March to Kondoa
From Africa we have news from General van Deventer and the South African Horse. Most of it is not good. On the plus side, his advance guard is encamped six miles north of Kondoa Irangi! Let’s have the map again.
And on the minus side? As E.S. Thompson has been telling us, the rainy season is now well and truly underway. Had the 2nd Division set out even a couple of days later, the horsemen would have been marooned out in the middle of nowhere. As it is, the entire division has been rendered one long, ungainly, straggling line. And with every day that goes past, they’re struggling that bit harder to make progress through the rain and the mud. The supply implications are obvious. It’s going to take one hell of an effort for the division to not starve.
Even better, 400 men of the Schutztruppe arrived in Kondoa only yesterday from their cross-country march. Kondoa itself isn’t particularly defensible, but just to the south there is a conveniently-sited line of hills. And soon enough, those hills are going to be filling up with more and more Schutztruppe. Back at General Smuts’s headquarters, a large number of German pfennigs are just about to drop. Much more to come.
Battle of Bait Isa
And now to Mesopotamia. Time is fast running out for the attempt to relieve the Siege of Kut. It’s victory or bust as they attack the main positions at Bait Isa before dawn. The only hope for the men is in subterfuge and ballsiness, attacking before dawn, having to advance nearly a mile in the dark across flooded ground. It shouldn’t have worked, and perhaps that’s why it did. They seem to have achieved tactical surprise (probably with the “nobody would be stupid enough to…” card), and the foul conditions here are badly interfering with Ottoman communications. By the time a counter-attack arrives, the relief column is dug in well enough in the Ottoman trenches to see it off.
It’s all coming good. General Townshend has spoken first of the 21st and then the 27th as the days on which food will run out inside Kut. They’ll be cutting it fine, but there’s just enough time to spend a day reorganising. Then it needs a final push against Es Sinn, and then one last death-or-glory charge against the men who are encircling Kut. For most of the afternoon and evening, for the first time since February, it’s looking like they just might be able to pull it off.
But this reckons without the Ottomans doing anything in response. With General von der Goltz indisposed, Halil Bey is now calling the shots. And he’s calling for another counter-attack. He’s correctly reasoned that the enemy is counting on him doing nothing and allowing them time to rotate fresh troops into the fight. And just as men who have been fighting through mud and flooding as bad as anywhere in the war are starting to hand over their positions, they suddenly find themselves under attack.
For an hour or two as night falls, it seems like they might be defeated entirely. It doesn’t come to that, but the Ottomans do manage to take back most of Bait Isa long enough for their engineers to thoroughly demolish their recent water control measures. By early tomorrow morning, I suppose the battle is confirmed as a British victory, in that the Ottomans are no longer occupying Bait Isa. But by then, they won’t need to. Now the water’s doing most of their job for them.
Meanwhile, over on the Western Front, the breakneck pace of development in all areas of the air war continues. There is sometimes a tendency among militaries (well, among any large group, really) to succumb to “not invented here” syndrome, and be resistant to new ideas that you didn’t think of. The Royal Flying Corps, however, is making a very decent fist of resisting it. Through their liaison officer they are adopting all kinds of innovations that the French are coming out with; and there are plenty of innovations.
The French have recently captured a number of German aircraft with machine guns intact. They’ve discovered that the Germans are using rather clever disintegrating metal links to hold their ammunition, rather than the familiar canvas belts. The belts have proved prone to freezing at high altitude, or getting tangled up with other equipment and fouling something important. Now the innovation can be copied. The French have also created dedicated photographic sections within reconnaissance escadrilles, and developed a method for observers to directly warn their infantry of threatening enemy movements.
On the other hand, foremost among the many problems on General Trenchard’s plate is manpower. His plans for expansion have perhaps been slightly too aggressive. There’s a general shortfall of about 70 pilots, and the men who are arriving at the front are all too often inadequately trained. He’s attempted to borrow forty Royal Naval Aircraft Service pilots, who have taken one look at the planes the RFC wants them to fly and gone “Not today, old bean.” It has also been suggested that perhaps the plans for expansion could be scaled down, but…
There is another rather obvious solution, and by its nature it should also be obvious why the RFC wasn’t interested in it. Some poor sod has suggested that perhaps it is not essential that pilots be commissioned officers. Indeed, many of the best French pilots hold only an NCO’s rank. But they’re French, after all. Egalite and fraternite and all that. No, by Jove. This is the British army, and aeroplanes are far too important and technical a toy to let the common soldiery play with them.
