The Middle East theatre | 1 May 1916

Battle of Verdun

General Joffre’s command rearrangement officially takes effect today. General Nivelle now commands 2nd Army, with predictable results. Petain is now an army-group commander, and all this nonsense will no doubt require a great deal of pomp and ceremony and bluster and bullshit. Hold that thought for a couple of days, won’t you?

In the meantime, a quick comparison of the difference in strategic approaches. The Germans have used 26 divisions so far at Verdun, many of them attacking again and again until their strength is completely worn down. The noria, on the other hand, has so far used 40 French divisions for a brief stint at a time, and that number is only going to keep rising in the months to come.

Middle East

With the British Empire relief column now skulking quietly away from Kut with tail firmly between legs, it’s time to work out what to do next. For the British Empire this is obvious; sack the generals once appropriate replacements can be found. In the meantime, retreat towards Amarah and find somewhere to hunker down and rebuild. As far as the buck-stoppers are concerned, doing anything in Mesopotamia is now off the table for the rest of the year.

Over on the other side of the hill, Enver Pasha has hurried down to Baghdad by train to bask in some reflected glory. He’s just heavily reinforced the theatre in anticipation of a long struggle over Kut, and now the strategic appreciation seems, ahem, rather different. Even as he arrives, the Russian General Baratov has just removed a small Ottoman detachment from Persian territory, right as he’s heard of Kut’s fall. He and his men will remain hanging around on the Persian border like a bad smell.

And if there’s one thing that Enver can’t stand, it’s a bad smell. Army commander Halil (now Halil Pasha after his success, no longer Halil Bey) is loudly pressing the case for a strong campaign back down the River Tigris. However, although the Siege of Kut was a success, both the siege and obstructing the relief efforts have seriously weakened his existing force. Fresh men will soon arrive, but it seems that they too will need a period of inactivity to refresh their spirits, not to mention the need to get rid of those dratted prisoners. And then there’s the question of supply lines, no less acute going down the river than coming up it.

There’s that bad smell. By the time Enver leaves again, he’s decided to use two of his fresh divisions to go over to Persia and give the Russians a damn good kicking. Long-term, he’s still holding hope that some combination of these two divisions and the German agent Wilhelm Wasmuss might yet open a path to destabilise Afghanistan and directly threaten India. Which is, ahem, extremely optimistic. But surely worth the risk; it would be all but impossible for the British Empire to keep up its current efforts and prepare for a full-scale defence of the Raj…

Tank development

Another person who we’ll be hearing a lot more about as the war unfolds is one General Launcelot Kiggell, the Chief of Staff of the BEF. Like intelligence chief Charteris, rude things are often said about him. So it’s only fair, then, to record any moments of insight he might have so that we can set them against his failures, if any.

Today is a good day for the elaborately-named man. He’s been very interested by British camouflage efforts, and he’s seen that perhaps there might be some use for:

…the painting and disguising of tanks. It seems that if a loose mat or roof covering will meet the purpose, the mats themselves can be constructed and painted differently on both sides so as to materially conceal [the tanks] from the air.

Nice to know that someone is thinking about these things. He’s also sent Lt-Col Solomon J. Solomon, late of the Royal Academy, now of the Royal Engineers, to Elveden to see what can be done. It’ll take a while for Solomon’s efforts to go anywhere…and when they do, it seems he’s taken inspiration from the Affair of the Purple Horse, painting tanks in all kinds of intricate shades of pink/green/brown/grey. In very short order, once testing starts in earnest, it’ll become obvious that the best camouflage is the mud splatters that the tanks naturally create.

The tanks will therefore all be painted mud-brown. and Solomon will quietly be moved elsewhere. It’s a shame; he’s recently done excellent work adapting French fake tree and fake dead horse designs for British use. (I am not making any of that up. I do love me a good fake tree.) Unfortunately, his work with tanks will see him develop a not-unjustified obsession with the potential for netting. By war’s end, he’ll be found loudly insisting that the Germans could be concealing entire armies under vast camouflage nets.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach returns to the front after some jolly home leave with absolutely no food shortages at all, do you hear?

I spend eight days in what they call the Bois de la Reserve, where I have to keep the Divisional telephone exchange informed of everything that happens. I’m quite alone up here. It’s enchanting to be all on one’s own, surrounded by young forest trees all decked out in fresh green. It seems to be a paradise for wild birds. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be sitting like this again, out in the midst of Nature again. You have an untroubled mind and can devote yourself to all your thoughts.

What a contrast, these splendid natural surroundings in this wonderful month of May – and Death, a million deaths, sitting as if it were just next door.

Of course he’s managed to return to an even cushier job than when he left, the lucky bastard.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas and friends has been granted a rare treat. While the BEF has been able to look forward for quite a while to regular visits to the divisional baths, washing facilities for the poilus have been thin on the ground. En France, maintenant…

For everyone there were showers. The installation of these showers didn’t match modern standards of comfort. In a little old hovel open to all the winds of April, we had to slog through the mud to get a sprinkle of rather cold water, which came out of a container set up on the roof, filled with buckets of river water that medical orderlies passed up a ladder, in a bucket brigade.

Many of us balked at the risk of catching a cold by undergoing this kind of shower, which was surely beneficial only for madmen. But inexorably discipline was brought to bear, in the person of our capitaine-adjutant-major. Stiffnecked, haughty, all decked out in his field outfit, he cast a suspicious eye on those who were getting dressed, lifted up their helmets to examine whether their hair was wet or not, and went away only to survey the arrival and departure of the sections, which had to come and go in the best possible order.

Hands up anyone who’s surprised that Captain Cros-Mayrevielle would stick his nose into this. It’s hardly the sort of thing that would lead Siegfried Sassoon to write a mildly homoerotic poem about doing foot inspections. (I’m not making that up, either.)

Clifford Wells

All change for the Canadians still in England; idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells has been moved to Shorncliffe Camp, a couple of miles away.

A general rearrangement of the Canadian Training Division has taken place, the idea being to group the various battalions according to the district in Canada in which they were raised; all the troops from any given district being brigaded together. … One advantage in the transfer is that I am quite well up in the seniority list of the subalterns of the 11th, while [previously] I was junior to every other officer except those of the Fifth University Company.

He wastes a lot of words explaining exactly what the transfer means; we’ll leave him to it. Practical upshot: he’s now a lot more likely to make it to France in the near future.

Maximilian Mugge

Budding malcontent Maximilian Mugge continues complaining.

More favoured than any other argument to shake the evidence of a communist, of an admirer of the organised State with nationalized industries, will be the classical instance of Army Labour during the present War.

“Look at the awful waste of man power in the Army?” will be the clamorous objection of the individualist. He forgets, of course, conveniently, that, through no fault of their own, the vast majority of men were without any civic and cultural knowledge, and, as a result, constituted that ever-increasing dead-weight of apathetic humanity with which every Sham-democracy is burdened. These men have no interest in their work.

To make the men more efficient, to impress them with the importance of cleanliness and discipline, the officers and NCO’s have peculiar notions. Instead of talking to the men in a sensible way, they bully and punish them. I suggested to my mates that the next order would be to scrub the back of our blacking brushes. Moreover the roof of the hut might be divided into thirty sections and each man should scrub one.

Mind your words, idiot. Don’t go giving them ideas!

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Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun

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