Important trials in Britain today for both a prototype landship and the Stokes mortar, the French Empire troops on Gallipoli win another limited victory, and a look at the living conditions of the Italian army.
The crew of the Konigsberg finish picking clean the wreck of the Kronborg, all of it done under the noses of the Royal Navy and all of it done entirely without their noticing any of it. Morale among the crew is dropping steadily; they’re well aware of the arrival of the monitors Mersey and Severn and expect to catch it any day now. Disease is still rife, and although between the crew of the Kronborg and escaped internees from Mozambique they’ve still got enough men to crew the ship, it’s still a glum place to be.
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It’s a very important day for the future of British munitions. Senior government ministers rub shoulders with senior generals as they all attend a major day of trials for weapons of all sorts, although landships are the headline attraction. Importantly, the trials have been delayed to be sure that David Lloyd-George, the new Minister of Munitions, can see them for himself.
Truth be told, the new joint-services Landships Committee is nowhere near ready to show off the potential of landships, but fortunately its members all appreciate how important today is for their future. Flight Lieutenant Hetherington of the RNAS has manged to get himself a small caterpillar-tracked tractor from somewhere, and he’s laid out an obstacle course of shell holes and railway sleepers. Barbed wire has also been strung across the course, at a convenient height for the torpedo-net cutters that have been welded hastily to the front of the tractor. For the benefit of the audience, he then drives the tractor around the course in rakish, devil-may-care style, cutting the wire, climbing excitingly over and through the obstacles with throttle wide open.
The effect on the attendees is highly salutary, and Winston Churchill is immediately in Lloyd-George’s ear, trying to convince him to take on the project at the Ministry of Munitions. However, his immediate attention has been caught by one of the side dishes. Lieutenant Stern, the committee’s secretary, had been in touch with Wilfred Stokes, recently-rebuffed inventor of the Stokes mortar. Between them, they’ve concocted a simple and effective demonstration of its qualities. With David Lloyd-George watching attentively, Stokes fires five mortar bombs in just 11 seconds, and all of the bombs subsequently land inside a 12-yard circle a safe distance away.
It’s said that Lloyd-George immediately ordered a thousand of them. He might not have done so at that very instant, but its performance over the Medium Mortar can’t be denied, and it’s the Ministry of Munitions that will overcome the War Office’s complaints about the Stokes mortar and, in due time, get it to the front in large numbers. More on the trials in a moment, but first…
The night is once again full of Ottoman counter-attacks at the Battle of Gully Ravine, but as far as General Gouraud is concerned, that’s all well and good. While the enemy batters against the MEF without any more success than the odd trench, Gouraud is ordering another dawn attack on the Quadrilateral, once again trying to pound it into submission with artillery. It’s an overwhelming success, far beyond their wildest expectations. Eager not to let this opportunity go to waste, the men secure the Quadrilateral and press on over the next ridge.
They disappear from sight, completely out of contact. The men in the rear are left straining their ears, trying to judge their progress by the sounds of battle. Eventually orders arrive for the artillery to cease fire; it’s hitting their own men. By late evening, the battered attackers are staggering back across the ridge, having completely outrun their support and found yet more Ottoman trenches. They’ve just learned exactly the same lesson as was shown on the first day of Second Artois, when the Moroccans crossed Vimy Ridge and were then thrown right back to the side they started from.
And then General Gouraud’s personal store of luck runs out. He was an energetic man, frequently seen among his men, but today that catches up with him. A shell lands nearby while he’s visiting some of his wounded. He does have the fortune not to have been struck by any shrapnel, but the force of the blast launches him about nine feet in the air and clean over a nearby wall, breaking numerous bones. Gouraud therefore leaves Gallipoli, pretty much uniquely among generals of this campaign, with his reputation unequivocally enhanced. His tour of duty will eventually cost him his right arm, but when he recovers he’ll be given an army command. Maurice Bailloud, one of his divisional commanders, takes over.
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Soon after the demonstration, the Landships Committee is sent a detailed specification for a proptotype landship. It’s worth examining this in detail. It takes into account both the Committee’s research into what’s feasible to build, and Colonel Swinton’s ideas about how such machines would best be used in combat.
Speed: top speed on flat not less than 4mph. Bottom speed for climbing, 2mph.
Steering: to be capable of being turned through 90 degrees at top speed on the flat.
Reversing: to travel backwards or forwards.
Climbing: to be capable of crossing backwards or forwards an earth parapet 5ft thick and 5ft high.
Bridging: all gaps up to 5ft in width to be bridged directly, without dipping into them. All gaps above 5ft in width to be climbed, up to a depth of 5ft with vertical earth sides.
Radius of action: to carry petrol and water for 20 miles.
Capacity: To carry 10 men. 2 machine guns. 1 light quick-fire gun.
This does not just describe a landship. This, for the first time, describes a tank. A direct line can be drawn from this specification to the Mark I tanks that will eventually go into action. There, a nice positive note to finish the first half of 1915 on!
Sorry, what’s that? There’s something else to talk about? Oh. Okay, then.
For the last week it’s been raining heavily at Monfalcone as the Italians have warily probed the defences at Cosich, on the Carso. Now they know plenty about what they’re facing. The hillsides are completely bare and rocky, offering no cover at all. Without proper digging equipment, the Italians have resorted to protecting themselves with low stone walls topped with the occasional sandbag. Of course, as soon as a shell explodes anywhere nearby, the wall turns into extra shrapnel, and the men have to build it back up again while lying flat to avoid enemy fire. Most of the Austro-Hungarian guns might be old, short-ranged and questionably accurate, but they don’t have to be particularly good. All they have to do is clear No Man’s Land and they’ll cause casualties somewhere.
There is another concern for the men in front of Cosich. It’s not just trenches and dug-outs that can’t be excavated from the limestone. They have no latrines. The men can barely scuttle off to the rear without provoking sniper or mortar fire. Some of them fill up spare sandbags and then hurl them into No Man’s Land. Most of the rest are forced to simply go where they sit, and the rain then distributes it equally around the place. Flies cluster eagerly around the bodies of the dead and the shit of the living. And from this place today the Italians launch a major attack, charging out from behind their stone parapets across open ground, all the way down the valley and all the way back up again. Their artillery has been silenced by Austro-Hungarian counter-battery fire from modern 420mm Skoda howitzers.
I’d include some personal testimony here, but never mind the language barrier; there’s precious few left alive to give it.