Joffre’s temper | 3 Jul 1916

German East Africa

In Tanzania, the Schutztruppe is now in full-on retreat from the north of the colony. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s clear instruction has been that territory is irrelevant; only continuing the fight and tying down enemy resources. His officers have since turned escaping from tough spots, and living to fight another day, into a fine art. Which is what makes a small and otherwise-uninteresting fight near Lake Victoria, between 800 Schutztruppe and a somewhat larger detachment of the Belgian Empire’s Force Publique, worth mentioning.

Because this is one of a very, very, very small number of occasions on which the defenders didn’t get away. Over the next few days, the Force Publique will kill or capture almost all of their opponents, and a precious German field hospital. Aside from anything else, this is a valuable propaganda victory for the Entente; despite having 95% of its homeland occupied, the Belgian Empire can still give the Germans a bloody nose

Battle of the Somme

Day three on the Somme. The map at the end of yesterday.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

General Haig is now reasonably sure the best results will be obtained by a hard north-east push out of Montauban. Orders to this effect have now been sent out, and staff officers everywhere are frantically scrabbling to plan a breach of the Second Line somewhere near Longueval. Artillery is beginning to displace forward to support an attack even now, and General Gough’s Reserve Army is soon going to be in the fight in some form. And, of course, if there’s going to be an attack, there needs to be a diversion. German attention has to be drawn, as far as possible, north of the Albert to Bapaume road.

More about that in a moment. First, General Joffre is bringing his friends round to Haig’s gaff for a major conference. He is not at all happy about the suggestion that the BEF might change direction away from Thiepval and Pozieres. Are they not supposed to be capturing the Bapaume rail junction? Tilting south will surely only bring them into conflict with any French advance, and bring German reinforcements closer to it. This is supposed to be a British battle to take the pressure off the French, isn’t it?

By all accounts, the usually-unflappable Joffre entirely lost his temper (perhaps shades of September 1914, when he also shouted at Sir John French under pressure). He attempted to order Haig to attack Thiepval, claimed he was surely beaten if he did otherwise, and went on and on and on. Haig then reminded Joffre that his command was independent and he was responsible to London, not Chantilly. Joffre then recovered his composure and accepted the change of direction. On the surface, the meeting ended in a friendly fashion. Haig’s diary certainly presents the meeting as a victory for himself.

However, French observers with the BEF are beginning to report on their own impressions of the first couple of days of battle. None of it would make good reading for British egos. “Minimal results” obtained, not enough heavy artillery, artillery improperly used, “the commanders lack experience, decisiveness, and firmness”. General Fayolle’s staff officers are bitching among themselves about having to fight a battle “organised by amateurs, for amateurs”. Fayolle’s diary has described British tactics as “infantile”.

And well he might. General von Falkenhayn might be doing a lot of shouting on the need to not give up any ground, but the French have now mostly broken through the German Second Line, on both sides of the Somme. The north bank is easily reinforced by the Germans, and the advance there is starting to run into trouble. However, a Senegalese corps is continuing to push south of the river, and Fayolle has pithy comments for this, too. “The Boche front is brokeen open for eight kilometres, and we cannot exploit it. … The Senegalese kill everything.”

They cannot exploit it, of course, because there wasn’t supposed to be anything to exploit. Most of the French cavalry has long since been dismounted and turned into emergency infantry battalions. There’s still some, but they’re still chilling in rear-area billets, unaware that they might be needed. The infantry reinforcements who might have relieved the Senegalese and pressed home the advantage are needed at Verdun. Meanwhile, the BEF has the cavalry and the reserves, but there’s no breakthrough to exploit, yet.

Ovillers and La Boisselle

So. Remember what I said about there needing to be diversionary attacks? Yeah, we’re going to have one at Ovillers. It goes over the top at 3:15am, trying to attack at the very crack of dawn. Perhaps the men who planned it had some hope that they might somehow be able to force their way into Ovillers with fewer men and fewer artillery shells available. There’s another diversionary attack opposite Thiepval; the men can barely get over the top for tripping over each other. Conditions are not dissimilar to those at La Boisselle, where they’re still actively trying to take control of the village. Private Roy Bealing of the 6th Wiltshires was in one of many attempted attacks.

