Justifying the Somme | 2 Aug 1916

Battle of Bitlis

Off to the Caucasus for starters today, where Ottoman commander Izzet’s three-independent-corps concept is already starting to wobble. One corps is finding unexpectedly difficult going in the Ognot Valley, where their advance guards have just been thrown back by Russians who booked an earlier train and showed up first. Elsewhere, Mustafa Kemal’s men are enjoying numerical superiority near Mus; the Russian commander sensibly orders a withdrawal into more defensible mountain positions, within range of most of his artillery. More to come, this one’s going to be a slow burner.

Haig justifies the Somme

Well, sort of. I suppose that perhaps “justifies” is too strong a word. But then, it doesn’t flow nearly as well as “writes down his reasons for continuing”. Like Winston Churchill’s comments the other day, these points will soon be distributed to the War Committee for their consideration. They’re formulated as a direct response to Wully Robertson’s four questions, which were: will casualties of 300,000 (double those already sustained) lead to a big victory? should we not revise and limit plans? why does it seem like we’re doing all the fighting and the French aren’t? and have we not already relieved the pressure on Verdun, which after all was the primary strategic aim?

Haig begins by discussing the strategic implications of the first month’s fighting.

(a) Pressure on Verdun relieved. Not less than six Enemy divisions besides heavy guns have been withdrawn.
(b) Successes achieved by Russia last month would certainly have been stopped had enemy been free to transfer troops from here to the [Eastern Front].

This is a debatable point, since the Brusilov Offensive has been very specifically directed against the Austro-Hungarian Army. However, while we can haggle about what effect they might have had, it is fair to surmise that potentially an Army-sized formation could have been sent East without the Somme. Haig now moves on to some slightly grander thinking.

(c) Proof given to world that Allies are capable of making and maintaining a vigorous offensive and of driving enemy’s best troops from the strongest positions has shaken faith of Germans, of their friends, of doubting neutrals in the invincibility of Germany. Also impressed on the world, England’s strength and determination, and the fighting power of the British race.

Now, this sounds like so much old shite, but it shouldn’t just be dismissed out of hand. It is fundamentally based in Intelligence assessments of captured German letters and diaries. The image of the Central Powers under combined attack from all angles has certainly made joining the war a more tempting prospect for the Romanian government. The French no longer have cause for complaint that their allies are not pulling their weight. There are more considerations to alliance warfare than just strict military ones.

(d) We have inflicted very heavy losses on the enemy. In one month, 30 of his Divisions have been used up, as against 35 at Verdun in 5 months! In another 6 weeks, the enemy should be hard put to it to find men!

Hrm. German casualties so far are about 100,000. The French have lost 50,000 men and the BEF 160,000. “Heavy”, fine; not sure I’d spring for “very heavy”. The assessments of divisions “used up” (that is, made useless for further front-line fighting until after a long rest) is, of course, bollocks. However, the 6 weeks idea is absolutely critical. Haig’s staff is now beginning to plan for the next effort on the scale of the Bazentin Ridge attack, and they’re roughly targeting 15 September for Z Day, which is in about six weeks.

(e) The maintenance of a steady offensive pressure will result eventually in his complete overthrow.

On this, all we can say is that time will tell. Having prepared the ground, Haig then lays out what he’s going to do next, a restatement of what he told General Rawlinson the other day; keep up the pressure, attack only after proper preparation, secure territory gained after each push. There are a few supplementary comments worth flagging up.

Our losses … cannot be regarded as sufficient to justify any anxiety as to our ability to continue the offensive. … Proceeding thus, I expect to be able to maintain the offensive well into the autumn. It would not be justifiable to calculate on the enemy’s resistance being completely broken without another campaign next year.

The bit where Haig talks about casualties has been used against him with monotonous regularity, but he is quite correct. As the next few months of the war will show, they did take a damn good kicking in July, but 4th and Reserve Armies will still be capable of attacking and repelling counter-attacks. And yes, he’s being just slightly blase about having sent 40,000 men to their deaths and 120,000 more to their wounds (ahem). But, as I’ve said before, his job is to fight and win the war. As General Mangin said, “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”. He can’t do his job if he thinks properly about the human consequences of his orders.

On a similar level, I hope that we’ve seen in May and June that almost nobody in high command was thinking of the Somme as an offensive that could win the war. Setting the Germans up for defeat in 1917 has always been the long-term aim here. The ludicrous over-optimism that filtered down to some of the blokes was very often the doing of junior staff officers and brigade commanders, not men at Haig’s pay grade.

It all sounds so nice and reasonable when the commander-in-chief sets it out for us. And then a battle happens, we go to the blokes on the ground, and it’s all machine guns up the jacksie and guts spilling out everywhere. Funny, that.

Emilio Lussu

With the Army now preparing for a Sixth Isonzo (more on that in a moment), Emilio Lussu’s sector of the Dolomites remains quiet. He’s been randomly visited by a young lieutenant, a staff officer with a cavalry regiment. He’s come down to the trenches, in impeccable gleaming uniform, in response to millions of soldiers’ prayers for the ignorant HQ-dwellers to do just that and see what conditions are like.

He said to me, “I think you [infantrymen] are too cautious. Wars are not won with caution.”
“It’s just that we can only count on our own two legs”, I retorted. “In a difficult moment a soldier’s knees might start shaking. If his knees shake, he can’t take a step forward. You’re much luckier. You can be scared to death and your horse’s legs will carry you forward just the same.” Later I regretted what I had said, by right then it was satisfying. It seemed that the cavalryman had it coming.

