It’s an African day. About now, there’s a meeting between British and Belgian military representatives at Lake Kivu. (Today it’s on the border between DR Congo and Rwanda; then, the border between the Belgian Congo and German East Africa).
First, I’ll note that today is generally cited as the final day of the Battle of Sarikamis. THe Ottoman forces that are left are either straggling back towards Erzurum, or re-establishing themselves in the positions they’d been occupying a month ago. Both sides have launched a major attack, and at the moment, we have a 0-0 draw.
Casualties have been hard to riddle out, unsurprisingly. Turkish losses due to all causes have been put at anywhere between 75,000 and 140,000 (the upper end being far more than Third Army’s ration strength). Russian losses have settled in the region of 16,000 killed and wounded with 12,000 ill, mostly and unsurprisingly from frostbite.
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With both sides operating far from home, and often far from oversight, British-Belgian relations will be considerably affected by individuals. In a theme that will crop up a few more times in Africa, a prominent civilian has offered his services to the military to overcome some particular local problem. (The short but valiant career of Herbert Dennis Cutler would be another good example.) This time it’s Ewart Grogan, one of those peculiarly British nutters who flourished under Empire.
A quick potted biography would have to include his Cape-to-Cairo walking tour across Africa at the turn of the century, and his arrest in Kenya seven years earlier for thrashing two native porters to death. (The court was pleased to find him guilty…of common assault, and sentenced him to two months’ hard labour. Nice man.) He also has a major portfolio of business interests, and seems to me rather like a cross between Horatio Bottomley and Ernest Shackleton.
Back to the point. Grogan had had a friendly meeting with a functionary called Josue Henry on his way across Africa. Henry is now a senior colonial administrator. Back in October, Grogan offered to trek out to Lake Kivu to set up proper contact with the Belgian authorities. He’s spent the last couple of months advising Henry, and co-operation now appears possible.
So to today’s meeting. Another British representative has made the journey, and they make several important arrangements that will allow them to co-operate against the Germans. Which is important, because they have a rather large headache to deal with.
The strategic importance of Lake Tanganyika cannot be overestimated. It’s a vital waterway for all kinds of transport. It’s also an inland lake, the world’s second largest, second deepest, and longest of all. It’s also a couple of thousand miles up the Congo river system, so the Royal Navy can’t just sail a gunboat up it to demand money with menaces. We’ll be coming back again and again to the question of controlling Lake Tanganyika right through the year. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Both sides will come up with ever-more-ridiculous attempts to establish naval supremacy, in a theatre where a chap in a rowing boat with a rifle is a major naval asset.
(Yes, I’m filing these under “Naval Operations”. They belong here just as much as Jutland will.)
Actions in Progress
The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: The news is understandably dominated by the Italian earthquake; the most interesting part of the communique for me is news of the River Aisne’s level rising and destroying several pontoon bridges. Page 10 also finds space for news of German intrigues in Morocco, and Page 11 notes that Bethmann Hollweg has given an interview to the New York Times.
Elsewhere: Page 3 reports a dispute between coal-miners and their bosses, another early indication of the cost of living issues that are starting to come up as the war drags on. Page 5 reports on an “Exciting London Fire”. Page 6 reports on nicknames given to German shells by those who are dodging them, and also notes that there’s a considerable number of deserters coming across from the German lines. Sadly, there’s not enough space to also mention that the BEF will lose about 2,000 men to desertion this month.
(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)