, stabilised the Western Front at the Battle of the Aisne, then failed to win the extremely winnable First Ypres. He made it clear that he thought victory would come on the Western Front and wanted as little as possible to do with the Eastern Front. Another chance at advancing on the critical-to-the-BEF Channel ports was blown at Second Ypres.

He got little credit for the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive or the conquest of Serbia, having made it clear that this was not his preferred option. He then stitched up the Eastern Front dream team of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff in favour of General von Mackensen and his amazing hat. Who, incidentally, has stayed in command of the remaining German presence in occupied Serbia. For nine months he’s been having polite dinners with Bulgarian officials and other passing dignitaries, rather than being transferred anywhere more useful. (This is actually going to work out very interestingly; watch this space.)

von Falkenhayn has effectively staked whatever reputation he may have left on the success of the Battle of Verdun. And we’ve all seen how that’s turned out. Then there was the Brusilov Offensive. von Falkenhayn had launched Verdun at least partly on the basis that the Russians couldn’t attack on the Eastern Front any time soon. And then there was the Battle of the Somme, the biggest loss of captured French territory since 1914, where his army commanders are now beginning to complain about that order to defend every inch of ground.

This is not a good picture. Say, you know who else doesn’t like him very much? The Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, whose own political position is far from secure. Political life in Berlin is fast filling up with threats to resign from all and sundry. The Bulgarian government has discreetly made it known that they would much prefer for their generals to deal with Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Charles has been trying to build support for getting rid of his own commander-in-chief Conrad von Hotzendorf; there’s a growing movement (mostly in the Hungarian government) to have von Hindenburg and Ludendorff as generalissimos.

And there’s a list of German politicians, civil servants, industrialists, advisors, and other hangers-on as long as your arm who are openly supporting Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Despite all these ructions, von Falkenhayn is still clinging onto his job, mostly by exploiting the Kaiser’s growing inability to take any kind of decision, and his not-unjustified fear of what Hindenburg and Ludendorff might do with a supreme military command. Maybe the Kaiser will begin burning von Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s ever-more-aggrieved letters of complaint about their boss. It’d help von Falkenhayn’s case if he could be right about, oh, anything, mind you.

And so we come back to Romania. von Falkenhayn has convinced the foreign ministry to send the Romanian government a series of warnings against any funny business. Romanian food and oil is crucial to the ever-more-fragile German war economy. He’s also had his staff draw up contingency plans for putting the Romanians in their place if they do do anything stupid. But he’s quite sure that the Romanians probably won’t do anything stupid this year. And even if they are going to do something stupid, it’s now so late in the year that they’ll have to wait for the soldiers to come back from harvest leave in September. Surely.

Harvest leave! Anyone else remember harvest leave being a major arse-ache for Conrad von Hotzendorf back in the days of the July Crisis? Now here it is again to trip someone else up.

Haig, Joffre, and the King

As their opposite number teeters, the Entente’s top military men are playing amusing pranks on each other. Today General Rawlinson’s headquarters is putting on a gluttonous seven-course lunch for King George V, President Poincare, and a few other lucky sorts who appreciate haute cuisine. Unfortunately for General Joffre, proud owner of the largest appetite in the war, the King is taking an Important Moral Stand. In order to set an example to his people, he has sworn off alcohol for the entire war. Of course, when the King is not drinking, nobody is drinking.

And so Joffre finds himself offered the choice of ginger beer or orange juice with his meal. This is not unlike offering a Manchester United fan tickets to see either Manchester City or Liverpool play. “Many of us will long remember General Joffre’s look of abhorrence, or annoyance”, wrote Haig in his diary afterwards, but the japery doesn’t end there. Holding out some hope that there might be some arrangement for serving booze when His Britannic Majesty isn’t looking, Joffre directs several meaningful looks at the waiters.

“I think General Joffre wants the bread…” suggests his BFF Haig. The bread basket appears. The General can’t very well refuse. The meal progresses. Joffre’s silent pleas continue. Haig continues sending the bread basket round. By the end Joffre is having a little difficulty restraining the urge to write his name in the history books as the first man to trigger an international incident by throwing staple foods at a Scotsman. Eventually the King and the President retire for conversation and cigars; someone explains the unfortunate situation to Joffre and offers him a digestif by way of apology.

Of course he refuses. If he cannot have a glass of wine with his meal, he will have nothing. A most successful jape; and one that’s very important in order to give a full sense of Haig’s personality. He’s often unfairly described as being extremely austere and having no sense of humour; it’s only right to deepen our portrait of him into three dimensions before saying rude things about him.

Flora Sandes (Slight Return)

One of the most remarkable non-commissioned officers in the war right now is a sergeant in the Serbian Army. This sergeant was not, however, born in Belgrade, or Nis, or Kragujevac. This sergeant was born into an upper-middle-class family in a well-to-do Yorkshire village called Nether Poppleton, which (appropriately enough for a soldier) sounds rather like an unfortunate condition brought on by a venereal disease.

