Latema Nek | 10 Mar 1916

Latema Nek

From a British Empire perspective, there is precisely one good thing about the latest development in the invasion of German East Africa. This is that the enemy’s operational command is still being exercised by Major Kraut. And that’s only because he has a funny name.

There is only one road into German East Africa. It runs south and west from Mbyuni, past Salaita Hill, through Taveta, and then on to Kahe. The surrounding terrain is about as inhospitable as it can possibly be, particularly between Taveta and Kahe. If you want to move men through the area, they must take the road. There is no alternative.

Which is a problem, when the road runs through a tight little nek, a gap between two hills, Latema and Reata. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and Major Kraut (tee hee) have had this all planned out for some time. It’s the best strategic position for hundreds of miles, a true chokepoint. To the northwest is heavy bush that’s all but impassable. To the southeast, a giant swamp that is impassable. And now the hills are being garrisoned by 2,000 Schutztruppe, with all the machine guns and artillery pieces from Salaita Hill.

And towards this position, even more formidable than Salaita, marches E.S. Thompson and the 7th South Africans.

Bibby rather bad with his dysentery during the night, passing blood. He reported to the doctor, who decided to send him to the hospital at Serengeti.

We moved off and crossed the river at 5 pm and then marched about 7 miles to Lake Chala. We arrived at dark and entrenched ourselves. The scenery was grand, very tropical looking. We walked back through a banana plantation and saw some monkeys running about in the trees.

The modern Tanzania-Kenya border runs through the middle of Lake Chala.

Meanwhile, to the west…

General Stewart is having serious difficulties. We’ll recall that he decided to press his infantry ahead through Mount Kilimanjaro’s heavily wooded western foothills without its artillery or mounted support, as they’ll be of little use to them. Attempting to follow, the mounted troops have today been mugged by two companies of Schutztruppe. This is just about the first anyone’s seen of the enemy since leaving Longido. After considerable fighting against well-hidden opponents who are very familiar with the ground, they retreat for the day. That’s a hard day’s worth of marching up the swanee.

There is a line of communication, of sorts, to General Smuts. His reaction to the news is extremely volatile, and he’s quick to find fault with everything Stewart has done, from his rather more comfortable vantage point. If Stewart can’t make it through to Moshi and Kahe, the main Schutztruppe body will simply keep retreating as it chooses, picking the ground on which to fight at every stage.

Battle of Verdun

Lots of planes fly, lots of people die. One of them, sadly, is Commandant Macker. Having successfully charged German machine-guns two days ago, he now tries the same thing and nearly makes it across No Man’s Land again. But then the spell breaks, he falls dead on the German wire, and the French counter-attack is so badly affected that the Germans launch a counter-counter. By the time that’s done, they’ve return themselves to about where they’d been a couple of days ago. The First World War, everyone.

Back at GQG, General Joffre continues bloviating energetically. With the Battle of Verdun apparently now under control and the BEF relieving his 10th Army, his primary concern is the maintenance of his reserves for the Battle of the Somme in the summer. To that end, he’s written a paper for the Council of National Defence, outlining how totally important it is that these reserves not be affected. Generals Foch and Rawlinson have barely begun planning the battle, and already things are going badly wrong with it.

Joffre has also accepted without comment General Sarrail’s conclusion that no attack at Salonika is possible for the near future, it being favourable to him anyway.

A German air force?

Over on the other side of the hill, the Germans are now scrambling to counter the new threat posed to them by the Nieuport 11 “Bebe” fighter, and new French pursuit tactics. The comfortable air superiority they’d enjoyed at the start of the Battle of Verdun is fast becoming a distant memory. Something Must Be Done.

Of course that includes designing and fielding new models of plane. However, just as it had taken the French months to react to the now-outclassed Fokker Eindecker (which by the standards of modern aircraft development is a ludicrously fast pace), it’ll take the boffins a while yet to react to the Bebe. However, there is a highly interesting meeting today between General von Falkenhayn and Major Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen, the army flying corps’s chief of staff.

Junior his rank may be, but he’s thinking very, very big. His proposal is for nothing less than a new, unified, independent military service with its affairs overseen by its own government minister, on the same level as the Navy. Major von der Lieth-Thomsen is trying to invent the world’s first modern Air Force. And his boss von Falkenhayn has very quickly been won over by the idea.

Sadly, it takes more than the Chief of the General Staff’s approval to get things done. The proposal will soon get tangled up in a sadly predictable round of bureaucratic squabbling. The Bavarian Army in particular is extremely suspicious of the idea, seeing it as nothing more than yet another Prussian plot to run everything forever. The Saxon and Wurttemberg Armies are also still trying to preserve their identity as best they can.

And then there’s the Navy, the Kaiser’s favourites. Their admirals have a whole string of arguments about how naval aviation is completely different to land aviation and should remain separate. They may even have had a point, as demonstrated by the continuing existence of the Fleet Air Arm as part of the Royal Navy, rather than the RAF. In any case, any effort at reform is going to be stymied for quite some time.

Grigoris Balakian

Another crappy day on the march for Grigoris Balakian. It’s a long day’s travel, enlivened only by conversation with Captain Shukri, in which he talks at length about how clever the current government policy is. Shukri compares the deportation policy very favourably with the Hamidian massacres between 1894 and 1897, in which Armenians and others were attacked in their homes and often were able to resist. Now they obediently line up, collect together all their possessions, and march out into the middle of nowhere to be killed and robbed with brutal efficiency.