A quick note from Germany; Sir Roger Casement has now left Germany aboard a submarine and is heading for Ireland. As already discussed, the Admiralty knows almost all these details, and it’s not impossible that they might just arrange a welcoming committee.
Grigoris Balakian has arrived safely at Ayran. He’s in hiding there temporarily, while his new friends arrange a job for him that will keep him safe from the government.
I shall never forget the noble and fearless hospitality that the elderly Mrs Soghomonian showed me, without even consulting her children. Upon coming home in the evening, they found themselves facing an unknown guest. I had long since ceased to have a human appearance. For months I had been choking in dirt and lice. I felt unspeakable joy when Mrs Soghomonian heated water, and bathed and cleaned me with maternal solicitude. She dressed me in her son-in-law’s clean underwear and put hot food she’d cooked herself in front of me.
The interpreter who worked for the railway company in Ayran visited me, and gave me every assurance. All I had to do was put aside my monk’s cowl and shave my beard so the police wouldn’t recognise me. Because Papazian, a well-liked and respected interpreter, was very influential, I was given a temporary job in the Baghche station, about an hour from here. I had heard that a young priest who had also been fugitive in Ayran had been caught and murdered, so I shaved quickly and became a new man.
In disguise, and in the employ of a German railway company, he will, for the time being, be as safe as any Armenian still alive in the Ottoman Empire. And this means also that the journey that we’ve been following more-or-less day-by-day since February is now over. Although this is far from the last time we’ll be hearing from Balakian. There’s plenty of war remaining.
[All day] it kept right on raining. I read the name on the signpost at the village entrance: “Villers-le-Sec, Marne.” It should have been called “Villers-le-Mouillé”.
Do I even need to point out that “Sec” means “Dry”, and “Mouille” means “wet”?
At the corner of a little square, while walking around, I saw a crowd gathering, and ran over. At first I could see nothing very unusual: they had formed a circle around a brownish, greasy mass, containing what were clearly pieces of bone. What then was this?
Someone explained to me that in August 1914, after the terrible struggles which took place in this region, the Germans, masters of the battlefield, gathered up all the dead—their own, and ours—and made an immense funeral pyre which they doused with gasoline and lit. For several days the wind carried the hideous odour of grilled flesh for miles around. No one knew how, but this shape which I had before my eyes was a piece of what remained when the sinister bonfire burned out.
The Germans briefly occupied Villers-the-Wet for a few days in 1914, before retreating in the face of the Battle of the Marne.
Yesterday we got a detailed explanation of Maximilian Mugge’s heart condition. He’s been placed on light duty, pending an appearance before a medical board.
My heart is worse. Written once more to the War Office [requesting work as a German translator or interpreter].
There were seven parades yesterday. One poor chap, a clerk by profession, fainted and was brought into my hut, where I looked after him. He is now in hospital. Our discipline! The birching of the boys at the altars in Sparta was mere play. One man in my hut got two extra parades for not having put laces into his spare boots. The officer of the day noticed the important omission amongst the man’s kit. “Two little boots that saw no laces, two long hours that saw some faces.”
He then quotes a back issue of a German literary magazine from May 1915, which says (at some length) “Private soldiers must respect and fear their officers”. I, um, do hope he’s not still taking that magazine. (Almost certainly sent to him, very discreetly, via a newsagent in a neutral country.) Or at least, I hope he’s keeping it on the down-low if he is. Anyway, he attempts to continue, but is drowned out by the modern reader’s uncontrollable giggles.
That is all very well. I object to discipline that is insane. I object to the god-like distance of the officers towards the men. I acknowledge the danger of too frequent and promiscuous intercourse. But…invisible pressure and civilian criminal law are better any day as safeguards than brutal effrontery.
Tee hee, he said “promiscuous intercourse”. Between officers and men. Quite. Wouldn’t want to end up like the Sacred Band of Thebes, would we? Chortle chortle.
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