March to Kondoa
General van Deventer can wait no longer for his 2nd Division to finish forming up. Time is of the essence here. They must reach Kondoa Irangi before the rain comes. There is no other option. So today he rides out with his mounted troops and his arse hortillery. The infantry and the heavier guns will simply have to follow on as best they can. Kondoa is about 160 miles away, but of course it isn’t that simple. The first objective is Lolkisale Mountain, a short, fat lump of a mountain some 35 miles away. And there’s a Schutztruppe garrison hiding somewhere on it. But don’t worry, intelligence says there’s only about 500 men there.
Hmm. That’s a story that we’ve heard before, not so long ago, at Salaita Hill. It probably doesn’t help if I mention that all the water sources worth mentioning are on the mountain somewhere, does it? More tomorrow. Things are at least going to develop quickly here. The South African Horse doesn’t get paid by the hour.
Battle of the Somme
Back in France, General Rawlinson and his Fourth Army staff have now completed their first plan for the British contribution to the Battle of the Somme. Time for one of those legendarily terrible MSPaint maps, I think. You might want to get used to this one; we’ll be seeing a lot of it in the months to come.
The plans are still, in theory, based on General Joffre’s original plan for an attack far to the north and south. However, everyone is now hastily downsizing their expectations, based on unofficial notification from reliable sources, while they wait for the official word from GQG. Before we consider the plans, a word or few about the battlefield.
It is no exaggeration to say that this sector is one of the best-defended in the whole of the Western Front. Absent the odd raid or demonstration, the Germans enjoyed almost complete quiet from November 1914 to about a few months ago-ish, once the BEF had taken it over entirely and got their feet under the table. Through most of 1915, it was was a sector where French and German soldiers met in No Man’s Land to exchange newspapers, where French and German officers spent their evenings playing cards together in each other’s dugouts.
The German Second Army’s efforts have gone much further than being nice to the French. They have now dug out three separate defensive positions. The First Line is what it sounds like, immediately opposite the BEF’s trenches. It’s far from a single line of trenches. This picture is from Thiepval; the Schwaben Redoubt is at the top right.
This is all part of the German First Line. The BEF’s trenches are out of shot, away off the bottom left corner. At bottom left of the image, listening posts and saps poke out into No Man’s Land; at top right, communications trenches lead back to a final stop line. Underneath here, we would find electrically-wired, fully-plumbed dugouts as deep as 40 feet below ground, with multiple exits.
Behind the First Line we find the Second Line, oddly enough. It’s about 2,000 to 5,000 yards behind the First Line, following the most favourable defensive terrain all the way. The Second Line is entirely complete and mostly dug to the same standards as the First Line. Finally, just in case the appearance of the BEF opposite them is a cause for concern, for the last few months they’ve prudently been digging a Third Line behind the Second Line. This won’t be complete for some time yet, but at least it keeps the men busy.
Their command of the terrain is all but absolute. Travelling from Albert up the Bapaume road, the ground rises over 300 feet to Pozieres, the centre and highest point of a ridge-line that runs from Grandcourt to Combles. The road then falls sharply, before rising a final time around Bapaume and Le Transloy; and then it finally flattens into a plain towards Cambrai, Le Cateau, and the Belgian border. Things are considerably more flat away to the south, in what will be the French sector.
Sir Henry Rawlinson is, I think, the closest thing that this war has to an interesting general. He began the war as a divisional commander, then quickly became a corps commander, and a year later was appointed to command 4th Army. He commanded at First Ypres, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, Second Ypres, the Battle of Aubers Ridge, the Battle of Festubert, and finally the Battle of Loos. General Haig aside, he’s probably the most experienced general in the British Army who hasn’t cocked up badly enough to get sent home.
In December 1914 he predicted a long, attritional war. Nothing he’s seen in 1915 has done anything to change his mind. He and his staff have been in close touch with General Foch and the French staff. It is of course impossible to give anyone credit for inventing what the BEF calls “bite and hold” and what the French Army calls “methodical battle”. But, just as Foch has been its champion in the French Army, Rawlinson is its champion in the BEF. The plan he presents to his boss is based entirely on these principles. A slow, methodical advance against each line in succession, with overwhelming artillery preparation at each stage.
As the plans make their way to Haig’s desk, here’s an interesting note for you. In London, the bloated War Committee has been studiously failing to make an official decision on whether to sanction British participation in the summer offensive. There are times when having a bluff, plain-speaking man as Chief of the Imperial General Staff is helpful; Wully Robertson has just received a request to ask the War Committee for a yes or no answer as soon as possible. This won’t be possible for a few days, though, as the Prime Minister and a few others are currently off on a junket to Italy.
In fact, even as the Chief begins to read, Herbert Asquith is shaking hands with General Cadorna. Which is the kind of influence you really want on your government at a time like this. Colonel Hankey, meanwhile, is admiring the Italians’ new drilled-out-of-rock trenches on the Carso, and wondering why the BEF’s trenches aren’t concreted. It’s as though he doesn’t know the first thing about how long concrete takes to properly set and cure, or the logistics of hauling and mixing it up the line. Even the Germans didn’t try to lay concrete without digging a really big hole first. Pillock.
Grigoris Balakian does his bit to improve the mood of his story today with an arresting image. They walk all day and reach Anavarza Castle, where there’s been a fortification of some sort for over 2,000 years. The ancient town lies in ruins, with a small farming village next door. The village takes them in.
We found a few large stables by the riverbank and settled down in them. Taking advantage of the opportunity, we hurried to the bank to wash ourselves and our undergarments, which had become leathery.
Ahhhh. You have no idea how much I needed that mildly disgusting underpants joke. A spoonful of…yes, anyway.
