Battle of Verdun
Today is the first day since the start of the Battle of Verdun where I’ve felt tempted to not write anything as the situation continues to congeal. There is one small thing to note; a successful French counter-attack in a small wood in front of the Mort Homme. It’s led by one Commandant Macker, the kind of man who, if he were British, we would hold up as an example of a classic period eccentric.
He’s never seen without an immaculately-groomed moustache and a freshly-shaved face, no matter how filthy the trenches. When water is not available for shaving, he’s reported to have used wine instead. When his battalion was called on to attack, Macker preferred to do so armed with whistle, monocle, lit cigar, and walking cane. We can but regret that Louis Barthas never crossed paths with him. I cannot imagine what the grognard-in-chief might have made of him.
And today, fortune favours the bold. Somehow the German machine-gunners miss the cigar-smoking whistle-blowing monocle-wearing cane-toting officer leading the charge. Somehow they clear the enemy from the wood and reclaim it for France.
Wasn’t that a lovely little moment? Commandant Macker only looks like a twerp; he’s actually quite good at his job. Here in Mesopotamia we have the actual twerps attempting to lead an attack on Dujaila Redoubt. We left the attackers still nowhere near being ready to attack, marching around outside the redoubt in full view with the sun rising, and now we come to the curious incident of the Ottomans in the early morning.
Nobody is being fired on. It takes one and a half hours after sunrise of wandering about, and they’ve drawn no fire from the enemy. Eventually the attack’s commander, General Kemball, sends an intelligence officer forward in disguise to find answers. His report returns soon enough; the redoubt has only a minimal garrison. Despite every attempt to lose it, at about 7:30am the attackers still have the advantage of surprise.
In the night a terrific explosion from the direction of the Shatt awoke Kut. Someone says it was caused by a floating mine going aground. It had been intended for the bridge some distance up the [Shatt-al-Hai]. Not long after dawn we awoke to the sound of intense gun-fire so close to us, that for a time it seemed like our own guns in Kut.
At first we surmised this to be Turkish artillery turned on positions won by the Relief Column, but, on climbing on to the roof, we saw the flashes came from what the experts knew as Dujaila Redoubt. Our own guns were preparing on the Turkish position! This in itself seemed difficult to believe, although, no doubt, some good reason existed for it. As the light got better, before eight o’clock, we saw quite clearly hordes of Turks rushing up towards the Shatt-al-Hai support trenches, and some troops were being ferried over near Megasis from the other bank.
General Aylmer’s night march had evidently been a complete success, and the Turks were taken by surprise. Why, then, were we waiting to prepare? The fire grew heavier, the bursts thicker, and all the while the Turks were rushing up troops. Then the fire ceased. We held our breath and waited for news, knowing that the bayonet was busy, and the men at handgrips. No news has come. We have waited hour by hour.
Is anything amiss? Why haven’t they got through? Was our artillery preparation intended to be so deadly as to pulverize the Turks’ whole series of trenches? Could so many heavy guns be got up? If not, why did we wait? We only know that up to 9 a.m. the Turks’ trenches were rows of moving heads, and many went over the open. The fact seems to be that our arrival at the redoubt was absolutely a surprise, and yet, through not pushing on, the benefit of surprise has been lost.
The garrison spends the entire day waiting for news. None arrives.
I cannot find an attempt to explain how it was that nobody gave an order to attack. At 7:30am Kemball sent a signal back to General Aylmer that he was nearly ready to attack, but attack there was none. Eventually someone in the redoubt looked out of the correct window. A message immediately rushed back to the Ottoman commander Halil Bey; Halil rushed his reinforcements over to the redoubt; Mousley watched them arrive. By the time the attackers finally pulled their fingers out and tried to do anything, they were taking fire.
Things only go downhill from there. Brigade commanders issue situation reports that bear only a vague relationship to the true situation. In the afternoon General Aylmer sends more troops in, and a determined charge sees the redoubt broken into. The defenders respond to the problem by throwing grenades at it until it goes away, which works very well. By late afternoon it’s obvious that they’re going to hold out. The game is up; the men do their best to retreat. They’ve taken 3,500 casualties, an enormous number for this theatre. Do I need to remind everyone how atrocious the medical provision is? It’s not until dawn tomorrow that the retreat back to the far side of the Hanna chokepoint can actually begin.
