“Improving the position” | 18 Aug 1916

Bulgarian initiative and First Doiran

Quick recap; Romania has just signed on to enter the war. The French have agreed to lead an attack to pin the Bulgarian Army down on their southern border so they can’t just turn round and kick Romania’s back door in. They’re due to start properly in two days. Unfortunately, the Central Powers are well aware that something is going on, and so the Bulgarians have been on the move for a week. Around Lake Doiran they’re now heavily engaged with British, French, and Serbian Army troops.

Good news for exciting combat anecdotes from Flora Sandes. Bad news from just about any other point of view.

Battle of Verdun

The other day I mentioned that General “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men” Mangin has ordered a few limited attacks to recapture Fleury village and roll back some other recent German gains. Some of them fail miserably, but the headline news is that Fleury is French once more, and with gratifyingly few casualties even where attacks have been thrown back. Maybe there is a way to do limited position-improving attacks in this war after all! (It includes a lot of artillery preparation, including heavy emphasis on counter-battery fire, and the infantry only having to cross 100 metres or so of No Man’s Land.)

Battle of the Somme

Now then. In theory, what we have here is a grand joint Franco-British attack from High Wood to the River Somme itself. General Haig has shown almost no interest in it, preferring to concentrate on his Flers-Courcelette push. General Fayolle has set extremely limited objectives for his men, seeking to advance the line only a couple of hundred metres. General Rawlinson, meanwhile, has managed to ensure enough co-ordination for everyone to attack at the same time. Unfortunately, this means attacking in broad daylight, in mid-afternoon, and heading for trenches that are mostly far too far away.

At a lower level, there has been a sign of original thinking; the 4th King’s Liverpools are attacking between High Wood and Delville Wood. Good news; they’re to be assisted by a company of the Machine Gun Corps. Over the last few days, they’ve been digging machine-gun pits out in No Man’s Land; the MGC will then move in, occupy the pits, and lay down fire to keep the Germans suppressed during the final rush. It’s a good idea and proof that no, battalion and brigade commanders didn’t just witlessly keep using the same battlefield tactics (at least, not all of them). They’re trying to innovate and war better.

Bad news; the MGC has been formed to be specialists in operating the BEF’s heavy, water-cooled, crew-served Vickers guns. Their crews, hauling the heavy equipment and water supplies, have got caught up in traffic jams in the trenches. They were supposed to sneak out before the main attack and be in position well before zero hour. But when zero hour comes, Private Arthur Russell of the 13th Company MGC finds himself going over the top with the infantry. And he’s far from alone in being late.

The infantry commenced to scramble over the parapets and our crews of Vickers machine gunners to move up the saps in No Man’s Land. Almost at the same moment the German front which for several hours had been uncannily quiet, broke into violent action with a great crash of artillery, trench mortars, field guns, howitzers and siege guns—everything they had. At the same time their trench garrisons let off into the ranks of the attacking British troops a blaze of rifle and machine gun fire, and a shower of stick bombs.

Russell was in a crew of six; a shell lands almost on his head, killing four of his mates and leaving just himself and his ammunition carrier. Ted Gale, meanwhile, had been a rifleman with the 1st Rifle Brigade at the Battle of Mons two years ago. He’s since been kicked in the mouth by a horse and lost all his teeth, then had an almost-fatal bout of food poisoning after eating bad rations, then got promoted to Lance-Corporal and sent to the 7th Battalion. He delivers an example of how nasty it is trying to attack trenches positioned near the bottom of a reverse slope.

Our own guns had put down this terrific barrage but, because we were a bit higher up than the Germans, in order to hit them they’d had to sight the guns so that they would just skim to top of our trenches. There we were, crouching in this terrible noise, and these terrible shells going over just inches above. One fellow had the top of his head took off with one of our own shells. His brains were all over the place. The artillery couldn’t help it. They had a terrible job to get the elevation right. It didn’t do much for us to see that sort of thing before we went over!

Five minutes after we went over the top, we were finished. The German machine-guns went through our lines just like a mow goes through a field of corn. I don’t think we got two hundred yards. I was in a shell-hole with the Sergeant, who’d been sampling the rum. He kept jumping up and shouting “Why don’t we advance?” Nothing would keep him quiet. The third time he jumped up, they got him and blew half his face away.

Out of a company of nearly 250 men, Gale and 22 others return. He had been wondering, as he lay in a shell-hole and looked back up the hill, why the other company he could see lying in No Man’s Land weren’t coming forward to help. Of course, once darkness fell and he was able to get back, he soon realised it was because they were all lying dead…

It’s not all total failure. This time, the orders have accounted for the possibility of not being able to get to the German trenches. Of course, that’s what the staff would like, but for many units, if you can just shove forward to within 200 yards of the enemy and survive long enough to dig new trenches under cover of darkness, that’s now a win. I’m torn between sighing despairingly at the lack of ambition, and nodding approvingly at a sensible reaction to a difficult situation. (Yes, a truly sensible reaction might well be to stop entirely, but you can go tell General Haig that and I’ll be over here watching.)

Neil Tennant

Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Tennant is getting to know the pilots under his command in 30 Squadron.

There was ” Bert” sometime cavalry officer planter in Burma artillery brigade commander in South Africa; now hawk-like observer,mess president and cocktail-mixer-in-chief; there was little that “Bert” did not know or could not do; his joy and the youthfulness of his heart were those of a boy, his manner that of a courtier. “Bert” became famous through the land. Then “D.H.,” otherwise “Mark 2,” being the youngest of a famous pair. Life was not serious for “D.H.” The ground hardly knew him, but when it did it smiled; he feared neither God nor Man.

