Yesterday we had a nice bit of tension going. General Yudenich’s slightly complicated plan is working, so far. The Ottomans have committed their reserves in the wrong place. The remaining question is whether all the men required to drive home the attack on the Cakir Baba can arrive in time. And they have, despite having to force their way through chest-high snow. For once, a Russian commander has disregarded his orders and come up with a positive result.
General Vorobyev, commanding the critical brigade, ordered his men to start moving forward early, ahead of schedule. It’s a risky move; their advance was supposed to be concealed as far as possible by night. If some enemy observer had looked the wrong way at the wrong time with a good pair of binoculars, the game might just have been up. But luck was with him; if they’d left on time they might just have barely arrived, but they would have been going straight into battle after a long march in all-but-impossible conditions. We saw what happened at the Battle of Sarikamis when the Ottomans attacked with their men in that condition.
Now the Russians will attack after just a little rest, and that’s going to make all the difference. Soon after dawn the Kozincan shoulder is in Russian hands. By 11am, Vorobyev’s men are advancing, and this time they’ve achieved surprise. Up here in the mountains, there’s far too few men holding far too long a front. The defence is based around a series of strong-points rather than a continuous line, and the Russians are finding it all too easy to defeat individual positions with overwhelming force brought onto each one.
By evening the situation is critical, and only the most fractured information is filtering back to Third Army’s headquarters. On the right the Russians are poised to seize the Kozican-dag heights, the doorway to the western, less exposed portion of the Top Yol. On the left, they’ve taken an important village. One fork in the road leads up to the summit of the Cilligul-dag, still in Ottoman hands. The other leads down towards Koprukoy, and the practical upshot of this is that the Russians now have a shot at surrounding the Lines of Koprukoy.
Once the Cilligul-dag, now cut off from reinforcement, is captured, it’ll take about two days to march into Koprukoy; less than that if a recently-deployed Siberian Cossack brigade can make good time. They’re the only cavalry in the entire war that can be of any military use up a mountain in winter (other than as a source of horse meat). Between the original defenders and their reinforcements, there are about 50,000 Ottomans in the lines. If they aren’t told what’s happening, then the Russians will suddenly appear right on their line of retreat and a full-scale disaster is in the making.
Meanwhile, in east Africa, a new British Empire unit is arriving at Mbyuni. This is the 2nd South African Brigade, a freshly-raised mob with a few old sweats from the Boer War, and a great deal more pimply teenagers. They’re short on training, and high on enthusiasm; and they’re thousands of miles from home. Even after having been in theatre only 24 hours, they’re quickly discovering how different this place is from the Africa that they know. Now somebody has to figure out what the hell to do with them.
Meanwhile, over on Lake Tanganyika, a violent storm has blown in and wreaked havoc in Commander Spicer-Simson’s makeshift harbour. The newly-captured and renamed Fifi (late of the German navy as Kingani) has dragged her anchor and nearly thrown a Belgian ship onto the rocks, causing her to lose two propellers. Another Belgian speedboat has propeller-shaft damage. Mimi and Toutou are still carrying battle damage. When the weather finally clears, the only ship in fighting condition is Dix-Tonne, a fat, unwieldy, poorly-armed Belgian vessel.
And then Hedwig von Wissmann, one of the Germans’ remaining large steamers, appears on the horizon, prompting brief panic. This is the local German commander, Captain Zimmer, launching his latest attempt to find out what the hell’s going on on the Belgian Congo side of the lake. As it happens, Leutnant Odebrecht is under strict orders not to do anything risky, which means he never gets close enough to see anything worth spending the fuel for. But, hey. At least he came back with the ship in one working piece, which is a better result for Zimmer than the last two times he sent someone out. He’s left to scratch his head as his motley opponents set to trying to repair their damaged ships. More to come.
Royal Flying Corps
Time to drop in quickly on the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front. They’ve just adopted formation flying tactics for the first time in an effort to protect their observation planes. No observers are to go up without an escort of at least three British fighters. Of course, with aerial warfare in its infancy, exactly what “flying in formation” means is going to have to be sorted out mostly in mid-air…
There’s no escaping Mesopotamia while the Siege of Kut lasts. Once again, the Ottomans have done the sensible thing and retired at night from the Wadi. And yes, there’s yet another prepared position for them to fall back to. They’re still 30 miles from Kut-al-Amara itself.
This time they’ve arrived at something which people insist on referring to as the “Hanna defile”, which sounds like some red-faced British general did something inadvisable with a copy of the Quran. But no, in the military sense, a “defile” is a chokepoint. (Apparently, when one passes through a defile and comes out the other side, one “debouches” from it, which never fails to make me laugh.) And the men withdrawing from the Wadi have now met up with some mates.
Anyway. What we have at Hanna is a rather knotty problem for the relief column. Everyone’s on the right bank of the river. The Tigris is flowing fast and deep, and is currently defeating the Engineers as they try to bridge it without half their sappers and all their material being washed away in the general direction of Basra. Close on the right of the river is another nasty, sticky, impenetrable salt marsh. There’s no going around it; you either go up the river or turn round and go home. The chokepoint between the river and the marsh is the “defile”, and it currently contains some 30,000 men. A relief column that started the size of a division, and which is now much smaller, is facing the best part of an entire enemy corps.
A frontal attack is clearly hopeless. The thing to do is get across the river. Everybody knows it. From there you can at least bring fire on the chokepoint from two directions, possibly even bypass it and threaten to cut the defenders off entirely. But while there are plenty of cross words about, this river isn’t for crossing. Yet more rain hammers down in the evening, swelling its waters yet further.
Robert Palmer has drawn another of the terrible jobs. At first it was thought his men might be needed to attack, but then they found the Wadi positions empty. Instead, he’s been, cough cough, clearing up yesterday’s battlefield.
The stretcher parties had been out during the night, but they had been fired on so heavily that they could not get beyond the 1,200 yard line, so there were wounded to pick up as well as dead to bury and equipment to collect. The dead were so pitiable that one quite forgot their ghastliness; but it was a gruesome job searching their pockets. The poor wounded had had a fearful time too, lying out in the cold all night, but the satisfaction of getting them in cheered one up. The ground was simply littered with pointed bullets.
In the middle of this job we were recalled and told to march to the support of our outflanking force; but by the time we were collected and fallen in the need for our assistance had apparently passed, for we were merely marched to the Canal and then along it to where it joins the river; where we have been ever since. We got into camp here soon after noon, and were very glad to be within reach of water again. The weather was the limit. It blew a gale all the afternoon, and the dust was so bad one could hardly open one’s eyes. We had no tents, but Major Stilwell had a bivouac and invited me in with him, which was a blessing as it rained all night.
What now? They can’t go on, but they can’t just abandon Kut, either.
Actions in Progress
Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.