Henri Desagneaux | Intelligence for Verdun | 10 Jan 1916

Erzurum Offensive

Time to see how good at war General Yudenich really is. On the face of it, everything’s set up to fail. He’s produced a complex plan requiring some level of coordination between three widely-spread forces. Two of those forces will have to spend weeks up a variety of different exposed, freezing mountains in midwinter, in exactly the same conditions that stymied his enemy this time last year.

And it doesn’t begin well at all. The Ottomans remain unaware of his plan for a general offensive, but the men who go into action today have failed to achieve local, tactical surprise. For the most part, they’ve come up against well-sited, well-garrisoned defensive positions. They’ve been seen well in advance of coming into firing range, and the Ottoman machine guns have taken a heavy price. More tomorrow, but the first day has definitely failed to achieve its architect’s deliberately limited expectations.

Battle of Verdun

The other day we found General Joffre in buoyant mood about the possibility of a German attack on Verdun. Now, information is beginning to flow gently but steadily into GQG. A German deserting across the Danish border (a not-uncommon route for men who had been in difficult battles and sent there to recuperate and recover themselves) has told a French diplomat that there are plans to attack Verdun. A combination of weather and the Germans’ current command of the skies has made reconnaissance difficult, but not completely impossible. They’re now starting to bring news of increased troop movements into the sector.

General von Falkenhayn, completely unaware of this, has become completely obsessive about secrecy. Written orders are few and far between. He now prefers only to tell his subordinates what they should be doing. Rather unsportingly, he appears to have been more concerned with winning the war than leaving behind evidence of his thought process for the historians. The build-up continues.

Montenegro

After four days’ hard fighting, the Montenegrin Army has finally been winkled out of its fortress on Mount Lovcen. The three-headed advance into Montenegro has now linked up for a march on the capital, Cetinje, and now there’s a real chance that they might be able to get quickly into Albania and have something to say about the ongoing evacuation of the Serbian Army. Eyes peeled.

Robert Palmer

Meanwhile, in Mesopotamia, Robert Palmer is once again engaging in the old military pastime of waiting for something to happen. The lead elements of the relief force are hurrying upstream, but there’s only so many of them and they can only go so fast. Our laid-back happy warrior is now becoming distinctly cranky.

A quiet morning, no orders. A Scotch mist shrouded everything till noon and kept our things damp, but the sun got through at last. There is still no sign of the Red Cross motor boats up here, though I’m glad to hear they’ve reached Basra. We got orders to march to Sheikh Sa’ad by night. We started at 8pm, B Company marching parallel on the other bank.

It was seven or eight miles, but we went very slow, and did not get in till 1.30 and our transport not till nearly 3, heavy guns sticking in the ditches. Once we got behind the evacuated Turkish line, we found that the ditches had been filled in to allow passage of guns, an expedient which had apparently not occurred to the British Command, for no ditch had been filled in between Ali Gharbi, and Sheikh Sa’ad!

Do you know, I’m starting to think that these staff-wallahs may not be the best at logistics.

Louis Barthas

Stop the presses and hold the back page: Louis Barthas is happy, even though he’s spent the whole day travelling and he’s still got another long march ahead of him. But this time he’s just got off a train in his home region.

I breathed in with delight the air of my birthplace. In truth, this air was a bitter, cold wind which was blowing down from the mountains. But it seemed to me to be as sweet as the softest summer breeze. The sky was gloomy, the night was pitch-black, the road was muddy, but no promenade was ever so exquisite as the fifteen kilometers that I had to cover to get to my village.

Finally I approached it. I had reached the edge of the little plateau, “La Serre.” Still a little valley to cross, and I arrived. I stopped, full of emotion, a short distance away. I noticed the flickering of electric lights marking the place occupied by my village. It was among these lights, in a lodging the threshold of which I would soon cross, that a mother, a father, a wife, and two children anxiously awaited the arrival of the absent one. I felt as if I could see them watching for my arrival, trembling at the slightest sound of a footstep in the street, because along the way I had been able to alert them by telegraph.

Here we’ll leave him for a little while; and, by a complete coincidence, we can now pick up the story of a new French correspondent.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux was mobilised in 1914 in a similar fashion to Louis Barthas; having thought himself well clear of his military service, he suddenly found himself in uniform again. However, he was from a more well-to-do background than our friend the barrel-maker, and so found himself a lieutenant in the Railway Transport Service. After three months travelling around the south of France regulating trains, he caught the eye of Lt-Col Mennetrier, the man in charge of his sector.

It seemed then like he might just be able to get away with a quiet war. For the last year he’s worked mostly behind a desk, keeping his own little corner of the vast French railway machine (near the fortress of Epinal, at the north of the Vosges mountains) running. But now, after three mass offensives, after a year and a half of war, the Army is searching its own rear for anyone who might be pulled out and sent to the front to fill the ever-present need for new platoon commanders, new company commanders. And the Army’s eye has fallen on Desagneaux. Let us see if this war looks any better from the eye of a French subaltern…

Here is the date on which I am supposed to leave the Railway Control Service, but to go where, and do what? No-one can tell me.

…Bof!

Lt-Col Mennetrier has not bothered about us, one single day. If you are leaving, you don’t count any more. His motto must be “Gold Braid, Brevity, and Selfishness”. In spite of numerous phone calls, there are no orders for me. The army knows vaguely that we are expected. There are questions and deliberations, but we can’t learn anything. The whole day will be like this. No orders. Even HQ has no idea.

I decide therefore to go to Remiremont to the Army HQ, to find out what they want to do with me.

For some reason, I find the idea of the bloke who’s been in logistics for the last year falling down a logistical hole incredibly funny. I wonder if any of them quietly deserted, or tried to re-assign themselves to some other rear echelon duty? On this evidence, he’d probably have stood a 50/50 chance of getting away with it if he had instead presented himself to the nearest quartermaster.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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