Lake Naroch | Verdun | 31 Mar 1916

Lake Naroch Offensive

It would be unfair, just about, to say that the Russians have achieved nothing with the Lake Naroch Offensive. A lot of men are dead; some of them are even German. Plenty of ammunition has been expended, and the factories back home will be busy replacing it. The front line has lurched backwards and forwards a few miles, and now men can be kept busy on working parties, digging new trenches. These are achievements, of a sort.

Of course, what they haven’t done is forced the Germans to transfer a single man away from the Battle of Verdun. There has been virtually no gain of territory. Everything the Russians have tried to achieve with this offensive, they’ve failed at quite completely.

Battle of Verdun

And, a few hundred miles away, this has afforded the Germans time to refocus their offensive and their efforts. There’s another major push brewing, with two goals. The first is to push hard on the banks of the Meuse, capture Hill 304 and the Mort Homme, while at the same time advancing out of Douaumont village. The second is to close in from the east on Fort Vaux and Fort Souville, and bombard them into submission to prevent the French using them as supply dumps and shelters for the men.

No, don’t ask me what the strategic goal of all this is. It fits equally into the competing narratives of a bite-and-hold attack to capture Verdun, and an attempt to capture easily defensible positions that the French will then bash their heads against. Meanwhile, the French noria keeps turning, feeding fresh men into the battle…

Louis Barthas

And now we find Louis Barthas, who was warned to move yesterday. They all set out from their billets at Lamotte-Buleux with heavy hearts.

Two kilometers beyond Lamotte-Buleux, the road forked. One way led to Noyelles-sur-Mer, our [railhead]. That will explain the efforts we made to see which direction the head of the column would take. We let out a big sigh of relief when we saw that the vanguard turned its back on Noyelles. That meant we weren’t leaving for Verdun, the very name of which froze us with dread. Any other destination did not matter to us, and immediately joy and gaiety spread through the ranks in the form of songs, laughter, jokes, and lively conversation.

The whole division was on the move. It was assembled in an immense field for a big rest break, because the march was long and hard. Then the regiments and battalions dispersed to their respective cantonments. We were on the shores of the English Channel, near the mouth of the Somme.

Instead, they appear to have marched a few miles west to the seaside, at the whim of a remote staff officer. Theirs not to reason why!

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian is in Sis. His caravan of Armenian Genocide deportees has been slowly descending into poverty for a month. Most of them lack shoes, and are infested by lice. They urgently need a rest longer than a night.

I must confess, in the name of truth, that in Sis the Turkish officials treated us with unreserved compassion. They invited pedlars of bread and groceries to sell us their goods, and told them that if they asked too high a price, they would take their goods and give them to us for free. We even received permission to send people to the pharmacy to get medicine for our sick. Everybody was pleading with me to go and find the provincial governor, and get permission for a few days’ rest.

Balakian talks at length about having represented the Armenian church in front of world leaders, and about how the genocide is destroying his mental health. Nevertheless, he eventually finds the strength to go to the governor.

“Papaz Effendi, there are strict orders for us not to keep caravans for more than one night, but … very well, I’ll make an exception and give you permission to stay one more day. Take care of your needs quickly. I’m sorry that I can’t do any more than this. I’ll summon the commandant of the Jandarma and recommend that they put you back on the road tomorrow afternoon, so that you’ll have 30-35 hours.”

An unpleasantness follows; in going directly to the provincial governor, Balakian has insulted the commandant. Some of the deportees are very badly beaten before the governor can intervene and give clear orders that they not move the caravan on until tomorrow. But there’s another stroke of good fortune. They’ve been staying in a large inn, and the innkeeper knows that the Germans who are building the Berlin to Baghdad railway have a concession to employ whoever they want as labourers.

This work has since become a haven for Armenians, deserters from the army, and so forth. Plans are laid to stage an escape before they reach Islahiye, the last stop in Anatolia before heading out into the desert. (Today it’s near the border between Turkey and Syria, and there’s a large refugee camp there.)

E.S. Thompson

It’s still quiet for E.S. Thompson and the South Africans in Tanzania, but they’re still suffering just sitting still and doing nothing.

Tidied up and made our tent as dry proof as possible. Tent orderly for the day. Suffered a bit from diarrhoea. Best stew and roast for a long time thanks to Dat Lester. Half ration of rum and quinine issued, gave Dick mine.

It’s only going to get worse once the rains get going properly.

Edward Mousley

But at least he’s not at the Siege of Kut, where Edward Mousley is still miserable.

The weather has broken and once more the steady downpour has made Kut into a mild sort of Venice. We have no gondolas it is true, but if our dam goes we can make shift with rafts. I am deeply sorry to hear that poor Woods has gone. He got the Military Cross for bravery at the Fort on December 24th, when he lost his arm. He was a jovial fellow, and a very good sort. We have had many a gossip together at the hospital.

He died from jaundice. It is very, very unfortunate, as his arm was quite well, and he was back on light duty. The truth is our condition is so low that anything carries us off. We are all very glad he died happily.

If they’re not going to be relieved, it may indeed be for the best.

Maximilian Mugge

Private Maximilian Mugge has now been issued with his Army uniform, and continues his linguistic confusion by colliding headlong with Quarter-bloke speech. Then, of course, they have to put the damn things on…

They began by supplying an overcoat. Being slightly over six feet in height, mine had of course to be the largest size and even the sleeves had to be lengthened. A similar process of elongation had to be undergone by the two tunics and the two trousers which were the next presents the godmother department of the War Office made us. After that we were given two kit-bags. Pert, punning and pennycatching assistants in the QM Stores hurled into these bags one knife, one spoon, one fork, only they didn’t say ” One knife,” they sang out, “Knife, one”; “Brush, clothes, one”; “Buttonstick, one,” etc.

Without our kind hut-orderly it would have been impossible in the short time at our disposal. What are the mazes of Hampton Court and of Crete compared with the intricacies of properly putting on your puttees for the first time, compared with the wonderful science of lacing your boots in the true military manner? A whole pamphlet might be written on the artistic spiralling of puttees, their helical cometry. The salvation of one’s soul and the health of the sergeant’s liver depend on that.

Do you think the sergeant might have shouted at him, boys and girls? Do you think the sergeant might have said “fuck” and “bloody hell” a few times? Do you think Private Mugge might at the moment be looking like a sack of shit tied up in the middle with string? I think there’s a very good chance. Nevertheless, he’s poured into a vehicle and taken off to the 3rd Royal Sussex’s permanent base at Meeching Camp, Newhaven, a small South Coast town.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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