Kowel | Pozieres | 24 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme is congealing again. Not that it moved very far on the 23rd, mind you. A satirical comedy once described General Haig’s tactics as “yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin”, a quotation that I may have referenced once or twice over the last two years. And, over the last two years, I hope I’ve demonstrated that there is indeed much more to the war than the Blackadder view.

Unfortunately, satire must be based in reality to be effective. We are now entering a period of the war when it really is going to be a whole lot of witlessly advancing on Berlin six inches at a time. There are a few more penny-packet attacks near Guillemont and High Wood, but the only area of the BEF’s front to still be seeing major action is Pozieres, where the Australians are consolidating. There’s been quite a bit of confusion and inaccurate reports filtering back to the German rear. Generals von Below and von Gallwitz have been squabbling about when they should counter-attack. Mid-level commanders are ordering pfennig-packet counter-attacks in the meantime.

There really are very few people indeed with some kind of responsibility for strategic decisions who come out of the Somme looking at all good. Meanwhile, at the sharp end, the sheer weight of artillery is increasing and increasing as both sides attempt to break up the other’s attempts to move reinforcements into the area. Pozieres is now just a mass of ruins and scattered bricks and trenches and shell-holes. One Private P Kinchington was right in the middle of it.

The heavy shells were falling, so it was estimated, at the rate of three a minute. It was not long before the area became unrecognisable, and as time went on even the unwounded felt sick. Food and water were not too plentiful, and we did not know when any more would be available. After our iron rations had gone we were compelled to fall back upon any that could be found on the dead.

You know, there’s part of me that wants to go “jeez, how horrible”, and then part of me that wants to go “yeah, and Henri Desagneaux survived two weeks under this kind of pressure, suck it up, rub some dirt on it”. Oh, and very few historians have seen fit to mention that the French launched their half of yesterday’s attack today (ahem). Another couple of hundred metres of dead, ruined, barren ground have been liberated for the glory of the Third Republic, but by and large it’s been just as much a failure as their allies’ attempts.

Madibira and Malangali

Time now to nip over to Africa to check on the progress of General Northey’s “ubiquitous Rhodesians”, who are driving north-east from the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. The original thought was that they might be able to quickly encircle the Schutztruppe’s border garrison, but this has soon floundered. The conditions have proven far harder than anyone was expecting; the soldiers are struggling and their local porters are frequently and literally being walked to their deaths. Meanwhile, the enemy is showing a thoroughly unsporting disinclination to actually fight while brutally outnumbered.

Well, for the most part. There’s a particularly defensible position between Madibira and Malangali. The retreating Schutztruppe mean to make a stand here, and they’ve been supported by a small company of reinforcements, a hundred of them former naval men from the Konigsberg. There are even worrying rumours that those men might have brought one of their old ship’s guns with them. But, don’t worry, good news, those rumours will quickly turn out to be untrue.

Bad news: this is because it’s not a Konigsberg gun, it’s a 10.5cm howitzer that arrived on the supply ship Marie. One of Northey’s detachments discover its presence when they’re about 2,000 yards from Malangali. The biggest gun most people with the force will have seen (and heard) before is a small mountain piece; it must have been like spending your entire life in rowing boats and then getting up close to a supertanker in the fog. Somehow the men don’t immediately turn and flee en masse, and most of them continue fighting all day and through the night.

By tomorrow morning, the German commander Captain Braunschweig is retreating again, and thanks to a broken gun carriage, he’s had to leave the offending howitzer behind. Oops! Even better, during the height of the battle, he received a message telling him that the tribal chief whose lands stood right on his line of retreat had seen which way the wind was blowing and come out in support of the British Empire. Back on the road everyone goes, heading in the general direction of Iringa. More soon.

Battle of Kowel

Hi, this is your infrequent reminder that we’re still brutally short-changing the Brusilov Offensive, which has been going on all the while. For two months General Brusilov’s armies have been advancing west towards Lvov, targeting the Austro-Hungarian forces. They’ve lost a lot of men, and inflicted even more on the enemy. General von Linsingen is now ready to oppose the battle with a major counter-attack, which I’ll hopefully be able to make more sense of in time for the book of 1916, where it’ll have its proper weight. For now: it’s underway, it’s slowing the Russians down again, lots of people died.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman and his men get some good advice from the rear.

