Hill 304 | Verdun | 11 May 1916

Joffre and Petain

You may recall a couple of days ago that General Petain recently used his new position as commander of Central Army Group to give his boss some thoughts about grand strategic matters. Today General Joffre uses his old position as Grand High Poobah to give his subordinate some thoughts about “shut up and do as you’re told”. He is being counted on, apparently to “conform to GQG’s directives”. He even helpfully re-states them: “hold the line and get me my nice shiny Fort Douaumont back”, like that nice General Nivelle wants to do. As it happens, the bombardment for that operation will be starting in a week’s time.

Louis Barthas

The waiting’s over. The order to go into the trenches on Hill 304 has just arrived. Louis Barthas is still horribly ill and can barely keep food down, but as long as he’s able to march, he’s going with them.

Departure was set for 8 in the evening. Each of us had to carry 250 cartridges, grenades, reserve rations, flares, assorted tools, etc. Weak, still suffering, I had to make a superhuman effort to keep up with my comrades, who lightened my load as best they could. Many times a cold sweat soaked my temples, and it looked like I was going to fall over. A few swallows of eau de mélisse fortified me. Along the route I threw away everything: food, cartridges, grenades, tools. Boy, if our Kronprinz had seen me!

We passed through Vigneville and Montzeville, in ruins, and at about eleven at night we set ourselves up in a trench about one kilometer to the right of Esnes, fifty meters from a windmill. Its walls, riddled by shellfire, were still standing. There was, at this moment, a relative calm. All night long they brought forward pieces of sheet metal, planks, and tree branches to cover up this trench and hide us from the view of aircraft, just as had been recommended to us.

Nothing quite like a massive, potentially war-changing battle to make the big bosses care about protecting the lives of their men, huh? If it were light, Barthas would now be able to look out of his shelter and see the south slopes of Hill 304. Where some of Barthas’s comrades have just counter-attacked, and shoved their way back up to the summit again.

Eau de melisse, by the way, is a then-300-year-old herbal remedy which, among other things, is supposed to cure stomach pains and digestion issues. It’s supposed to be dripped sparingly into water as a cordial, but the manufacturing process makes it sound suspiciously like an extremely over-complicated gin.

Battle of Kondoa

Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is still mulling over the effects of his recent defeat. Perhaps he hasn’t transferred his men across in time? Maybe the South Africans are in Kondoa in greater force than he’d thought? He certainly can’t keep bashing his head fruitlessly against well-garrisoned defences. To go around them would require long marching and the risk of ambush. And so he continues to sit and do nothing. Across the way, General van Deventer has seen an opportunity, and is now making plans for a few men to go out to the right and see whether anything interesting happens. He’s got reinforcements on the way, don’t you know!

E.S. Thompson

Guess who the reinforcements are? That’s right, it’s E.S. Thompson and the 7th South African Infantry who get to try the 250-mile march across the middle of nowhere in the rainy season without dying of dysentery.

Mr Parsons came round and told us to get up early as we were moving off to-morrow. Name of place is Kumbulum.

The Oregon Trail has nothing on this for difficulty.

Air Board

Hey, remember the British Joint War Air Committee? Useless talking shop that recently collapsed under its own uselessness? Its only achievement being as a potential starting point for historians of useless “jointery” exercises? As they’ve been fiddling, the Conservative Cabinet member Lord Curzon has been arguing for something more radical. He’s after an independent Air Board, controlling and coordinating the supply and design of aircraft and aircraft material to both the Army and the Navy, as a prelude to a proper independent Air Force as a third armed force.

Politically, it would also have the useful effect for the Prime Minister, a Liberal, of giving one of Bonar Law’s Tories (don’t snigger) something to do. So now the War Committee has given him his Air Board. As an advisory body. Able to make recommendations and work for greater co-operation…but without any actual authority. In a couple of months, it will try to exert some control over raw materials and be told in almost as many words to sod off by David Lloyd-George, who for some reason thinks the Ministry of Munitions (which he just so happens to be in charge of) should do that instead. Second verse, same as the first! I’m a useless talking shop I am, I am…

Oswin Creighton

Army chaplain Oswin Creighton is still tooling around Romsey having, ahem, pleasant theological discussions with all and sundry. (Today it’s very much “sundry”.)

I am making friends with the corporals in rather a questionable way. The last two nights I have visited their special rooms in the wet canteen. I have had an uproarious welcome each time, my health drunk, three cheers, and was made a member of a cork club, the sole point of which is that you are given a cork which you must produce at any moment when asked by any other member, or forfeit a penny. They are pretty beery fellows – not drunk, of course, but fairly full.

I feel my going may be interpreted as my countenancing this wretched beer-swilling. They offer me beer, but I refuse, saying I dislike it. However, I am only carrying out my own ideas that a parson must go everywhere, and mix with everybody, and try and understand their point of view.

I just cannot get enough of reading about good, conscientious men going around the place trying to make the war slightly less terrible.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells has had a few days’ leave. Being the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, he has a friend at Queen’s College Oxford, so goes there to stay.

There are less than 500 students at Oxford now. Before the war there were over 3,000. Most of those who are there are foreigners or physically unfit. Although life at the University is far different from what it is in peace times, I was able to imagine what it would be like under normal conditions.

The thing that surprised me most was the strict discipline to which the students are subjected. They have to pay a fine if they return to college after 9 in the evening, and are liable to suspension if they are out after 11. They have to answer to their names every morning. In many ways life at Oxford resembles life in camp.

Pssst, nobody tell him about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s elite drinking/shagging/smashing-up-restaurants club for the sons of the great and the good. As the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, surely Wells realises that the point here is to prove how much you totes don’t need to care about little-people froo-froo like “paying fines” or “getting arrested” or “academic failure”?

Speaking of the Bullingdon Club, guess who they count as a former member? Some spotty kid called Douglas Haig, now a knight of the realm and commander-in-chief of the BEF. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more ex-Bullers in some high office or other, but I didn’t start this project to waste time researching upper-class twits. (Incidentally, 24 of the 28 members in 1914 joined the Army, most went to the trenches, some won medals, and six of them died.)

On the other hand, the students are not compelled to attend any lectures which do not interest or concern them. In this and other respects it is very unlike an American University. One pleasing feature is that everybody here takes some outdoor exercise of one sort or another every day. In American colleges a small proportion devote a large amount of time to athletics, and the majority take no part in them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same! Roll Tide, Paaaawwwwlllll.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Kondoa

Further Reading

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