General Joffre has been bombarding General Haig with requests to launch a major offensive almost night and day since Haig’s little dinner joke last week. Interestingly, in his memoirs, he claims that the first day on the Somme had shown that the BEF was incapable of launching the kind of large multiple-army offensives that he had ordered in 1915. And yet, here he is trying to convince an apparently useless army to attack again. His liaison officer today informs him of Haig’s plans to attack between Flers and Courcelette (good), but not until mid-September (less good) and to continue with small prepatory attacks in the meantime (even less good).
But this is apparently a minor matter. His own men have done as well as could be expected without proper support from their allies, of course. German gains at Verdun are still being slowly rolled back, a few hundred metres per day. And with the imminent entry into the war of Romania, Austria-Hungary will be left with men on four separate fronts. To the west, they’re fighting the Italians; to the north, the Brusilov Offensive continues to rumble determinedly towards the Carpathians. To the south, they’ve committed considerable manpower to the occupation of Serbia.
In one more week, the Romanian army attacks them from the east. Surely something will have to give, on one of those fronts. His thinkers are talking airily about an “inevitable collapse”, and “irredeemable ruin” for the Central Powers over the winter. He’s now talking boldly of the prospects for a war-winning offensive in 1917 in an effort to shore up his own position.
Battle of Bitlis
Russian reinforcements continue flowing into the west of the battle. The Ottomans have been slowly advancing out of Kigi, under heavy artillery fire, for the past week. However, remember that there was a large body of Russians slogging from Erzincan over trackless mountainsides to this part of the battle? Not only have they arrived in the perfect position to hit the Ottoman flank, they’ve even arrived in high spirits and with enough energy to get stuck in. The terrain north of Kigi is sharply hilly and strongly favourable to the defenders, so they’re not going to cause a rout.
However, one out of three Second Army corps has now been fought to a standstill. They need to be pushing their Russian opponents back, taking ground, following up boldly. No such luck.
The tragicomic adventures of Emilio Lussu continue, up on the Asiago plateau. A few days ago he got to witness yet another farcical attack, but it seems that for now, the Blood God has had enough blood. The bloodthirsty General Leone is visiting, and today he’s paying particular attention to all the trench loopholes, speaking with intelligence and a sensible eye for detail as he does so. This, of course, only makes him all the more baffling; why does a man with such obvious military intelligence insist on ordering his men to run uphill at machine-guns?
Anyway. Lussu then takes the general to the next sector over, the domain of his friend Lieutenant Ottolenghi. Who, you may recall, has a few loopholes of his own. The general continues offering sensible advice, leavened with a few orders for improvements. They move along…
“Up ahead here we have the best loophole in the whole sector”, said Ottolenghi. You can see all the terrain in front of it, and up and down the whole enemy line, every part of it. I don’t think a better loophole exists. It’s right here. Loophole fourteen.” … Detached from the others, higher than the others, and easily distinguishable, was loophole 14 with its steel plate.
“Look here”, said the general, raising the shutter and immediately letting it drop. “The hole is small, and doesn’t allow observation by more than one person.”
I made some noise, banging my stick against some stones, trying to get Ottolenghi’s attention. I looked for his eyes to make a sign that he should desist. He didn’t look at me. He understood, but he didn’t want to look at me. His face had turned white. My heart was trembling. Instinctively, I opened my mouth to call out to the general. But I didn’t speak.
The general walked over in front of the loophole. He moved in behind the shield, bent his head down, raised the shutter, and put his eye up to the hole. I closed my eyes.
He said, “It’s magnificent! Magnificent! Here now, it looks to me like, the little cannon is positioned in the trench…but it seems unlikely…”
To cut a very long and extremely tense story tragically short, the general remains at the loophole for a few minutes, looking for a particular trench mortar that he wants to knock out. No sniper opens fire. Ottolenghi orders his own machine guns to fire some bursts of indirect harassing fire, the better to provoke enemy reprisals, with the general’s approval. Apparently it’s the Austrian lunch hour, and nobody shoots back, General Leone staring approvingly through loophole 14 all the while. Eventually he bores of this sport.