The Turks were said to be still entrenching, and Intelligence reported that large numbers of machine guns were being brought up. We received orders that while on the move no one was to touch his water-bottle between dawn and sunset, and that even then he was not to empty his bottle until he knew for certain that more water was to be issued.

Water discipline is an often-ignored part of soldiering during battle, but it’s absolutely critical. The Australian veterans at Pozieres would have learned about it the hard way on Gallipoli.

E.S. Thompson

With an advance on Dodoma now underway, there won’t be many more boring camp days in E.S. Thompson’s future, I think. Which is good, because the devil is making work for some of his men’s idle hands.

Attended my first parade this morning since coming out of hospital. Quite enjoyed it although we got some weird orders. Got orders to stand by for moving. Made 3 slices each of toast for lunch which we had with some lovely dripping melted from an ox hump. Started a letter to mother. Went for a most enjoyable bath and on the way back had a game of ‘Crown and Anchor’, coming out even. Nice stew cooked by Rose, the first he has made by himself. Smith and Sterling tried to ‘lift’ a bag of flour and mealie-meal but were found out and after biffing [an African], fled.

Should have stuck to masturbation, boys. Those square brackets aren’t mine, by the way. They’re from whoever edited and published the diary. Anyone want to bet a fiver on that originally being some flagrantly racist word?

Oswin Creighton

Padre and Gallipoli veteran Oswin Creighton is beginning to get indications that he might soon return to the war, this time to France. For now, he’s still at Romsey; he’s just attended a conference of the Student Christian Movement.

I hear from the Chaplain-General that he does not propose to send me out to the Front just yet, but will get me an exchange soon. Then came Bishop Bury’s letter,but I gather the way is not open yet to sending anyone to Germany. I took Captain Band and the boys to the Coliseum, and we had a good laugh. I liked some of the men I met so much. But when I read the casualty lists and accounts of the violent fighting going on, I feel that we all ought to be in it, and really envy the men who are having the worst times. They have no problems.

But I suppose problems will continue after death, and the efforts we make now for their solution will not be utterly in vain.

Here’s a real indication of Creighton’s character. The letter to Bishop Bury was an offer, and I am not making this up, to travel to Germany and be interned in a POW camp so he could minister to the captured men.

Yeah, this is one of those times when I simply cannot react to something. Moving on.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is complaining once again about his book of Serbian folk songs, still not in print. After venting his feelings, he turns to an always-popular theme among the upper-middle-class intelligentsia: complaining that the working classes are not enjoying themselves in an approved fashion.

There is a total absence of real folk-songs everywhere; at any rate, with all the units with which I have come into contact. If the boys are not singing snatches from silly music-hall songs, they are gabbling some incoherent stuff with deadly monotony. Last night my tent-mates were singing for over half an hour, “Wee ahr heere,” “Wee ahr heere.” Nothing but that! Even a solipsist would have believed in their existence, had he listened. “We are here, we are here,” ad infinitum; why! this beautiful motive beats the mere “Here we are, here we are again”!

What a pity the boys were not taught pretty folk-songs when they were at school, or perhaps I rather should say, why don’t they ever sing those few charming ditties they were taught? What’s the remedy? It would be, of course, a gross libel on the men to say that they are singing nothing but monotonous parrotries. What I do complain of is the total absence of such songs as: “Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling,” or “Hope the Hermit,” or “Come Lasses and Lads,” or “There was a jolly miller once.”

I wonder how he would like it if I moved to Germany and then complained that people were wearing jeans and T-shirts instead of lederhosen? Besides, Mugge would do well to do better research before starting the Campaign for Real Folk Music. “Tom Bowling” was written by the proto-music-hall songwriter Charles Dibden in 1788 about his brother, although it does sound convincingly like something that Rambling Syd Rumpo might play. In fact, I bet you’d even find a lot of academics today who’d argue that the soldiers’ songs he’s complaining about have just as much right to be called traditional folk songs as anything else…

By the way: Solipsists are philosophers who argue that any one person can only know for sure that their own mind exists, and “There was a jolly miller once” is more commonly known as “Miller of Dee”.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Leave a Reply