Lussu takes the staff officer to see loophole 14; he explains how enemy snipers are watching, and the blokes have taken to waving targets for them to hit. The guest wants a try.

He raised the shutter and put the end of his whip in front of the hole. A shot rang out and the end of the whip was severed. He laughed. He picked up a piece of wood, stuck a coin on the end of it, and repeated the experiment. The coin, struck right in the center, was blown off the stick and whistled through the air. I moved on, and pointed out the next loophole. “From here,” I said, “you can see another sector that’s less important. You see, way down there, a pile that looks like a bag of coal? It’s camouflage for a machine gun.”

The conversation goes on for a while, and then Lussu’s well-honed spidey-sense tells him that something is not quite as it should be.

I was sure that he was looking out too, behind me. The loophole was big, and there was room for two. Then I heard his voice, a little way off, as he said “The legs of an officer in the Royal Piedmont shake less than the legs of his horse.”

A rifle shot came on the heels of his words. I turned around. The lieutenant was standing at loophole 14 and crumbling to the ground. I rushed over to hold him up, but he was already dead. The bullet had struck him in the forehead.

Loophole 14 is not to be fucked with.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has now arrived at his new billet, which is far too near where Malcolm White used to be for peace of mind. Still. If he’s going to be here, then that will surely keep him safe from the next Big Push at High Wood?

There is a deal of difference between inability to feel one and the other of two propositions – ‘Carry on’; and ‘The Man is dead: Carry on.’ The first is being done; the second has a sort of brilliant ring about it which, if attainable, would be rather fun, but happens to be entirely foreign.

What I really meant was what I called absence of attitude altogether: one plods along, not particularly hearty and not particularly sensitive; for some at least of one’s emotions here die easily: after a month and a half in the line, with a period out in supports, one becomes rather a low order of being – I mean all but the good men do. We are now no great distance from the Man, [and] life above ground has been very good for some days: we are ‘seeing the light’ (in a sense no Greek ever guessed), and a very delightful change that is.

He uses the time to write a number of letters, including one to a friend who is still at Shrewsbury School, where he recently made some end-of-term remarks to a class of young men who will now surely be applying for officer’s commissions.

Let me have your address in Chapel, won’t you? Later on, perhaps, I will send you some news, should there be any. At present we are happy enough in this existence, [thinking] a little, but generally too tired and contented for more than [thought]; and, perhaps luckily, we are not allowed too much time for that, either. In fact, now I come to think of it, I doubt if I’ve done any of that for some time now. It seems a trifle futile, considering how very little there is to be wondered at, and how many better men have contrived to get through with no wondering at all. But I would like to see your address, all the same.

He actually used the words “wondering” and “wonder”. Usually I don’t interfere like that when a correspondent says something obscure, but here I think it makes the meaning immediately obvious, whereas it took me about fifteen minutes and a second opinion to riddle the original meaning out.

E.S. Thompson

Glory be, E.S. Thompson needs rely no longer on latrine rumours; he’s actually received some orders!

Parade as usual. Moving the day after tomorrow. Finished my slack-shorts then cooked the tea for lunch. … Paddy and Piet paid us a visit from hospital. … While having our dinner we saw some German prisoners coming in on the transport. There were about 10 whites and 8 askaris. The Germans looked fat and well but a bit pale. Great excitement in camp especially among our native porters. They were captured near Dodoma.

Time to get back to work, my lad! No more lazy camp days for you.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has discovered that he does not, in fact, like being in the Army.

“When a man is not great enough to let change and chance guide him, he gets convictions and dies a fool.” I wish I could remember who said it! Was it Voltaire? Somehow I hate opportunists,and yet with the herd of human kine a policy of straight lines is even in peace-time a very risky thing to say the least of it. But the man who is not an opportunist in the Army in war-time is doomed to extinction.

Army Discipline will not allow any man to have opinions, ideas, ideals. Its chief purpose is to break in the individual. An Intelligence that is convinced of its sovereignty is an impossibility for everybody bar perhaps the Field-Marshal. Discipline wants cog-wheels, bayonets, numbers, not intelligences. The only conviction you may have in the Army is that you are nobody. “Morale” is a mixture concocted from lies and terror.

On Monday I was detailed off with five others to make purchases for the officers’ mess in the neighbouring town. The NCO simply walked alongside and “supervised” our pushing heavy wheelbarrows. There seems to be little hope for democracy. Give a man a little authority, and lo! he is worse than those at whom he used to rail. And the Machiavellian rulers of Europe know that. Divide and rule!

Assuming that Mugge is not being facetious, he’s half-remembering a novel by one Gilbert Parker, called The Seats of the Mighty, for that quotation. It’s a fictionalisation of a British Army officer’s memoirs who served in Canada before and during the War of 1812. Parker gave his main character a French companion and antagonist, Doltaire, “the character of Voltaire spelled with a big D”, who could make appropriate philosophical remarks at intervals. The quotation is in fact Doltaire’s, and therefore Parker’s.

By the way, “kine” is not a spelling mistake or a typo, it’s a plural for “cows” or “cattle”, now archaic, although it was common enough 100 years ago for H. Rider Haggard to use it freely.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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