Mine-laying submarines | Fort Vaux | 29 May 1916

Battle of Jutland

Decision day for Admiral Scheer. For the full implications of the decision he must make today, skip back to yesterday. It’s a big one. By 3pm, he has his answer. His Zeppelin commander says that no flying will be possible for the next two days at least, on account of unfavourable weather. The raid on Sunderland is cancelled. Instead, the High Seas Fleet will sail to the Skagerrak. Admiral Hipper’s battlecruisers will be sure to be seen by some useful neutral observers; the information will find its way to the Admiralty; and he can bait Admiral Beatty into doing something stupid.

The British Official Naval History calls this “a pleasant old-world flavour of the days before directional wireless”. Room 40 is, of course, listening in to German radio traffic. But, as we’re about to see, Room 40 is far from infallible.

Meanwhile, the German U-boats are having a rather annoying time of things out at sea. Conditions are terrible for submarines. Fog and heavy cloud makes it almost impossible to see anything. And, unusually, though there’s fog and cloud, the usually-tempestuous winds have dropped to a dead calm. The sea is perfectly flat, with absolutely no waves to conceal a submarine’s periscope from the increased destroyer patrols.

Some submarines have had orders to lay mines at various vital points. U-74 was sent on the most perilous mission of all, to mine Moray Firth on the edge of Scapa Flow. She quickly encountered an anti-submarine trawler, and was sunk with the loss of all hands. U-72 was supposed to mine the Firth of Forth to catch the British battlecruisers, but began spewing oil everywhere en route, and her captain prudently returned to port. UC-3 has simply disappeared in the English Channel. Only U-75 has managed to successfully lay some mines off the Orkneys, and those off the western coast, a roundabout route that the Grand Fleet would not usually take to go to Norway.

Alea iacta est. The Battle of Jutland will go ahead anyway.

Fort Vaux

Meanwhile, over at the Battle of Verdun. You may recall that Fort Vaux is one of the locations that General von Knobelsdorf has said must be captured in order to sustain the battle. Now they’re ready to try it. Unlike the French trying to retake Douaumont, they will not give five days’ warning. They will just attack, trusting to night, darkness, and a hurricane bombardment to get their men into the fort. And why not, after Fort Douaumont had fallen so easily? It’s not even as though things look any better from the other side of the hill.

Fort Vaux has been well prepared for a siege, with a large garrison, plenty of food and ammunition, and water stored in large underground tanks. On the other hand, there’s an unsurprising lack of morale amongst the senior officers. This is quite clearly a great opportunity for the commander of the fort to conduct a heroic defence, and very probably die in the effort. We’ve seen through Louis Barthas’s Commandant Quinze-Grammes how popular this suggestion might be. In desperation, higher command asks for volunteers. Eventually, one Major Raynal sticks up his hand.

Raynal is aged 49. In September 1914 he took a bullet to the shoulder. He recovered. He went back. In December his flimsy shelter took a direct shell hit and he spent ten months in hospital. He went back in October. A few days later another shell arrived and sprayed his leg with shrapnel. He can now barely walk, even with the aid of a large stick. But he’s got guts, and guts may well be enough for this fight. Even as he’s travelling up towards the fort, he’s thinking about reports from Fort Douaumont of how the Germans have altered the interior layout for defensive purposes…

Mamahatun Offensive

There appears to be no recognised English-language name for the Ottoman operation which begins today in Anatolia. It’s an offensive, and it’s initially centred on the town of Mamahatun, so: Mamahatun Offensive. Quick recap: Vehip Pasha has talked himself into a corner to his boss, and been forced to commit to doing something aggressive with some recently-arrived reinforcements. He’d much rather just sit and rebuild his strength for a month or two more, but when the minister of war wants a battle, a battle there must be.

However, he’s then discovered that many Russian units opposite his Second Army are very tired, in poor positions, and in desperate need of relief. He’s now found out that that Russian 39th Division is being relieved. So today he throws in that fresh corps, three divisions hardened from long service on Gallipoli, and with no real advantage to be had from making a heroic stand, most of the tired Russians are soon retreating back towards Erzurum.

It’s a good start; but General Yudenich is in touch with the situation and in short order is attempting to re-organise that fresh division for a defensive stand. It’ll take about a week for all this to shake out, and much as I’d like to provide a blow-by-blow account, there simply isn’t the information available in English. More soon.

Battle of Asiago

Asiago has fallen to the Austro-Hungarians. Now comes the critical part. They’ve advanced through the Dolomites. Now they must race across the Asiago plateau to get as close to Venice as possible before General Cadorna can do anything about them. Which brings us back to our new Italian correspondent, Emilio Lussu. He’s been yanked unceremoniously from his rest billets and thrown across country to the plateau, to join Cadorna’s new army.

Now the road was filling up with refugees. There wasn’t a living soul left on the Asiago plateau. The population of the Seven Communes was pouring down onto the plains in disarray. The farmers driven off their land were like shipwreck survivors. Nobody was crying, but their faces were blank. This was the convoy of pain. Our column stopped singing and fell silent. You couldn’t hear anything else there on the road but our march step and the creaking of the cart wheels. This was a new spectacle for us. On the Carso front, it was we who were the invaders.