This is the end for General Aylmer; his boss General Lake wastes no time this evening in having him sacked and replaced by General Gorringe, Lake’s chief of staff. If they don’t get through to Kut, Aylmer’s will not be the only head that rolls.
Let us now have an interlude from some people who know what they’re doing! Today’s capture of Rize, on the Black Sea coast, is another triumph of amphibious warfare that almost nobody has seen fit to write more than half a sentence about. The way to Trebizond is now open; and this is also where I’m going to take the Erzurum Offensive off the “Actions in Progress” list. Preparations to attack Trebizond will take a month; everywhere else, the offensive has stopped.
But that doesn’t mean that General Yudenich has stopped thinking. His men need rest and resupply, so any dreams he might have had of chasing the rump of the Ottoman Third Army back towards Ankara are going to have to be put on ice. They’re going to have to plan another major offensive, and they’ll surely need to assume that they’ll have some actual opposition to fight. More to come when the attack on Trebizond begins.
The first river we had seen since our arrival at Mashoti was about 3/4 of a mile off from where we halted for breakfast, so Rose and I went down to get some water and have a bath. It was a lovely spot. Fair sized stream ran along a deep gulley with huge trees overhanging. We were absolutely filthy from the dust from the march so we got in and had a beautiful bath. What we enjoyed was the amount of water we could use.
When we got back to camp we heard that Salaita Fort had been evacuated and that the 3rd Brigade had occupied it, so we pitched camp at the river at the foot of Kilimanjaro. During the march Bibby complained of diarrhoea. We then made trenches round the camp, a little shallow dugout for each man.
This is a much nicer way of war than charging headlong into prepared enemy positions! Indeed, the Schutztruppe are in full retreat from Salaita Hill. In the afternoon there’s some firing as one of their rearguards tangles with the South African Horse (sadly, this is not a single, gigantic horse on whose back a whole cavalry squadron can ride). Night falls, and the men then betray their inexperience.
We went to sleep in our trenches but were woken up 5 times during the night by false alarms in the shape of furious firing at nothing, which was rather bad for the nerves being a pitch-dark night and in the middle of the bush.
This notwithstanding, the eastern offensive is just starting to get rolling at pretty much exactly the same time as the western offensive is running into difficulty. General Stewart’s men are now on their third day of hard marching. He’s been receiving nasty reports that five Schutztruppe companies are waiting for him somewhere up ahead, but there’s no actual sign of them bar the odd isolated scout. He can’t just keep ploughing on until the men drop.
So he takes two decisions. As he’s now entering the western foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, which are mostly heavy woodland, the artillery and mounted troops will be left behind, since their usefulness is very limited by the terrain. The infantry will go on ahead, but not too far ahead. They can’t keep up the pace and they don’t want to get too far from their support.
There’s one more worrying thing. It’s starting to rain. Not for long, but torrential rains when they come, regularly, every day. This is well-known to be a sign that the full force of the rainy season will be arriving shortly, during which everyone will likely have their hands full trying not to die of malaria and dysentry. It always was a gamble that the attack could be launched and Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck run to ground before the rains come down in Africa…
We saw, in the fields on both sides of the road, the first decomposed human skeletons and skulls. Long hair was still attached to some of them. Captain Shukri of the Yozgat Jandarma, who personally escorted us along these most dangerous and bloody roads, rode beside me for a few hours. During this time I became rather friendly with him, to the extent that the wolf and the lamb can be friendly.
He exhorted me, “Effendi, tell your people not to give way to emotion, picking up skulls they come across.” Naturally I warned my companions to refrain from such imprudent acts. We were proceeding along roads where the slightest ill-advised or careless step could become the cause of our instant death.
Balakian takes the opportunity to strike up a conversation with the captain. More tomorrow.
At 4am, grenades, machine gun fire. A German patrol is sighed trying to cut our wire. Soon all goes quiet.
I visit the surrounding area. Everything is devastated, it’s total ruin everywhere. One can see the fury that went into searching through the furniture and destroying everything. The wardrobes are broken, the drawers torn out and scattered. Everything of value has been taken, the rest is littered on the floor. Nothing is left apart from scraps of paper and broken odds and ends.