Lake Naroch Offensive
Oh boy. Back to the Eastern Front now for the start of the Lake Naroch Offensive. Between Russian reinforcements and Germans leaving for Verdun, the attackers have at least managed to get a considerable numerical superiority. Supplies of artillery shells have been winkled out from the rear and sent forward for use in the offensive; there’s enough for a heavy two-day bombardment. Russian engineers are also trying their hand at mining, with several charges being blown as part of a supporting attack at Uscieszko.
In the list of horrible, horrible shitshows in the war, this is certainly one of them. I wish I could say it was surpassingly bad, because the details are horrible. It begins with that two-day bombardment, conducted with almost no liaision between artillery and infantry officers. Consequently the artillerymen have very little idea what they’re actually supposed to be shooting at. Their observation posts are poorly sited and well-known to the German defenders.
There’s been enough time since the front settled down to dig trenches, of sorts, over the winter. Nobody among the Russian Brains Trust has seriously attempted to prepare for an attack. No Man’s Land is up to a mile and a half wide in places. The German artillery settles down for a day’s target shooting. Few enough of the Russian attackers even get into range of the German machine guns. There are a few places where the poor sods on the offensive manage to occupy the German first line; and then the German artillery, perfectly ranged on its own positions, gives them what for.
Now we consider the weather. This time last year, the men in the Carpathians were suffering under conditions that alternated wildly between torrential rain and freezing snow. Now it’s the men around Lake Naroch who are dealing with similar conditions. One day it’s ten below freezing and everything’s ice. Another day there’s a major thaw and everyone’s swimming through glutinous, clinging mud.
If you really wanted to look with a magnifying glass, I’m sure you could find a few Russian advances by the end of the day. Maybe half a mile here, an advance to capture nothing but No Man’s Land. A small sliver of German trench there, that hasn’t yet been completely pulverised by the German guns. And it’s not even surpassingly bad! Nobody here’s imaginative enough to reach the heights of failure that were set on the Italian Front, or in the Carpathians last year. Time to talk about something else.
Battle of Kahe
Over to the other offensive that started today. This is General Smuts’s attempt to winkle Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck out of his new home at Kahe. It’s about as different from the Lake Naroch Offensive as it’s possible to get. From men struggling against frostbite and slush to men struggling against malaria and dust. It’s hard to riddle out exact numbers, but in terms of men somewhere near the battle, the Battle of Kahe is maybe an eighth as big.
Pleasingly, it’s relatively free of rank incompetence. The name “Battle of Kahe” is somewhat misleading, as it implies a singular Schutztruppe position to be attacked. Instead, the men have been distributed over a number of different hills, anchored on Kahe Hill in the west (which overlooks Kahe station and the Usambara Railway) and a horrible boggy marsh at Mokinni in the east, with the River Ruwu at their backs.
General Smuts has a clear objective; drive the Schutztruppe over the river and then garrison its line to stop them raiding his rear areas during the rainy season. He’s also taking advantage of the plains west of Kahe, sending the South African Horse out on another flanking movement. Down now to E.S. Thompson for a private’s impression of the first day of the battle.
Bellfield’s scouts were fired on from a little hill about 4 miles from our camp so we were sent out to chase the enemy off. We were made rear guard much to our relief and guarded the Artillery. The guns put shrapnel on to the hill all morning and the naval guns bombarded it from Latema Reata Nek. Later in the afternoon we advanced. the guns shooting over our heads making an awful noise.
We could see the 8th Regiment running up the hill over shells landing neatly in front of them keeping the bush clean.
One hill down. Several more left to go. This first day is far from a thumping success, but then there’s no need to try for a thumping success with a witless frontal attack.
Grigoris Balakian spends quite a bit more time admiring the spring and lamenting the situation in which he finds himself.
With half an hour remaining in our journey to Tomarza, eight or ten men on horseback greeted us, making us all apprehensive. The mayor of Tomarza had come to escort our caravan of emaciated deportees to the town. When we passed through, we saw that all the shops were closed, and all the houses were filled with Turkish refugees.