Thank God, someone with a little indiscretion. Tennant earlier gave his full name, and it’s quite clear that “D.H.” is Lieutenant Hereward de Havilland. His older brother Geoffrey is currently chief designer for Airco; in 1920 he will set up his own “De Havilland” aircraft business at Hatfield.

His mate was “Oo-Er,” a vermilion machine and the terror of the Turk. When by chance on the ground, he would play golf round the aerodrome, a palpitating tyke following in his train. In the dog days came “Chocolo,” which is short for “Chocololovitch” (after a soldier comedian who sang a song of that name), a broth of a boy with a brogue of Fermanagh. He presented himself from his Indian unit at a time when there was no vacancy for embryo observers; however, as a result of the difficulties of transport for his return and a determination not to budge, “Chocolo” remained for two years.

Then there was “Bobby,” an imperturbable representative from Caledonia. Bobby was stolid; when threatened with expulsion after appalling crashes, he would remain quite stoically undisturbed with a grin on his face. He said little. The only times that Bobby blossomed to the outside world were on such occasions as New Year’s Eve or St. Andrew’s Night, when our friend would become suddenly brilliant, the central figure of the evening; after which he would retire into his quiet canny shell until another Festival came round on which he thought it fit to blossom forth once more.

Later on he distinguished himself by shooting down a Hun in aerial combat and received the Military Cross. Questioned by the General as to how many he had crashed, Bobby replied: “Sixteen; fifteen English and one German, sir.” His next crash, alas! was his last.

Toffs at war, my friends Toffs at war.

Oswald Boelcke

Oswald Boelcke is in Berlin, becoming ever-more-monosyllabic as he goes. Fortunately, we’ve still got the Dicta Boelcke to review. Principle 4 is “Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.”

It sounds obvious, but Boelcke has learned by experience that in the heat of battle, it’s all too easy to become distracted for a moment and then lose sight of whoever you were chasing. He’s also seen enemy pilots escape impossible situations by pretending to spiral out of control, and then recovering from the spiral after their opponent turns away, thinking he’s won. The importance of having all this common sense written down as a reference for new pilots can’t be overstated.

And, although his published diary doesn’t mention it, the head of the German army’s air service, General von der Lieth-Thomsen, has just convinced the Kaiser to send Boelcke back to flying duty. Boelcke will spend the next ten days assembling his pick of the best German fighter pilots to form a new elite squadron, which will become commonly known as “Jasta 2”.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson heads out into the bush with some mates to supplement his rations. Oooh, I wonder what he’s going to fuck up this time? So many options.

…After walking around in a large circle I bagged a guinea fowl and in following up the flock put another shot at them, but missed. When going to see the result I suddenly came across a herd of about 8 koodoo. One saw me, gave a bellow and turned to run but I let him have it and the bullet went between his hind legs, hit him in the stomach and came out at the breast. He scampered off and I thought I had missed him but, afterwards, I heard him grunting and throwing himself about, so I went up to him and watched him die.

When it was nearly dead and stopped kicking I cut its throat then started back to camp. Great excitement when I brought in the guinea fowl and greater excitement still when I told them about the koodoo. After having some breakfast and cleaning the guinea fowl John, Smikky, Rose and I with 2 boys started out, having a few shots on the way, but hitting nothing. As soon as we arrived at the koodoo we ‘gutsed’ it and cut it up into 4 quarters, keeping the liver, kidneys, heart and tongue. The rest of the entrails and the neck we gave to the boys.

Rose and I carried one of the quarters and Smikky and John the other, the 2 boys carrying the forequarters. We went back through the bush nearly getting scratched to death by the thorns and arrived back at the camp very thirsty. We kept a hindquarter for ourselves and gave the other to the other 3 messes, a forequarter to Paddy, the other forequarter to the natives; a sirloin cut to Mr Parsons and another to Dick’s Germiston friend. Fried buck cutlets in batter and tea for lunch.

Cleaned my rifle and had a shave. Heard No. 4 platoon of the Motor Cyclists had been ambushed. Paddy found my bullet in his portion of the buck and returned it to me through Bibby. Did clerk duty on the post for about 2 hours. … Went to bed fairly early and slept fairly well but had pains in the stomach during the night.

Outstanding, Private Pyle! I think we’ve finally found something you do well! A koodoo (these days usually rendered “kudu”) is another species of antelope.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is soon to be going up the line near Delville Wood, not too far away from where Max Plowman is getting his first taste of trench life. Like Plowman, he’ll be spending much of his time in reserve trenches; he writes to his friend H.E.E. Howson.

We go up into the trenches tomorrow, so I’ve not time for a very long letter. One can, I think, feel more quietly and happily about our dear Man now. At least, I feel much happier than at first. I think his wonderful letter must lead that way. Our bit of the line will not be what is known as a soft job, though our present intentions after arrival are somewhat doubtful. But I would like you to think I’m fit and well and happy, and not to be anxious at all.

I too hope that if I go to one of the deadliest parts of one of the deadliest battles in history, my friends will not worry about me. He’ll need more than a little luck to avoid being grabbed for one of those stupid “minor” attacks to improve the line in front of Delville Wood

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

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