A cart went by, longer than the others. Its mattresses were occupied by an old woman, a young mother, and two children. An old farmer was steering the oxen. He stopped the cart and asked a soldier for some pipe tobacco. “Smoke it, grandpa!” the corporal at the head of the line shouted at him, and without stopping, filled his hands with all the tobacco he had.

The soldiers followed suit. The old man, his hands overflowing, looked it surprised at all that wealth. As though an order had been issued, everyone threw their tobacco onto the cart. He asked “And what are you going to smoke now, boys?” His question broke the silence. By way of response, someone intoned a light-hearted marching song, and the column followed in chorus.

And on they go, back to the war.

Conscientious objectors

A moment while we consider the fate of Britain’s conscientious objectors. Just the other day, we heard Maximilian Mugge say that his new unit, the 3rd Eastern Company of the Non-Combatant Corps, is being sent to France. On the face of it, this seems fair enough. The men of the NCC only have an exemption from combatant service. They are still legally required to obey army orders and do whatever labour is required of them. So now they’re being sent to France to free up serving soldiers for trench duty.

There is, however, a much more insidious motive behind this. The Army and the War Office can just about handle the concept of a man who reasonably objects to combatant service, but who will still do important work for the nation. They have a far bigger problem with men who object to being under any kind of military orders whatsoever. The inherently flawed tribunal system has been faced with many men who seek an absolute exemption from conscription. Few are successful. Most have only been exempted from combatant service, or have been given no exemption at all. Now they’re in the Army, refusing to obey orders, to sign anything, to put on a uniform.

The Army has no idea what the hell to do with these people. Worse, reports of soldiers listening to them, and sympathising, are beginning to percolate up the chain of command. Bigads, if this continues, morale might be fatally undermined! Something must be done! But what can they possibly do? Army discipline, of course, has several military crimes that these men can be charged with, usually some flavour of “not doing what you’re told”.

So. What the War Office is doing now is extremely murky and poorly-understood, for reasons which will become quickly obvious. Exactly what was done, and who knew about it, and what their intent was, is a giant and emotional Matter of Some Debate (when it’s discussed at all). Some say it was straight from the mind of Lord Kitchener himself. Some say it was a deliberate plot by the Army’s top brass. Some blame the politicians; some blame official incompetence.

Nevertheless. A number of “absolutist” conscientious objectors are being sent to France, along with the NCC men who are cooperating. These include seventeen men from Harwich, nine from Sussex (very probably from the huts that Mugge has been in at Shoreham), and two from Wales. Most famously, they included the Richmond Sixteen, a group of often high-profile absolutists who have been imprisoned at Richmond Castle in Yorkshire, almost as though they were traitors.

In the Army Act, the legislation which (among a lot of other things) sets out a full list of military crimes, there is the category “Offences punishable more severely on active service than at other times.” Now, this is an entirely reasonable concept. Let’s consider the offence of a sentry “sleeping at or quitting a post”. When doing garrison duty in England, this is a relatively minor crime. Nobody’s going to steal the barracks that you’re supposed to be guarding, after all. However, “on active service”, when you’re actually participating in a war, a sentry who falls asleep when the Germans are about to attack could get all his mates killed, and it’s one of the most serious crimes a man can be charged with.

As long as these absolutists remain in Britain, they are not on active service, where the maximum punishment for “disobeying a lawful order” is a term of imprisonment. On active service they may be given penal servitude, and Field Punishment Number One in addition. But the scam here is much better than just that. If the Army can use the alternative charge of “disobeys, in such manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, any lawful command…” then the maximum sentence available to a Field General Court Martial is death.

These men are certainly being sent abroad so that they can commit offences on active service and be punished under those provisions of the Army Act. Did anyone in the Army ever actually intend that they should be shot pour encourager les autres? That’s a far longer debate than we have space for here. Importantly, while they’re on a train south, one of the Quakers among the Richmond Sixteen has written a letter to Arnold Rowntree, MP for York. As a fellow Quaker, Rowntree (and a couple of other brave MPs) has made quite a nuisance of himself, putting down all kinds of questions about the treatment of conscientious objectors. When the letter eventually finds its destination, it turns out that the War Office will not be able to spirit the men out of France in secret.

E.S. Thompson

Meanwhile, E.S. Thompson is not dead yet, although he is encountering some, ahem, practical difficulties.

The doctor said that I had to expect pains in my leg and that it must be left to cure itself. Breakfast of bread and dripping which was lovely. Had to hop 50 yards to the latrine, a very tiring business and rather painful when my leg touches the ground. At 10 o’clock the Germans fired 7 shells into the town. Double ration of meat. Men paraded at 6 o’clock, and made to run to their shelters in case of shell fire. Just after dark my leg gave me agonizing pain and I did not have a good night’s rest.

Yeah, not much sympathy here for clots who pitch boiling fat all down themselves.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Mamahatun Offensive

Further Reading

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