The logistics of Verdun
Attacks continue against Douaumont village; Douaumont continues to hold out. The German advance is now turning into consolidation, linking up isolated positions into a new line to push on from in a few days. Against this, we can turn again to French logistics. General Petain has combined all the transport and supply elements at Verdun (from at least two and a half separate armies) into a single integrated group for simplicity’s sake. Everything begins its journey forward at Bar-le-Duc, the provincial capital, and finishes at new supply dumps on the west bank of the Meuse.
As many support services as possible have been moved here, again for simplicity’s sake. Having them on the west bank keeps the east clear for essential movements, and ensures that the main supply depots can spread out and can’t be captured by a sudden German advance. East of the river there are advance supply dumps, and from these dumps the men doing the fighting draw their food and supplies.
Despite all this, the east bank is still an exceptionally unhealthy place to be. Private Rene Naegelen of the 172nd Infantry Regiment (along with many others, including Petain’s old 33rd regiment) is marching up the road, being passed by lorries full of men heading to the rear. At most, those men have been fighting for eight continuous days; a long time, but there’s been men in action for longer continuous periods of time before. However…
The men in their greatcoats were ashen-faced, staring like those who have come back from the brink. One of those ghosts stood up on his seat, mouth pinched, eyes glittering in their sockets, and waved a bony arm toward the horizon. You knew this silent gesture signified unspeakable horror.
From time to time a soldier stood up, muddy, haggard, terrifying, and shouted at us “Don’t go down there, it’s dangerous!” We were on the road to Verdun and our imaginations were working overtime.
Those words are a standing joke and catchphrase in the French Army. At times they’re as funny as a Le Pétomane matinee; at others, they’re blacker than a convoluted simile.
Those having to walk were having a hard time trudging through the snow for eight-hour days, and their feet swelled. … At sunset we stopped at a village of [Shi’ite Muslims]. They never liked the Turks, and the animosity was mutual. They received us with compassion, refusing payment for the yogurt and eggs they gave us.
Balakian has arrived at a village of kizilbash, a concept that really needs an entire book (or at least, a long Wikipedia article) to cover properly. The deportees get a rare quiet night. There won’t be many more of those.
E.S. Thompson is out in the bush, as the South Africans search for some rotten Schutztruppe who’ve just blown up their water supply.
On guard from 3 to 4.30am, and then stood to arms till daylight. Rather cold. Get a beautiful clear view of Kilimanjaro. A white German and Askari were captured by No.1 Platoon during breakfast. The German looked very dirty and his clothes were shabby. We took a revolver, water bottle and a good many papers off him. Heard a few more were captured further down the line.
The 8th Regiment arrived at 1.30pm to relieve us. Sloppy crowd.
As Thompson and his mates of the 7th South African Infantry have recently had a major bollocking for poor conduct under fire, this is rather like the gun barrel calling the rifle barrel black.
Alarming reports are to hand that the river is rising. It is already three feet higher than it was two days ago. The Shatt al Hai now has changed from a water-course to a broad deep river that mahelas can navigate quite easily.
A mahela (or ‘mahila’, and probably quite a few other spellings too) is a large sail-driven barge widely used in Mesopotamia.
It is reported that the Russian General Baratov has taken Kermanshah on the road to Baghdad. We are all anxiously hoping he may get through. A large sweepstake on the date of the relief has been started for all European troops. Relief is defined as the time when our first boat passes the Fort. The contingency of our having ultimately to surrender is not included. For who could entertain that possibility except in the extremest banter?
Awkward coughing, shuffling of feet, et cetera.
Reuters tells us of a big German shove at Verdun. What an awful slaughter yard that will be! The news has become most unsatisfactorily fragmentary. We hear that something or other is about to take place; then subsequently the wireless is blocked and we never know whether it happened or not. There is much anxiety in the town about the floods that must soon come, and the river’s level is the all-absorbing topic.
The fine spell of weather seems about to break.
Jamming a spark-gap radio transmission is a simple matter of getting a higher-powered transmitter and belching static out whenever the enemy’s transmitter tries to send anything. This is a major reason why it’ll take another generation of technology before armies will begin enthusiastically adopting radio communication.
Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler, near the north bank of the River Somme, is going to see the French front line for himself. He tours the Bois de Vaches, over which the lines have been swaying backwards and forwards for nearly three weeks.
The ground is very broken, a maze of mounds and little corries, very different to what it appears to be from my observation post. The ridge looks quite smooth, and the irregularities in the terrain do not appear, explaining why one sometimes sees both sides walking about with apparent impunity in the open.
The infantry in the line were Colonials and had all seen active service in [Vietnam]. …The front line was in a bit of a messy state; as they had had a bit of a show at dawn, one realised the truth of the saying “It isn’t what the eye sees but what the feet walk upon that matters.” An absurd feeling, of course, as though the poor devils could feel one walking over them!
They were a cold-blooded lot. I noticed one Boche half-buried in the parapet and the men using his feet to hang their water-bottles on.
Waste not, want not.
The Sunny Subaltern
I’m at present engaged in studying gas and how to combat it, and it’s very interesting work. We move up into the fight to-morrow and will be in the ring for a starter for ten days or so. Just to get our baptism of fire, as it were.
Everything’s been jolly hockey-sticks for him so far. I wonder if that’ll hold up once he gets into the trenches.