Maurepas | Guillemont | 30 Jul 1916

Maurepas and Guillemont

The ears are senseless that should give us hearing to tell his commandment is fulfilled; that Maurepas and Guillemont are dead.

Ahem. Those names just seem to flow together in the same way that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” do. You know what’s not flowing at the moment? The River Somme. There’s a highly arresting story from about now-ish that I can’t quite verify 100%. The Somme has been heavily canalised, and the story goes that the lock gates at Abbeville are now being frequently jammed by the bodies of dead French and German soldiers floating gently down from the battlefields around Frise and Peronne.

There is, at this point, little reason to go into fresh amounts of detail. Once again the BEF is let down by its staff work. Seven days, it seems, is not enough time to pick up the pieces, learn lessons, and then successfully attack after the failure of the 23rd. Maybe it is enough time, and they’re just not doing things properly. At any rate, there is nothing new to add. Disjointed start time, enemy well aware, insufficient supporting fire, too much ground to cover to reach the German trenches, attacks broken up by artillery and finally dashed by intact barbed wire.

Meanwhile, off to the right, where they do things properly, the French conduct a successful methodical leap into the Second Line and after a couple of hours are pushing hard for Maurepas. Then the problems start. With the BEF’s attack a total failure, German guns and reserves can concentrate on defending Maurepas. The French attack slows, falters, halts, and then by evening they’re under so much pressure that they begin quietly withdrawing in the night.

Our correspondent Neil Fraser-Tytler of the artillery is laying down the artillery support, such as it is; it’s not his fault that there aren’t enough other guns. Once again he’s being harrassed by gas.

…I found working on a map with a gas helmet on was a job very trying to the temper. At 3am, after a mouthful of tea and bacon, both tasting vilely of gas, I started off to try to get to the French line … Having repaired our wire as far as Hardecourt, we found that it now lay uncomfortably near a huge store of hand grenades, which had caught fire and were exploding at intervals like giant Chinese crackers. After an exciting bit of duck and dodge, we succeded in removing it to a safer bit of ground.

I was just settling down to observe when an excited French runner gasped out the surprising news that the French had already captured Falfemont Farm. On questioning him as to the source of this information, I learnt that it was contained in a message from the attacking troops, and that the runner had given it to an officer in an observation post a little way down the trench. I hurried off immediately to see the news in writing, but as bad luck would have it, a shell preceded me and burst right in the OP.

There followed a desperate but unsuccessful hunt for the piece of paper amongst the very broken remains of two officers and two men.

Fraser-Tytler instead takes out his binoculars, verifies that there are German steel hats pouring into the farm, and organises some hate for them. His concluding thought is “It was a wonderful day [despite the failure of our attacks]”. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he means “full of wonder” and not “extremely good”. So, let’s have the map again. This is pretty much what the line is going to look like for the next month.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.  Planned engineering work is taking place...
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map. Planned engineering work is taking place…

General Haig’s attention, meanwhile, is now turning strongly towards tanks. More on that to come.

Wully Robertson

It must not have been much fun to be Wully Robertson, the British Empire’s senior soldieer over the past month. No matter how much good patriotic crap the newspapers write, there’s no covering up the gargantuan length of the official casualty lists, or the never-ending deluge of seriously wounded arriving back in British hospitals. Politicians, of course, have sources of information other than the official channels (not least the French government). For the Army, there’s always Sir John French’s office on Horse Guards, always busy when French isn’t out on the pull. (In a slightly later letter, Robertson will write a personal letter to Haig warning him that “Winston [Churchill], French, and various ‘degommed people’ are trying to make mischief”.)

For now, even Wully, the Western Fronter’s Western Fronter, is worried about the casualties and lack of progress from the Somme. He gives him a summary of the War Committee’s opinions and then puts three questions to General Haig for immediate reply. Will a loss of 300,000 men really lead to great results? Why did it seem that the British were now bearing the brunt of the fighting and the French seemed to be doing little? Has the primary objective of relieving the pressure on Verdun not, at least to some extent, been relieved?

Very good points; Haig will soon be carefully applying himself to answering them.

