The Entente’s summer offensive is finally underway. We’ve been building up to this for at least six months. There have been a couple of probing infantry attacks yesterday, but this is the start of the big Russian push. The Brusilov Offensive has called for just 24 hours of artillery preparations before tthe men go over the top en masse. Four Russian armies are attacking four Austro-Hungarian armies over a front about 200 miles long, from Czernovitz in the south to Sarny in the north. They’re aiming to thrust back into Galicia, north of the Carpathians.
Casualties are, of course, horrendous. The attack is huge and sprawling. When your front is hundreds of miles long, there will inevitably be failure. The Austro-Hungarian official history takes refuge in the defensive successes, the heroic efforts of individual brigades and battalions in holding off the attack. There are a lot of those. Hundreds and hundreds of Russian battalions hard-pressed to make it through No Man’s Land, quickly getting bogged down, fighting with grenades and hand-to-hand over individual trenches and strong-points.
Then there’s the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army, the most northerly of the four to be attacked. It’s currently defending a sector of front centred on Lutsk, which today is in north-western Ukraine. They’ve had a particularly hard time of it. Here the Russian artillery fire has suppressed the defenders extremely effectively. Entire companies and battalions are being captured or killed in their dugouts, the attackers quickly moving through the first trench system, into the second, and then all the way into the third. It’s just one division among many that’s given way, but Brusilov’s plan is flexible enough to account for this.
As the evening wears on, Russian reserves are already rushing to the aid of 8th Army. The Austro-Hungarians, with almost no general reserve, can’t be so flexible. Every attack has to be responded to. Just about every division in their army group is shouting for reinforcement, and every army is committing its own reserve. Their attacks at the Battle of Asiago are stalling, being repelled by fresh Italian troops. Something is going to have to give. There’s not enough men to do it all.
Mission to Russia
Good news, then, is waiting for Lord Kitchener at the end of his just-beginning journey to Russia. After lunch with Admiral Jellicoe at Scapa Flow, his lordship is in no mood to be delayed by footling concerns like “horrible weather” and “heavy seas”. Jellicoe attempts to persuade him to delay sailing by 24 hours to wait out the storm, knowing Kitchener’s sea legs aren’t the best. When that fails, he reroutes the convoy to the west of the Orkneys to offer some cover from the heaviest seas.
Hey, remember those mine-laying submarines that went out before the Battle of Jutland? Remember how most of them came to grief, but U-75 succeeded in laying a line of mines west of the Orkneys? The Germans were hoping that it might catch a dreadnought, or a battlecruiser. At 7:40pm, in high winds and heavy seas, the minefield catches only an armoured cruiser. But the armoured cruiser is HMS Hampshire, sailing for Russia. The seas are so heavy, and the explosion is so violent, that the ship’s lifeboats are thrown against the hull and broken into pieces.
Fifteen minutes later, the ship is sinking. 662 people were aboard. 12 survived. 655 went down with her. And Lord Kitchener was one of them. In Britain we don’t really have war heroes any more in 2016. It’s all but impossible to explain the impact the news will have when it breaks in London at noon tomorrow. The only thing I can think of to compare it to is the death of Princess Diana in 1997. And the Admiralty was just starting to contest German control of the post-Battle of Jutland narrative, too. Once the news breaks, it’s going to completely take over the British news cycle.
Battle of Verdun
The fight for Fort Vaux grinds inexorably onwards. With only one underground tunnel available to gain entry into the fort, the Germans now decide to assault the fort’s courtyard, which offers access to two For the defenders, the night passes in absolute agony, listening to mysterious noises and muffled voices drifting into the fort from outside. And then the nerves of the barricade sentries crack; the Germans rush up with flamethrowers; the hand-cranked fans roar back into action, and once again the flame is blown right back on its wielders.
Then Fort Souville opens up with some artillery support. Using light-calibre guns, they target the roof of the fort with shrapnel. The shells aren’t heavy enough to damage the fort itself, but they’re more than deadly enough to take a brutal toll of dead from the Germans on the roof. As they scatter, a weakened roof falls in and completely blocks one of the passages into the fort.