“Bravo, lieutenant! Tomorrow I’ll have my chief of the general staff come here, so he can get a better idea of the enemy positions. Good-bye!” He shook our hands and walked off, followed by his two carabineri. We were left alone.
“You must be crazy!” I exclaimed. Ottolenghi didn’t even answer me. He was red in the face and walking around in circles.
“You want to bet that if I open the loophole, the imbecile sharpshooter will wake up?”
He took a coin out of his pocket, raised the shutter, and held the coin up to the hole. A strip of sunlight lit up the hole. And what came next was all one; the hissing of the bullet, the crack of the rifle shot. The coin, shot out of his hand, flew off into the fir trees. Ottolenghi seemed to have lost all self-control. Furious, he stamped his feet on the ground, bit his fingers, and cursed. “And now he wants to send us his chief of staff!”
That night, we dismantled loophole 14.
RIP, loophole 14. We’ll not see your like again, that’s for sure.
Two days ago, we had a rare outbreak of competence from our South African friend E.S. Thompson, as he shot an antelope and used its meat to feed all his mates. Yesterday one of those mates was given 21 days of some punishment (Thompson doesn’t specify, could have been field punishment, could have been something else) for “losing” his rifle on the last long march, and another was let off with a bollocking after having a Negligent Discharge from his rifle while unloading it. And today? Today is his birthday…
Complimented on it being my birthday. Went to draw the meat. Nos. 5 and 6 doing quarterguard. Saw Shenton who told me about Austin dying from dysentery at Arusha. Read during the afternoon then went to get the rations, which were full. Read the news at the station that Bagamoyo had been taken, another 4.1-inch gun captured and 2 more at Ujiji. Chaps betting that it will be over in 2 weeks. Stew for dinner. Dished out rations. Had a long chat with Cyril Wackrill and Clifford Jones about the Robinson Deep and mining matters. Slept very well.
The Robinson Deep was (possibly?) the first deep mine in South Africa, near Johannesburg, funded by Cecil Rhodes, to find gold and diamonds. At the time I believe it was the deepest mine in the world (at over a mile and a half deep), and it seems to have been mined for nearly a hundred years. There’s not much information about it on the internet, which is quite the omission. Anyway, it seems that our friend appears to have survived his birthday without maiming himself through some drunken high jinks. Maybe I need to stop poking fun at him at every opportunity.
Louis Barthas is out of the line and is enjoying a rare luxury.
it was with pleasure that we went to Somme-Suippes to take showers in a model bathing facility paid for by Her Majesty the Empress of All the Russias, if you please! We had never been showered and disinfected like we were in this imperial installation. While we were in the showers, our effects passed through a superheated brazier, where ticks of every generation, from those who had not yet burst from their eggs to the old, black, hairy ones, were smothered without reprieve.
This was a memorable day. After many months this was the first time we didn’t feel the slightest itchiness. It was enough to make us call out, “Vive la Czarina!” Despite my revulsion for tyrants, thanks to her we were going to spend a couple of restful nights.
Louis Barthas, arch-socialist, offering praise to the Czarina of Russia. Now I’ve seen everything.
Arriving at the Carlton Hotel in London, I was informed that I must report as an “alien” at the nearest police station within twenty-four hours. So the next morning I went to Vine Street, and had a pleasant interview with a nice old police sergeant, who said I must let him know the day before I wished to leave London. As soon as he had given me my papers, I began to inquire about permission to go to France. The French authorities were very strict about allowing civilians to enter the country and the English were nearly as obdurate about letting them out of England.
But on appealing to Colonel Walker, at the Home Office, my way was made smooth by a letter from him to the officer in command at the French Consulate-General. As there had been submarines in the English Channel lately, the boats often did not sail for several days together and when they did go, of course, they were very crowded. Armed with my passports, credentials, letters and a stack of photographs, I went to the Consulate very early in the day and obtained, with little delay, a French passport, which was warranted to get me into France but not to get me out.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Farnam’s done a good job of making friends and contacts on her previous trips to Serbia; and she does possess enough, ahem, personal resources to fund a trans-Atlantic crossing and a room at the Carlton, Cesar Ritz’s first London hotel.
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