Battle of Verdun
General Mangin is now ready to launch his second attempt to recapture Fort Douaumont. Once again, the plan is less than subtle. It still ends in storming the fort with huge amounts of elan, of course. But there is a refinement; first they’re going to pound the hell out of the fort with five days of heavy artillery bombardment first! Because that’s worked so well on the Western Front in the past, even when the enemy doesn’t have a giant concrete fort to hide in. The Germans, meanwhile, respond by building new internal defences for the fort, in case it should be stormed.
Meanwhile, over on Hill 304…
A cool breeze swept the sky clean of clouds, and a bright sun rose. It didn’t take long for several enemy airplanes to make their bothersome droning heard, and they circled over Hill 304 and the Mort Homme all day long, like birds of ill fortune foretelling a great storm. Naïvely we thought that our own aviators would arrive and chase these interlopers away. But no such luck. Today, and every day after, they came with impunity, in total freedom, swooping back and forth at low altitude, scouting out and scrutinizing the emplacement of our positions.
This reminded our Colonel Douce: “When we were in Artois, they told us that German airplanes were being shot down every day over Verdun. Now that we’re here, the daily communiqués say that’s what’s happening in Artois.”
A while ago, we noted that the French were enforcing their air superiority with different tactics. From a detached, strategic view, it seemed like positive progress that they were moving towards fighter sweeps to clear the air for their own bombers and observers. For Louis Barthas, cowering in his hole, the situation appears rather different.
As a result, we were condemned to complete immobility. We had to conceal anything that would reveal our positions: tools, arms, mess kits, packs, everything had to disappear, and ourselves, too, under penalty of receiving an unannounced avalanche of shellfire. In the afternoon, the German batteries, well briefed, no doubt, by their aviators, opened a rolling fire on Hill 304, lasting at least two hours. How many tons of projectiles fell on this hill?
Our brains were shaken by the nearby explosions. Stunned, we expected to be pulverized at any minute. It was just a matter of being caught in a salvo. Finally the hurricane of iron and fire gradually let up. Then came intermittent but almost regular barrages which landed haphazardly.
Heartened by this relative calm, five or six of us gathered under a thin sheet of corrugated metal, which would protect us from only the smallest shell fragment, but which gave us the illusion of perfect security.
Suddenly a shell, with a harsh and brutal hiss, cut right through our sheet of metal as if it were a piece of paper, and burrowed into the slope of the trench without bursting.
What else can they do but laugh in the face of danger?
Battle of Asiago
The Austro-Hungarians continue pushing through the Dolomites, and now they’re starting to slow down somewhat. Particularly heavy fighting rages on Mount Maggio, which holds out most of the day. The attacks are still forging forward, but now casualties are starting to stack up. Worse, one corps headquarters is suggesting that if their artillery keeps having to fire at the same rate as before, they’ll run out of ammunition in three days or so.
The victories have all been built on shatteringly heavy bombardments and a timetable carefully designed at each step to allow the artillery time to displace into new positions. If that breaks down, the offensive breaks down. Meanwhile, one Giani Stuparich, who we briefly heard from while he was on the Carso, is being transferred from the Carso to the Dolomites. They’re having trouble making any headway against the press of refugees streaming away from the battle. At first he has trouble believing that men could be fighting atop the mountains…
Meanwhile, having voluntarily lowered his own trousers, turned his back on the Dolomites, and dared the enemy to catch him unprepared, General Cadorna is now taking action. He’s raising a new Fifth Army, calling up new conscript classes, bringing men back from Albania and Salonika, and transferring as many men from the Carso as can be spared. And he’s also sent yet another message to General Joffre. This one is asking him to put pressure on the Russians to launch their long-prepared offensive as quickly as possible.
Joffre demurs, not wanting to upset the carefully-drawn-up timetable. So now the King, Victor Emmanuel III, has contacted the Russian Tsar directly, asking Nicholas II to launch his offensive (of which more very soon) as soon as possible. Of course this sets all the Russian Brains Trust at its own throat again. I guess we’ll have to have more of that very soon, too. Drat and double drat.
The War Committee is having a meeting in London. High on the agenda this time is Salonika and General Sarrail’s proposals for attack, which the French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, has just officially proposed to London. Colonel Hankey’s highminded telling of the story sees the committee acting with caution to restrain their headstrong allies. They apparently have completely failed to realise that General Joffre is only getting behind Sarrail to provoke just this reaction from London.
Not that it matters much, since by appointing Haig and Robertson as Chief of the BEF and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the British government is already committed to a Western Front-first strategy. Anyway. Joffre will need to keep playing this card a few more times to keep stitching Sarrail up.
The U-boats go out
Here we go again! You may recall a while ago that Admiral Scheer has a new strategy. His battlecruisers will bombard Sunderland to bring the British battlecruisers out; they’re stationed in the Firth of Forth, not at Scapa Flow with the Grand Fleet. Then his battlecruisers will draw the aggressive Admiral Beatty onto the horns of the German dreadnoughts, Beatty will be destroyed, and with one fell swoop the entire balance of power changes. They were supposed to be leaving port today, but condenser issues have forced a postponement.
The German submarines leave port today. A critical part of the plan is to ambush the Royal Navy as their ships attempt to put to sea and fend off the Sunderland raid. There is now a timer on this latest attempt to force a battle. If the High Seas Fleet doesn’t leave port by the end of the month, the submarines will have to return to base to refuel and the operation will have to be postponed again, this time until the middle of June or thereabouts.
Relations between Spicer-Simson and General Tombeur have just about broken down entirely. Spicer-Simson is refusing to attack Kigoma, or the Goetzen. Soon he and the Force Publique will be operating independently, and soon after that he’s going to take himself off to operate from Kituta, which is just about in British-held Northern Rhodesia, on the southern end of the lake. His part in our story is just about at an undignified end, although there might just be an epilogue or two.
Reveille 5am. Smith made some coffee and we packed up our overcoats and got on the move again. Marched for 3 hours before coming to water doing about 6 miles. We then came to some water-holes with good water and stopped for breakfast at 9am. Many chaps fell out on the way as it is not at all nice marching on an empty stomach.
They defer crossing the river until tomorrow; the transport (supply-wagons and so on) goes across today, which is apparently quite an undertaking.
Maximilian Mugge now begins moving this odd little memoir of his out of the category “interesting portrait of a little-appreciated part of the soldier’s experience”. From here, we are now well into the category “absolutely vital record of an obscure and really rather shameful bit of the war”. It begins with a long march with two enormous kit bags to his new camp at Shoreham and his apparent new unit, the 16th Royal Fusiliers.
The serfs of Cerberus looked very grim. The first question at the gate was, “Are you a CO?” I explained that I hadn’t a ghost of an idea what they meant, and as they noticed my Royal Sussex badge they smiled and told me. The chief speaker was a huge elephant of a “red cap,” and he said, “CO means a ‘conscientious objector’. One of ’em fucking bastards what won’t fight. I’ll…!” and indignation choked his voice. When I asked him to meet me afterwards and have a pint, he vowed life-long friendship.
The Regimental Sergeant-Major knew my name was German. ” Don’t tell the boys!” he said. “There are some COs attached to us. But I don’t think you are to go with them. I only have a memo, as to your arrival and I am waiting for your papers. Go and stay in hut twenty-six, D Company, with the Fusiliers!” he concluded courteously.
His life is about to get a lot more interesting.
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