The stables had not sheltered animals for quite some time, so they were dry. Indeed, they were palaces for us, and we were content to be permitted to live in them. The government had confiscated all useful animals. As with the people, it had left only the crippled, blind, mangy, and sickly.
Speaking of which…
It is four months to-day since the Division on its last legs entered Kut-el-Amara, expecting relief to be here in three weeks, a month, possibly six weeks. Inscrutable are the ways of Allah! This afternoon a fierce thunderstorm broke over Kut, and hailstones larger than pigeons’ eggs rattled upon us with the sharp music of musketry. One should be quite sufficient to knock a fellow out if it got him bare-headed. Afterwards it turned to rain, which we fear may delay the next battle for Kut.
I am feeling very seedy again to-day, what with this enteritis and rheumatics and jaundice. So is Tudway, to whom I have given various opium pills and camphoradine. I am, however, lucky so far to have escaped the severe form of enteritis which many others have had. It is a deadly and horrible thing enough, accompanied by violent pains in the abdomen, and vomiting. To be sure I have had the former for so many weeks that I am used to it, and we often say we can scarcely remember the time when we hadn’t these infernal pains.
In the Arctic circle the two seasons are light and dark, and in India dry and wet, and in Kut when one has stomach ache and when one hasn’t. Most of us have been put down for sick leave at once when the relief occurs. The India list is the most cheerful phrase one hears.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but “Tudway” is, for once, not a pseudonym. This is Lieutenant Lionel Tudway of the Navy, commander of HMS Sumana, a rather battered motor-launch. It’s the last remnant of Townshend’s Regatta. All the other ships have long since fled to avoid being trapped..
Speaking of people who are ill, E.S. Thompson is rapidly going downhill.
Feeling weak and dejected, so reported sick to the Doctor who gave me 2 quinine tablets and light duties. Victor Rose got fever again. Both feeling pretty bad. Had some milk and rice for lunch. Experienced one of my longest and wretchedest nights.
On the plus side, if they get attacked, his mates could turn him around and use him as a shotgun in classical defending-the-castle style.
Captain (for the time being) Evelyn Southwell of the 9th Rifle Brigade has remembered that his diary exists.
“There is an officer coming to see your trenches,’ said the Adjutant on the phone. “I want you to hand over the Company to him. No end of a man”, he went on, “Military Cross, Captain 1st R.B., and all that.” That was a bit sudden, but obviously for the enormous advantage of the Company; and this war is not being run entirely to gratify the ambitions of fourth-rate and unimportant subalterns!
So that’s that, and now behold me once more a subaltern, under authority better than any I ever exercised, and likely to have yet another chance of learning my job! Perhaps I may be a soldier yet if the war lasts long enough.
To-day’s gossip is rather fun. It appears some Frenchman has prophesied that the war will be over in 96 hours from this morning ! The offensive at Verdun is to break down then, and that means the end. Someone should really write a book on war rumours and gossip; it would be quite as entertaining as the real history.
I’ve not seen White again since our great meeting in the South. But his Battalion’s quite near again, and if he’s back from leave I hope to see him soon. It was very sad, that sudden news about his father.
Southwell is put back to his substantive rank of lieutenant. Malcolm White is indeed due to be back from leave soon.
Maximilian Mugge gets a chance to show some insight today as his whole battalion gets marched around the camp and then around town. Don’t screw up and get the sergeants mad at you, Private Mugge! That would break my heart!
Yesterday morning we were paraded on the road alongside the large drill ground. Company after company arrived. The smart ness of the N.C.O.’s and men, the beautiful precision of all the movements by which the long column was built up, the realization of one “Wille und Vorstellung” made a deep impression on me.
When finally the C.O. on horseback thundered, “Royal Sussex, ‘shun! Quick March!” and when shortly afterwards to the strain of the regimental band we marched through the streets, I felt quite proud to belong to the Regiment. It was the almost irresistible fascination of the glitter, and what is more, of the undeniable dignity of the mightiest human machine yet devised.
Apparently he survived. This is a very important personal moment for Mugge. He’s not only joining the Army, he’s finally getting the chance he’s been waiting 18 months for, to demonstrate that he’s as British as the next chap, and ready to serve King and Country. Belonging to a large body of people for the first time is always going to be a memorable experience, but for him it means so much more than that.
He’s also fighting with his publisher. You may recall that just before joining the Army, he finished a series of translations of Serbian folk songs. The book should apparently have been published tomorrow to support Serbian relief efforts, but instead he’s only just received the first set of proofs for correcting. Which he will be able to do in his copious spare time. (The proofs have instead been sent to “an eminent Serbian professor” who assisted with the translation.)
We finish with a quick note from Clifford Wells, the you-know-what of a you-know-who from you-know-where. He’s been inspected by an Important Personage.
The grand review of the troops of the Canadian Training Division took place. Contrary to expectation, Sir Sam Hughes remained in England for the occasion. I do not know how many troops were reviewed, as I had no opportunity to make a careful estimate, but there must have been at least twelve thousand.
Sir Sam shook hands with all the officers after the review. He even deigned to ask me where I was from. This is always a hard question for me to answer. I told him Montreal, which I call home, although I have lived there so little.
Sir Samuel Hughes is the Canadian Minister of Defence. He’s already made a number of very stupid decisions. He insisted on the use of fragile, mud-intolerant Canadian-made Ross rifles instead of the Lee-Enfield. He patronised the development of the Macadam Shield Shovel, an entirely useless item that was supposed to be a combination entrenching tool and portable loophole, and was in fact useless at both jobs. I could fill a chapter with “Dumb Things Done By Sir Samuel Hughes”.
Oh, and just to make things even better, his idiot son Colonel Garnet Hughes is serving in France. More about that later. Sadly, Wells hasn’t even been able to give Hughes measles.
Actions in Progress
Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 goes on sale in less than a week!