Throughout the journey, but especially along the Yozgat-Bogazliyan-Kayseri route, we had noticed that the majority of the Jandarma guarding us passed their nights on horseback, without sleeping. Seeing the sentry next to me in this position, I asked why he wasn’t sleeping.
“I killed so many people in this past year that my victims won’t let me sleep peacefully. I can’t even close my eyes because those I dismembered appear before me. In particular, the souls of the more than twenty virgin girls whom I violated and then killed won’t let go of me.”
Just in case you needed reminding that this Armenian genocide is indeed a genocide, yo.
Another beautiful day! I stale-mated a game of chess with Square-Peg, and then had a walk round the trenches. There is an old disused trench skirting the river on the eastern side, where we sat in a hidden nook and let the cool breeze from the river play on our feverish dank foreheads. A bombardier of the 76th Battery, an excellent lad, has just died of wounds from the aeroplane’s bomb. I remember upholding him in a matter of duty once.
Every day someone goes, either from wounds or sickness. And so far as we know the end is not yet.
I heard that Thompson of ‘C’ Company had been wounded. From what I could gather he had been able to walk down to the dressing-station, so I concluded he was only slightly hit. But it came as rather a shock, and I wondered whether he would go to Blighty. There was a bit of a “strafe” on. It started with canisters; it had now reached the stage of whizz-bangs as well.
I thought little of it, when the Boche turned on his howitzers. They screamed over to Maple Redoubt. A pause. Then again, and they screamed down just in front of us, evidently after the comer of 78 Street. I did not hesitate, but pushed on. The trench was completely blocked. Rue Albert was revetted with wood and brushwood, and it was all over the place. Davies and I climbed over with great difficulty, the whole place reeking with powder.
“Look out, sir!” came from Davies, and we crouched down. There was a colossal din while shells seemed all round us. … I worked my way along to the Fort and found there a sentry rather excited because, he said, he had seen exactly the spot from which they had fired rifle-grenades in the strafing just now. I got him to point out the place. It was half-left, and as I looked, sure enough I saw a flash, and a rifle-grenade whined through the air, and fell with a snarl behind our trench.
“Davies,” I said, “get Lance-Corporal Allan to come here with the Lewis gun.” Davies was gone like a flash.
Here we see all kinds of things. Not just how the officer reacts to being under fire and exercises command, but the practical usefulness of the officer’s batman to act as a runner when required, and the tactical usefulness of the Lewis gun, light enough to be manhandled around a trench in response to specific threats. After a while of firing he calls it off and leaves.
I found Captain Robertson. We talked. A tremendous lot of work had been done, and the big traverse was practically finished. “I’m knocking off now,” said I. It was a quarter to twelve, and I went along with the “Cease work” message. “All right,” said Robertson, “I’m just going to have another look at my wirers. I’ll look in as I go down.”
By the time I had reached the top of 76 Street, the trench was full of the clank of the thermos dixies, and the men were drinking hot soup. The pioneers had jnst brought it up. I stopped and had a taste. It was good stuff. As I turned off down the trench, I heard the Germans start shelling again on our left, but they stopped almost directly. I thought nothing of it at the time.
It was just midnight when I reached Trafalgar Square and bumped into Davidson coming round the comer. “I was looking for you,” said he. “You’ve heard about Tommy?” “Yes,” I answered. “But he’s not badly hit, is he?” “Oh, you haven’t heard. He died at eleven o’clock.”
Here was something new. I had seen death often: it was nothing new. But it was the first time it had taken one of us. I wondered what Davidson felt; he knew Thompson much better than I. Davidson was saying “Well, I’m just going off for this strafe,” when I heard men running down a trench. “Quick! stretcher-bearers. The Captain’s hit,” came from someone in a low voice. Two stretcher-bearers turned out and ran up 76 Street after the orderly.
We’re past midnight now; the end of this story follows tomorrow.