When a very small child I used to pray every night that I might wake up in the morning and find myself a boy. Fate plays funny tricks sometimes, so that it behoves one to be careful of one’s wishes.

In 1915 we followed as Flora Sandes, Red Cross nurse, joined the Serbian Army (which has a refreshingly practical opinion on the role of women in wartime when one’s country is literally being overrun by foreign invaders) and obtained quick promotion through being both a good soldier and an excellent propaganda asset.

The soldiers seemed to take it for granted that anyone who could ride and shoot, and I could do both, would be a soldier in such a crisis. To their minds there was nothing strange about a woman joining up; there had occasionally been Serbian peasant girls in the Army, and there was one in this same regiment. The only thing that distinguished me particularly, and made them treat me with so much affection and respect, was that I, an Englishwoman, was willing to rough it with them, and to fight for Serbia.

Like the Turks they say “to die for your country is not to die”; but to die for someone else’s country, they thought to be something extra special.

It is often suggested (by osmosis from lazy historians) that this has something to do with the old rural Balkan tradition of the “sworn virgin”, by which a person assigned female at birth can be treated by their society as a man for all practical purposes. Sandes directly rejects that interpretation here, which I am reliably informed is best responded to with targeted flatulence. Anyway. She’s spent most of the summer on leave in England, rallying support for Serbia and raising money for war orphans. But now, as we know, there is an offensive in the offing. Sandes has now returned to her regiment.

My memories of the 1916 campaign are confused. They seem like a whole series of vivid pictures of little incidents which I can never forget, but which are not consecutive. With the help of my very scrappy diary, I hope to be able to make some kind of a whole of them, beginning in mid-August heat with the 2nd Regiment, numbering some 3,000-odd men, and ending in November snows with a bare 500. In the Iron Regiment (our nickname) I served by apprenticeship in war with a vengeance, and my tough and hardy comrades, most of them young veterans of two previous wars, taught me how to be a Serbian soldier.

We’ll see what we can do as regards putting them in some kind of order. And do think of her the next time you see someone fulminating about how women soldiers are totally too fragile and weedy to be effective in combat roles. By the way, she refers to another woman in the regiment; this woman is in a different battalion, but we will eventually meet her. And the two wars are of course the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

E.S. Thompson

And now we go from the hyper-competent woman soldier to the Transvaal’s own travelling pratfall, E.S. Thompson. What comedy misadventure have you for us today, Private?

Not feeling very well, having a tired and heavy feeling. Took aspirin tablet which made me feel much better. Read a bit then saddled up and moved off at 4pm, marching 2.5 hours. Off-saddled for coffee then moved off again after 2 hours, into Dodoma. Total for the day 11 miles. Touched the railway line as we walked over. Camped on a square opposite the station and next to the hospital. Went to get the kits but somebody had found them by mistake. After a lot of enquiring found them and went to bed.

Ah, there’s a small novella in the story of “a lot of enquiring” about who’s nicked his kit. So, they’ve arrived at Dodoma to garrison the Central Railway. Time once more for Thompson and chums to hurry up and wait. Just what he needs, more time on his hands to think up new and exciting ways to maim himself.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman has acquired a batman, a patronising attitude, and a disturbing piece of news. (A reminder that he is almost certainly using pseudonyms in his memoir.)

Herbert Castlereagh (better known to his mates as “Erb”) is a dark undersized Cockney with a switch of black hair that the company barber ought to see to. His personal cleanliness is an item he forgets, and his speech is difficult to understand; but he has a comical face and there is a good deal of the faithful spaniel about him. He says he is twenty-one: he doesn’t look more than sixteen. With a true Cockney’s ability to make shift, he found some sticks and rigged me up quite a tolerable bath this morning.

Though the performance entailed mild censure for indecent exposure, I’m pleased with Castlereagh, and we shall repeat the trick. An orderly has a few privileges, and, after Gallipoli, it seems only human to save such a brat from as much hardship as possible. He is the butt of the other orderlies, but in his old serio-comic fashion he is quite able to defend himself. He has a marvellous stock of righteous indignation that he displays like a coster if I, or another, happen to swear at him. A queer self-contained bit of old humanity, I like him, and believe he likes me.

The battalion is still considerably below strength, but I hear we are moving forward tomorrow.

That’s not promising, and I do wonder how much divisional and corps command knows about the strength of battalions like the 10th Green Howards. The Austro-Hungarian staff is infamous for consistently assuming that all its units were at full strength regardless of their actual condition. Perhaps it is mildly unfair to single them out in that regard.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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One thought on “Haig’s joke | Flora Sandes | 12 Aug 1916

  1. Castlereagh was the surname of the British foreign secretary from 1812-22; an Anglo-Irish nobleman. He was succeeded in this role by George Canning, whose surname (not at all uncommon amongst Londoners) may therefore be a plausible candidate for that of Plowman’s batman.

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