French intelligence

Meanwhile, it’s the turn of French intelligence to be optimistic about the effects of attrition. The boffins at GQG have been crunching some numbers. It seems that Austria-Hungary is surely about to run out of men as soon as the Romanians get stuck into them (a not totally inaccurate assessment). More vaguely, it speaks of the Germans having to use a large number of undesirable “expedients” to keep up the flow of men and supplies to the front. I’ll give you one guess where General Joffre’s thinking will be guided by this intelligence assessment. (It starts with “come here” and ends with “ow, my leg, they shot me in the leg”.)

Persia

Time for a quick note from Persia. The Russian General Baratov has been leading a force around the area to stop the Ottomans playing silly buggers; unfortunately, the fall of Kut has freed up men to get after Baratov. Enver Pasha has some typically ridiculous dreams of a grand advance all the way through Persia to make trouble for the British Empire in Afghanistan, apparently without regard for such fripperies as “supply lines” and “practicalities”. At the moment, though, his force has shoved Baratov right back from the Persian border with Mesopotamia; Baratov is trying to organise a defence.

However, he’ll soon decide that the best thing he can do is retreat to the Sultan-bulak Pass, sit there, and wait for developments. A solid mountain pass to defend is worth a thousand tons of concrete and fifty machine-guns.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson’s mates fall victim to some of the vagaries of camp life.

Woken up at 2am by Hassett waking up the 2 next tents saying there was a night adder. It turned out to be a belt wound round a stick, much to our disgust. Slept again till morning and after reveille went to bed again. … Nos. 2, 5 and 6 guns went out on harmonizing firing. Major Thompson and the orderly officer came around and kicked up a row about our tents. Rose made some 11 ‘o clock coffee. Short ration of bread, so drew mealie-meal to make up. Heard our troops are on the Dar-es-Salaam line.

I forget if I’ve mentioned recently that mealie-meal is a staple sub-Saharan food, a coarse maize flour which produces an acceptable porridge after the addition of water. And there’s another overly optimistic rumour for you; there are men heading towards the Central Railway, but they’re not quite there yet.

Emilio Lussu

For the time being, the General has been convinced to calm down a bit. There have been a few too many slaughters of late in the Dolomites, so the men are being left to their own devices for a little while, until some new plan can be devised. Emilio Lussu catches up with his reading.

Every once in a while, a newspaper happened our way and we passed it around ourselves. They were always the same and they annoyed us. The way they described the war was so strange it was unrecognisable. The Campomulo valley, which we had crossed without seeing a single casualty, was depicted in the papers as “lined with cadavers”. Austrian cadavers, naturally. Even our little army newspapers were irritating. The truth was something only we possessed, right before our eyes.

An old comrade pays Lusso a visit while the papers are in; they both survived the Carso together last year.

He was wearing a raincoat, all buttoned up. All you could see of his clothing were his helmet, the raincoat, the lower half of his gaiters, and his shoes, falling apart and held together by tangled pieces of wire. The soles were new, made of pine bark. He unbuttoned his raincoat and exhibited his bare naked body, from helmet to gaiters. Two months of campaigning had left him in this state. Not a single piece of clothing had made it to the line since the end of May. We were all, some more, some less, dressed like hobos.

“Where’s your underwear?” I asked.
“Not being an item of primary need, I have abolished it. My bodily fauna was forcing me to undertake such strenuous hunting expeditions that I preferred to burn their dens. Now I feel more like a man. I mean, more like an animal. And you read? I feel sorry for you. The life of the spirit? Don’t make me laugh, the spirit. We want to live, live, live.”
“Where is it written that in order to live you have to abolish the shirt?”

They continue in this vein for some time. Nobody gets blown up or shot. A genuine funny story!

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells has heard of something rather interesting as he remains in limbo. He’s still waiting for the final word to go to France, and still warned to be ready to leave immediately.

Last night I was wakened by the sound of bombs exploding and anti-aircraft guns being fired some miles away, possibly at Dover. It is said that the Germans do not attack Folkestone and its immediate neighbours along thecoast in gratitude for the rescue of the crew of a large German ship which was wrecked here at the beginning of the war. The story does not sound probable, but for some reason Folkestone has been overlooked by German aircraft while Dover only a short distance away has been repeatedly visited by them.

The short Canadian casualty lists show that the Canadians are still in reserve. When they return to the front line probably the officers who have been warned will be sent for. It is likely we shall spend some time at the base in Havre before going into the firing line.

The story of the large German ship is indeed bollocks, sadly.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis

Further Reading

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