Handeni | Kondoa | 23 Mar 1916


With another clear victory at the Battle of Kahe under his belt, General Smuts now turns his attention to a command reorganisation. All the non-South African troops in theatre are being smushed together into a new 1st East African Division, or else sent off on lines of communication work or detached duty. Meanwhile, the South Africans are now forming a 2nd and 3rd Division, each with a brigade of South African Horse and a brigade of South African infantry, plus assorted artillery, scouting, and machine-gun assets.

The cynical might see this, with some justification, as a South African stitch-up. Smuts is also bringing in his own men to work on the staff and supplant the men appointed by General Smith-Dorrien. Still, if it leads to victory before, say, the end of the year, who cares how it comes about? The important thing is to run Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck to ground, conquer German East Africa, and free up the now 45,000 British Empire troops for service in another theatre.

Let’s go back to the big MSPaint map for a moment and see if that can help in making sense of the situation we’re now faced with.

As ever, please think of this as a Tube map, not an Ordnance Survey map.
As ever, please think of this as a Tube map, not an Ordnance Survey map.

Grey S-es show the very, very approximate positions of Schutztruppe units. The area now under British Empire control is marked in red. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck has already moved his main supply dumps and medical provision back towards Handeni and the Central Railway, and is now in the process of moving that way himself. He’s not fighting to win victories, of course; as long as he doesn’t lose, the German Empire’s war effort wins.

However, the process of moving south will be rather long and drawn out. And the aggressive Smuts thinks he’s seen another opportunity. Gee, I wonder if it’s going to involve a massive flanking movement? Why, yes, yes it is. In concept it’s basically the same as the original plan to march on Taveta and Kahe. There’s a considerable amount of Schutztruppe strength along the line of the Usambara railway, hiding in the mountains, just waiting to fight attritional actions as they cover their boss’s withdrawal.

So Smuts is moving the entire 2nd Division, under the command of General van Deventer of the South Africa Horse, to the western end of the railway at Arusha. From there they face a journey of about 160 miles (depending on the exact route) down to Kondoa, at the time usually referred to as Kondoa Irangi. It’s then a much easier 90-mile journey to Dodoma to cut the Central Railway, isolate the forces on Lake Tanganyika, and hopefully get there before Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck can himself get to the railway and do another southward disappearing act.

Sounds simple and obvious when it’s laid out like that for us. However, here’s a complication for you. That’s the weather. The rainy season is due to start at pretty much any time now, and when that happens everyone’s effectively immobilised for three months. (When it does finally arrive, you’ll see why I’m making such a thing out of it.) Indeed, Smuts has been quite lucky that it hasn’t begun already; there was a brief scare during the long march from Longido, but it’s stayed dry. It will definitely have started by mid-April, though. If 2nd Division is to make it to Kondoa before the rain, they’re going to have to work quickly and be very lucky. More soon.

French elbows

Obvious politics are obvious. As an army commander, new minister of war General Rocques had spent most of his time serving in the army groups commanded by General Dubail and General de Langle. As a minister of war, former army commander General Rocques is now writing to General Joffre requesting, very politely, that the government would like to see Dubail and de Langle sacked. Hmmm. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

To be fair, that’s not the only factor; Dubail and de Langle both had had responsibility for Verdun before the German attack. Heads need to roll, they can’t be Joffre’s, so it’s not surprising that the axe is falling on army group commanders. And what of the commander-in-chief? His memoirs do contain a strident complaint about Rocques’s request. However, it’s extremely interesting that the focus of Joffre’s complaint is on politicians interfering with his command, rather than the loss of two of his most experienced generals.

Indeed, he’s already thinking about how best to turn this situation to his advantage. More to come, of course.

Grigoris Balakian

Conditions on the mountain roads ahead are far from ideal. You may recall that Grigoris Balakian’s caravan recently met another group from Yozgat, who’ve been bribing their Jandarma escorts to wait until the snow thaws. However, Balakian’s guards have no desire to spend the next couple of weeks gently freezing in a mountain village, so off they go again. Before they leave, they find that someone has done a runner.

We were all astonished. Where could he flee in the snowy winter on these deserted mountains? Even if he eluded the two-legged tigers, he would fall prey to the hungry four-legged wolves. The petty officer said with a sarcastic laugh, “Don’t worry, I’ll find him. I’ll make sure he catches up with you, without fail.” When we finally got on the move, the Jandarma told us in confidence that they had the right to summarily execute deserters and made clear that we shouldn’t expect to see him again.