There’s a ridge and then there’s a dip, and the Germans…could see us all coming down in single file, perhaps a thousand of us going to this trench, and they started shelling. One pitched right in front of me and knocked out Sergeant Viney and two or three more. We had to step over one and step over another to carry on. … What with the shells exploding and it being our first time over the top, we felt pretty damned bad as we waited there.

The worst of waiting in the trench was that the Germans had a machine gun trained on it going backwards and forwards, traversing and coming round every couple of minutes. The bullets were cutting the sandbags on the parapet just as if they were cutting them with a knife. If a bullet didn’t get you, this shower of sand and dirt was going straight into your eyes. Terrible feeling, knowing you’ve got to go over the top with your eyes full of sand, watering, not being able to see anything.

By the time it’s time to go over the top, the machine-gun has been suppressed by the supporting artillery, and his mates make it safely over the top. Bealing ends up getting turned round during the chaos of battle, and he literally falls right into Lochnagar Crater; his battle ends there, down among the dead men. Fighting continues through the day; La Boisselle is still not secured, and the Germans are starting to put some counter-attacks together, but they’re not having much effect.

The situation at nightfall.

Pink line, your uncaptured Day 1 objectives.
Pink line, your uncaptured Day 1 objectives.

The Germans are quite clearly in a very bad way south of the Albert to Bapaume road. Sadly, they’re struggling in places they weren’t supposed to struggle, according to the plan of attack. Even if the generals had had perfect information, it’s debatable whether the logistics of the situation could ever have allowed the German troubles to be fully exploited. There are only so many roads north of the Somme, and quite how all the French and British traffic got up and down them all without any major fist-fights..

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien is moving forward, although only to Bouzincourt, about three miles from the front. Importantly, and worryingly, it’s just to the north of the Albert to Bapaume road. As they march forward, they pass an unkempt line of kilted Scotsmen staggering backwards, unshaven, covered in mud. Shortly after they arrive in the village, some German battery commander behind Ovillers decides to have a shoot at some likely-looking places in the British rear. No shells land in Bouzincourt; the rain of shells is soon replaced with a rain of rain. (I still think it’s funny.) More to come; he’s in the war now.

Herbert Sulzbach

German artilleryman Herbert Sulzbach has been woken from his quiet, lazy existence at Evricourt, near the apex of the great Noyon salient, where the Western Front switches from running north/south to east/west.

The French fire over 1,000 rounds into our “C” trenches, in the course of which the telescope in our Observation Post is shot to pieces. The shells land all around us; for the first time, you’re reminded of a large-scale day’s fighting in Flanders or Champagne. The enemy trenches are heavily manned, and you see the French infantry with bayonets fixed. Our artillery is quiet and for the moment is not firing a single shot. For the next few nights we obviously don’t get any sleep. These difficult days I spend alone, up at the front in the OP.

Far over to the right, on the Somme, a strong British offensive has started. It is not yet clear whether the British offensive will spread over to our sector, or whether the livelier enemy fire here is just a diversion to prevent us sending any reinforcements away to the Somme. [The infantry] puts on patrol operations nearly every night.

About time you did some real work, boyo.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman, medical officer with the British Empire forces in Egypt, is having a rather calmer time of things.

While at dinner our patrols brought in 150 camels captured from the Bedouin. From our mess tent we watched searchlights of the steamers in the Canal flashing across the desert. The old pilgrim route along which the caravans have journeyed for thousands of years passed just outside our camp ; this was the route which connected the Holy Land with Egypt, and must have been traversed during the Flight into Egypt soon after Our Lord was born.

This little caravan must have used the same Hods for water which the British troops were using now. Probably at that time the Nile ran out into Tina Bay, near Romani, where the ancient city of Pelusium, the “key of Egypt,” was situated. One could not help wondering what could have been the determining factor in altering the course of such a mighty river.

So calm, in fact, that he now goes quiet for a couple of weeks.

Evelyn Southwell

Malcolm White’s, ahem, good friend Evelyn Southwell is writing home to friends who are still at Shrewsbury School, where he and White taught before the war.

I dare say you know; but if not, I am in great anxiety about our Man; though I can’t say where he is or what he is doing. I had a letter from White two days ago, by the way, mentioning the night before the Challenge Oars. It was a short note, but very wonderful. Pray God all’s well with our Man.

This would mean that Southwell may well have received that last letter at about the same time as White was going over the top to his death. For now, Southwell’s battalion is being held in rest billets, annoyingly far away from anyone who might be able to carry news.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

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