The other passage barricade is held, only just. In command, Major Raynal decides that it’s an untenable position and his men pull back slightly. On the positive side for the Germans, they now have a way in. On the negative side, the way in leads directly to the latrines, now in a condition so awful that mere words no longer suffice. On the third side, the French are now entirely out of water and the men don’t have anywhere safe to take a dump. If tomorrow’s latest relief effort doesn’t go anywhere, that might just be all she wrote for the defence of the fort.
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Now it’s clear that the Germans were only interested in Mont Sorrel and Hill 61, General Plumer tells the Canadian Corps to kindly get him his hill back, please. There’s no rush, just get the hill back. General Byng in turn gives the job to one Major-General Arthur Currie, commanding the 1st Canadian Division, of whom much more later. Currie and his staff immediately begin studying the tactics which brought success at The Bluff, back in March.
Meanwhile, at the sharp end, the Sunny Subaltern has been ordered forward into the new front trenches. The trenches themselves are wrecked, with German artillery giving them a regular pounding, and there are no communication trenches. In fact, nobody’s quite sure if there’s anyone left holding the line. They’ve been unable to contact the units they’re supposed to be relieving. With no idea what they might find, they set off forward.
In extended order across shell-swept ground we started over an area pitted and potted by shells, with here a clump of scarred trees, or there a few gaunt stones, the remnant of a building. On we went in the gray of the early morning, past verdant stretches of fields, rank with ungarnered crops, which were besprinkled with scarlet poppies. We clambered through hedge-rows of hawthorn in bloom, the smell of which mingled with the sweet sickly odour of tear gas shells. We dodged shell holes or climbed in and over the remains of trenches, all the while drawing nearer, nearer the ceaseless rattle of musketry, the rhythmic rip of machine guns.
The psychology of a soldier in the brief moments of an attack or counter-attack, is something beyond my ken. In retrospect, I come on the thought I had as I saw that line move forward: that line of my men, the men whom I worked over during months of training, the men, who with me, had laughed and laboured, cried and cursed for many moons, slowly advancing to we knew not what. A picture of a green sward in Canada months before came back, and I recollected my exhortations on keeping a line and steady pace.
The order to fix bayonets passed along: this done, the clicking of bolts, to ensure that every magazine had its quota of cartridges, sounded.
Eventually another officer finds them, redirects them. The battalion is getting mixed up with the survivors of other units. There are no more orders. The Subaltern struggles to keep control of the situation. The men all find such holes as suit them, and try not to die.
Battle of Asiago
Our new Italian correspondent Emilio Lussu has just arrived at the Battle of Asiago, right as the tide is…well, maybe it’s not turning, but it’s congealing a bit. And, gentleman that he is, he’s gone straight to a funny story. He’s been detailed to take a platoon and go forward to see if they can find out what’s going on.
On the edge of the Asiago plateau, it was pure chaos. We’d arrived there under the tightest security measures, because it wasn’t clear where our guys were and where the Austrians were. In the basins around Asiago, a number of [enemy] field artillery batteries were moving around in plain sight. A bridge, destroyed by our side, had been rebuilt in a few days. All our artillery had fallen into enemy hands.
The sun had already gone down when, just north of Stoccaredo, I ran into a battalion of the 301st Infantry. It was under the command of a lieutenant-colonel who I found out in the open, sitting at a makeshift table made of tree limbs, a bottle of brandy in hand. He greeted me warmly and offered me a glass of brandy. “Thanks,” I said. “I don’t drink liquor.”
“You don’t drink liquor?” the [officer] asked me, concerned. He pulled a notebook out of his pocket and wrote, “Met a lieutenant who didn’t drink liquor. June 5th, 1916.” He had me repeat my name, and added it to the note.