Their prediction is correct; the young man runs straight into a Jandarma detachment and meets his end.

We proceeded with great caution, for if one stumbled or got stuck, those behind him would lose control and fall. The villagers had opened a path through the snow, two spans wide, upon which the snow had hardened. But one wrong step, and a man would fall off and find himself buried up to the neck in snow.

We finally arrived at a Kurdish village. Since firewood was abundant, we gathered around crackling fires to dry our clothes and thaw our feet. Our caravan was so dispersed that those on one end were unaware of what had happened to those on the other. The cold aggravated our hunger, but most of us had no money to buy bread.

Robert Pelissier

Time at last for Robert Pelissier to get out of it after five straight weeks on top of the Hartmannswillerkopf.

Our leaving was fortunately quite uneventful. The Dutch must have suspected something, for they bombarded fiercely the day and the night before and at noon on the day itself, but as we started down at 6 in the evening, we slipped between the showers, as it were, and came out on the other side of the range without any losses. We had to go it all night long to get here, but we did not object as this town is sheltered from artillery fire and we live here peaceful as shepherds.

To be sure it’s pouring great guns, but we have real houses to live in instead of leaky shacks and we are so glad to have several complete nights’ sleep ahead of us that we don’t mind the weather.

As ever he calls the Germans “Dutch”.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson is back in camp, but things are a bit shit. Literally.

Suffered from pains in the stomach during the night and felt I was sickening for something so went sick this morning and took 2 cascaras. Rifle drill at 9. Dick got a fresh liver for lunch and cooked it. Quite tasty. After lunch found that I was suffering from diarrhoea. Issue of rum eased the pain a bit.

Cascara is a North American plant that since about 1880 has been exported to Europe as a laxative. This is why you go to see the Medical Officer instead of self-medicating, you dolt.

Edward Mousley

Today is a chess day for Edward Mousley; he gives us an extensive portrait of his comrade and frequent opponent Cockie, which I’ve had to cut down significantly.

Cockie is a first-rate chess player, at least so he has repeatedly informed us. He knows the whole history of Ruy Lopez even to his private affairs, and can at any stage of any game tell you the exact measurement of the sphere for evil of any piece on the board. Attacks, counter-attacks, demonstrations, feints, holding and flanking—he is an artist at them all. At every exchange he gets an advantage in pieces—or position. “Position,” he assures us, “is the all in all.” He can even nominate the moves without looking at the board.

In short, if he did not invariably get beaten, he would be a perfect player, and even Lasker would have to look out. Square-Peg once brilliantly remarked that this tendency to get beaten was the tragedy of it all, but with infinitely more tact, at least to my mind, I added that Cockie was merely a great player and not infallible; in other words, that there were limitations in us all.

If to beat Cockie is a misdemeanour, then to allude to the fact is certainly a crime—in his eyes. Besides, he isn’t invariably beaten. That was a mis-statement. For when he has made a bad slip or, let us say, paid too big a price for “position,” such as losing his queen for a bishop or maybe a pawn, he frequently goes very red in the face and knocks all the pieces from the board on to the floor, which shows he has the foreseeing eye, a faculty absolutely necessary to a first-rate chess player.

But, sadly, it can’t all be funny story. In the night the Ottomans send some more shells over, and one of them lands on Cockie’s room. Mousley drags Cockie out.

There was a nasty deep gash over the tendon of Achilles, but no bones were broken, although the ligaments were gone and it was bleeding freely, so I applied a first field dressing, and assured him it was not at all serious. Nevertheless poor Cockie’s many nerves had been badly shaken. After a fresh spasm Cockie complained that his back seemed cut in two, and this proved a nasty bruise, although the skin wasn’t gone. It was a black bruise, and he must have got a pretty hefty knock from a piece of the bed. How he escaped goodness knows.

We got him to the hospital, and on the way he invented extraordinary futures for each of the stretcher bearers.

Mousley also describes him as being “intrepid under fire even to the point of recklessness, but is also of the kind that feels pain tremendously”. How refreshing to come across an officer who isn’t concerned with keeping a stiff upper lip beyond all else! The Siege of Kut, of course, continues.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
Lake Naroch Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 goes on sale in less than a week!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

Leave a Reply