As the relief of Ypres begins in earnest, it’s time for us to return to Serbia, where all this song and dance got started. When last we looked at Serbia, their forces were slowly but surely being forced back as the better-supplied Austro-Hungarian army began grinding them down with merciless attritional trench warfare. Now they’re arriving at Kolubara.
The weather has also broken down in the Balkans, and the Serbs’ logistics are slowly sinking into the mud. Austria-Hungary is making one last push to conquer Serbia before the winter weather turns conditions from “difficult” to “impossible”, and they’ve just captured Valjevo, an excellent staging-post from which to march on Belgrade. Today they attempt to cross the River Kolubara (like the Battle of Drina, this battle is named after a river, but without a “the” in the battle’s name), and meet with as stiff a resistance as the Serbians can still manage, aided and abetted by the thoroughly foul weather.
The Russian advance from Horsan quickly peters out. Two units attempt to advance to secure General Bergmann’s flanks. To the south, a Cossack division advances against minimal opposition and greatly improves the position. To the north, an infantry unit is ambushed by a mixed force of regular Ottoman soldiers and irregular support. Its fate prompts a general northern retirement away from the Black Sea, back towards Russian Armenia.
The offensive is at an end, having fallen well short of all its objectives. The Ottomans are greatly encouraged by their successes, and Enver Pasha will soon begin planning a winter campaign to evict the Russians entirely. It’s an undertaking that, if Sir Humphrey Appleby were one of Enver’s staff officers, he might have described it as “extremely courageous”.
Louis Barthas has arrived on the front lines, just south of Givenchy, the southern end of the British section of line. He’s not impressed by what he finds. The French Army was notably reluctant to pay much attention to the conditions its poilus had to live in. Why bother giving them anywhere nice to live, went the logic, when they’ll be advancing away from their positions soon?
When Barthas and his friends arrive at the front, they find the trenches rudimentary in the extreme. There’s just one front-line trench and nothing else; no reserve line, no communications trenches to protect them as they make their way up to the line, and back from it. And he describes the scene at the front.
A wide, shallow stream at the bottom [of the trench]. No barbed wire. No parapet. No loopholes. No firing step. No trace of shelter for us. To our right, a stream, its sluggish waters spreading out to form a swamp, separating us from our neighbouring company. To our left, a large stretch of unoccupied trench, abandoned to the determined efforts of a German battery to fire on it day and night, as though it were an important strategic point.
There was another enemy: the rain, against which we had no defence at all. This was a driving rain, pounding us with big, fat raindrops. My friend Courtade and I managed to unearth a German overcoat, splattered with congealed blood, and draping it over two German rifles which we stretched across the trench, we’d got ourselves a shelter that made others envious.
The walls of the trench crumbled. The stream at the bottom grew larger, the waters creeping towards us in a vast lake. The sentries no longer kept watch. Some abandoned the trench altogether. Others went to work digging holes for themselves, which collapsed almost immediately.
The rain stops. The temperature plummets. An icy wind descends on the men, attempting to freeze their clothes solid.
Actions in Progress
The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Fulsome tributes to the late Field Marshal Earl Roberts, a long-service veteran, who led men in India and South Africa. A few days ago he arrived in France with the intention of visiting some of the Indian Corps, caught a chill, developed pneumonia, and promptly expired.
There’s barely room for any other news, but we find the curious case of a Post Office in Lerwick (page 9), in which all the staff are released without charge after having been arrested en masse a week earlier. The theatre column (page 4) carries a glowing review of a new production of Henry IV (Part 1), and Page 7 has another promising note about Italy’s preparations for war. “There is full confidence in the Chief of the General Staff, Count Cadorna…” Indeed, he is that. Finally, on Page 12 we see Oldham Athletic beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 to go top of the First Division.
And the National Archives of Scotland can shed some light on Lerwick Post Office. Apparently there was some suspicion that secret Naval correspondence had been tampered with while at the Post Office; the staff were released after an investigation had failed to find any basis for suspicion.