After an extended recce/piss-up, the colonel lets Lussu go with some insightful comments about how maps are dangerous things. “In the mountains, maps are only intelligible to people who know the region, who were born and raised there. But people who already know the terrain don’t need maps…” Lussu celebrates by promptly getting his platoon lost looking for an ill-advised short cut. Meanwhile, another company takes a prisoner and has politely given him a cigarette and chocolate before the light of said cigarette reveals him to in fact be from the same regiment…
Haig’s personal intelligence
General Haig is taking a moment today to ensure he’s as well-informed as possible. He’s kept up a prudent correspondence with Lord Bertie, the British ambassador to France. Let’s just go to his letter, it explains what he’s trying to do.
…It is a great help to me in my dealings with the French over military plans to know how you gauge the political situation in Paris. My policy is briefly to:
1. Train my divisions, and to collect as much ammunition and as many guns as possible.
2. To make arrangements to support the French…attacking in order to draw off pressure from Verdun, when the French consider the military situation demands it.
3. But, while attacking to help our Allies, not to think that we can for a certainty destroy the power of Germany this year. So in our attacks we must also aim at improving our positions with a view to making sure of the result of campaign next year.
I do wonder how much of this is a genuine representation of his thoughts, and how much of this is for public consumption in Paris, particularly regarding Point 3. As the blokes come to learn more about the Big Push, well, let’s just say that some of them are being told the exact opposite. More soon.
Machine guns had now been mounted round our camp. We were inlying regiments for the day, ready to move out in case of an alarm. In the evening we walked round some of the trenches and posts protecting our camp. The trenches were well revetted in the loose sand. Special orders were issued as to procedure in the event of an aeroplane attack. The evening Intelligence report stated that enemy concentration was rapidly proceeding at El Arish.
An “agent” reported one German aeroplane made of gold! The Germans had apparently given this out in order to impress the natives. These agents were generally Bedouin, employed by both sides as spies.
Welp. None of this sounds good.
I went outside again, and walked along Park Lane until I came to the Lewis-gun position just this side of the comer of Watling Street. The sentry was standing up, with his elbows on the ground level (there was no parapet) gazing alert and interested at the continuous flicker of our shells bursting along the enemy’s trenches. Lance-Corporal Allan looked out of the dug-out and, seeing me, came out and stood by us. And together we watched, all three of us, in silence.
Oh hey, they’ve got a Watling Street too. As I mentioned earlier, there’s more than one Watling Street back in Blighty, and the longest one is 250 miles long, so.
“This is all right, sir,” said Lance-Corporal Allan. He was the NCO in charge of the Lewis-gun team.
“Yes” said I. “The artillery are not on short rations to-night.” For always, through the last four months, the artillery had been more or less confined to so many shells a day. To-night at any rate there was no curtailment. “I believe this is the beginning of a new order of things,” I said, half musing, to myself; “that is, I believe the Boche is going to get lots and lots of this now.”
“About time, sir,” said the sentry.
“Is there a push coming off?” said Lance-Corporal Allan.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “But I expect we shall be doing something soon. It’s quite certain we’re going to get our three weeks’ rest after this turn in. The Brigade Major told me so.”
Three weeks’ rest would send them back up the line just in time to go over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Corporal Allan smiled, and as he did so the flashes lit up his face. He was quite a boy, only eighteen, I believe, but an excellent NCO. He had a very beautiful though sensuous face that used to remind me sometimes of the “Satyr” of Praxiteles. His only fault was an inclination to sulkiness at times, which was perhaps due to a little streak of vanity. It was no wonder the maidens of Morlancourt made eyes at him, and a little girl who lived next door to the Lewis-gunner’s billet was said to have lost her heart long ago.
To-night I felt a pang as I saw him smile.
Of course, if he really were 18, he shouldn’t be in France at all. But he is, and Mr Adams should really be warned about the possible consequences of getting a crush on his soldiers. I guess Maximilian Mugge was right about the dangers of promiscuous intercourse between officers and men, hohoho.
Seriously, though. Praxiteles was a Greek sculptor who made a load of statues of naked male satyrs. Satyrs are extremely hypersexual creatures. Hopefully someone can arrange a cold shower for the poor lovelorn subaltern next time he comes out of the line.
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