The caravan arrives at a village not far from Bogazliyan and starts settling in for the night. Shukri summons Balakian.

He said to me in a mysterious tone, “I’ve got bad news for you. Hearing that [another caravan] will pass through here, hundreds of villagers have assembled in the vicinity and are ready to attack us. We are in great danger.”

He suggested we take a little walk, and accompanied me to a small valley near the spring above the village. There, my God, before my eyes were the swollen and dismembered bodies of murdered men and women. Many of the heads were detached from their bodies, and in some cases their bowels were spilled out. All had been stripped bare, hands and feet or legs thrown far from the torsos.

Such proximity to death made me feel weak. As my already tired legs became wobbly, I fell to the ground. I did not, however, lose consciousness. In the wink of an eye, all the notable events of my life flashed before me like a motion picture and I became bewildered.

Captain Shukri rushes to his assistance. The piggy bank is not exhausted yet. Balakian promises him anything he wants in exchange for their lives. A suitably large bribe is arranged. Shukri is a man of some reputation in the area, having been with the Jandarma there for thirty years, and he’s able to disperse the mob. They’ve survived another day.

Louis Barthas

We’ve been away from our favourite grognard for far too long. Let’s rectify that! When last we saw Corporal Louis Barthas, he was freezing his cobblers off, swimming round some trenches near Vimy, trying not to die. In this cause, he refused a direct order from the martinet Captain Cros-Mayrevielle to put men to work in a trench that the Germans were watching with a machine gun. Happy news arrived a couple of days later; the English will begin reliefs soon. It’s followed by Sergeant Marc, with a paper in his hand.

“Barthas, I have some bad news to tell you.” I grew pale. Perhaps it’s illness or death of a loved one, announced by telegram. “What is it?” I said with anguish.

He held out the paper to me, and I read: “Corporal Barthas is broken in rank and assigned to the 15th Company.”

I let out a breath. So that was all! I tore off my stripes and tossed them into the mud. I felt a sense of deliverance from remorse, liberated from chains. By accepting a rank, however minor it may be, one took on a bit of authority, of this odious discipline, and one was in some way complicit in all the misdeeds of this loathsome militarism.

As a simple private, I recovered my independence, my freedom to criticize, to hate, to curse, to condemn this same militarism, the cause of this ignoble, worldwide killing spree.

Captain Cros has been clamping down on insubordination recently, having had Private Vacher arrested for calling his lieutenant a “toilet seat”. (I am not making that up. Buy his book for the full story! It’s very good.) The blokes are currently out of the line: Private Barthas, as he is now (and no longer a grenadier, either), is quickly bored while in the rear. More tomorrow.

Herbert Sulzbach

Lance-Sergeant Herbert Sulzbach of the German artillery, currently stationed at Evricourt near Noyon, has remembered again that he has a diary.

I often go back to duty as an observer in the trenches, and I’m fond of life with the infantry. Our OP is now opposite Utteche-Ferme, among some rocks. Spring has come, and out there the birds are still singing and still aren’t bothering about shot and shell. We have to live in our stuffy holes while it’s getting green outside, and enjoy the peace and quiet as much as we can in spite of it.

Aerial dogfights continue, and several of them end sadly for us. The French try diversion tactics to take the pressure off Verdun. We are kept standing to continuously. Red flares go up in the air, whereupon we lay down a devilish curtain barrage.

More soon. This is still fundamentally a quiet sector.

Clifford Wells

Clifford Wells, the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, has a rather dull turn of duty guarding the Folkestone Water Works in case somebody tries to steal it. Don’t worry, one of his men is about to enliven things a little.

I have to inspect the guard three times a day, and visit all the sentries twice by day, and twice by night. There is a wonderful echo here, and I enjoy listening to the sentries passing the call “All’s Well” every half-hour by night. Two of them are so situated that their call cannot be heard at all from the guard-room, but the echo can be heard distinctly.

Last night as one of the reliefs was loading before going out, I had to caution the men to keep their rifles pointing in the air while loading them. I had scarcely finished speaking when bang! a bullet went sailing up into the sky. Through carelessness a man had let a cartridge slip from the magazine into the breech, and had accidentally discharged it.

I should point out that this discharge may be accidental, but it’s not an Accidental Discharge, which by Army rules only occurs when a weapon is defective. This is a Negligent Discharge, and although Wells is too polite to say whether it was a true bang-fuck (in which it goes “bang” and you go “fuck”), we can assume he put the culprit on a charge. And right he would be too; war is dangerous enough without your mates letting off random rounds all over the place.

I have been granted a certificate as Instructor in Grenade Work in consequence of passing the four weeks’ course. My inability to draw well prevented me from attaining very high marks, and in a way I am glad of this. It is, unfortunately, customary to keep in England as Instructors in various kinds of work, the officers and NCOs who make the best marks in the courses.

This is unfortunate because it leads many to try to make only enough marks to pass for fear lest, if they did too well, they would be kept as Instructors and not sent to the front. I am glad that I did my best and that, through no fault of mine, I am unlikely to be kept in England as an Instructor.

Well, aren’t you a conscientious little boy? Major Bloodnok will be around soon with your Canadian OBE.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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