Mining | Noel Pemberton Billing | 29 Mar 1916

Mining on the Italian Front

Even the Italian army is capable of learning and trying to do war slightly better. Some bright spark back at headquarters has long since put in a large order for heavy-duty rock drills. Up in the Dolomites, there are two major mining efforts going on, in the style of the Western Front. Since January, they’ve been tunnelling under the Col di Lana and the Col dei Bos, about ten miles apart. The Austro-Hungarians defending in the Dolomites are just about the last priority for any kind of supplies, including drilling equipment and blasting charges. For once, the Italians have some kind of advantage at something.

With not much else to do other than be cold, those defenders have developed a new weapon. The most obvious thing to do when defending a mountain is to sit on top of it and kick heavy things downhill, right? Well, eventually you’re going to run out of boulders, and besides, all boulders do is roll. So now we have Rollbomben. They are exactly what they sound like; large grenades to be shoved downhill whenever required. Meanwhile, the few Italians lucky enough to be on the highest ground are experimenting with fireballs made of bitumen and resin.

Drills are also arriving on the Carso, only about ten months after they were first needed. The long, slow process of turning rudimentary knee-high grooves and improvised breastworks into proper trench systems is just starting. They’re also receiving trench mortars for the first time, and now they can carve proper emplacements for them. It’s hard work, and virtually impossible to conceal from the enemy artillery; but since the enemy artillery has also a relatively low priority for shells, this is not nearly as bloody as it might have been.

The front continues to rumble nastily.

Noel Pemberton Billing

Noel Pemberton Billing is a deeply odd man. Now, pretty much anyone who would want to be a pilot in 1913 is rather odd, but Billing is in a class of his own. His aircraft manufacturing business has been saved from bankruptcy thanks to the war, with the Royal Navy very interested in some of its seaplane ideas. Billing then joined the Royal Naval Air Service, and later made a series of grandiose claims about what he got up to. (Given where he ended up, I’d be reluctant to trust his word on what he had for breakfast without independent testimony, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)

Anyway, he’s recently become convinced of two things. First, that the Government is badly bungling its aircraft policy. Second, that he can reverse the situation by getting himself elected as an independent MP and making incendiary speeches about how British pilots are being murdered by the Government. One of these convictions is reasonable; I’ll leave it for the reader to decide which one. He has managed to get himself elected for Hertford, which I think is the best possible argument in favour of universal adult suffrage (this is 1916, 40% of British men don’t have the vote yet).

And this is about as exciting as British aviation policy is going to get for most of the year, unless you’re a dedicated fan of petty squabbling. Colonel Hankey’s attempt to get a few things done via a Joint War Air Committee will next week fall over and die. The Army and the Navy will continue digging their elbows into each other at every opportunity, which is hardly conducive to a more effective air force. Noel Pemberton Billing, meanwhile, will continue shouting from the sidelines, and is only beginning his thoroughly bizarre political trajectory. There will eventually come a day when bleating about pilots being murdered by the Government will look like small change.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian’s caravan spends most of the day slogging forward through sheeting rain and hopeless mud.

In response to the pleading of an old man, one of the Jandarma said “It’s better if you get sick and die. The government wants to get you out of the way sooner rather than later. You’ll be put out of your misery, and the government will be rid of you.”

We finally reached a small village, but the sergeant insisted that we continue in order to reach the village they had chosen for us. As one of the Jandarma explained, they wanted to punish all of us because some of us had been singing. The hot-headed youths of our caravan wanted to jump the guards in a deserted valley, take their weapons, kill them, and flee to the mountains.

Balakian, the voice of reason, eventually convinces them against this idea. When they finally reach their approved destination, they discover that the sergeant just so happens to be having it off with a woman in the village. The caravan hangs out their clothes to dry, and Balakian describes the sound of lice falling into the fire as being like gunpowder exploding.

Henri Desagneaux

Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux, late of the French railway control service, continues to be deeply unhappy with his lot. He’s not quite as garrulous as Louis Barthas, but he’s no less irritable.

The sector is quiet, so the generals make the most of it to plague us with their visits.

He’s a picture of cynicism already. Give it two years and he’ll surely be singing the Internationale with his sergeants.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley is having trouble sleeping due to a persistent backache, and takes solace in routine.

A beautiful day and quite hot. We have been unmolested except for some shells on the Fort. I have finished “Septimus,” by W. Locke. Septimus is a delightful chap, and would make much fun for us if he were here. I held another inspection of the native drivers among whom scurvy has increased. They still refuse to eat horseflesh.

William Locke was a prolific writer whose works are occasionally adapted today; his novel Septimus was a best-seller in the USA in 1909.

Don Juan has turned from a dark black to a burned brown. That, possibly, is his way of turning grey! I gather him some grass every possible day.

This Don Juan is Mousley’s horse, who came to war with him.

Maximilian Mugge

Private Maximilian Mugge of the 3rd Royal Sussex Regiment (a training-only battalion for new recruits) is being introduced today to the ancient Army institution of fatigues. Doing his own menial jobs is still new and exciting for our boy, who has some time spare to consider his new comrades, “very decent fellows, they seem”.

The “slanguage” of the boys is very forcible and stands in a peculiar contrast to the undoubtedly kind and gentle nature of their heart of hearts.

“Bloody old buggers!” is no worse than merely [PRETENTIOUS LATIN PHRASE] and “you was here” leaves their grammatical conscience undisturbed. Home environment and educational shortcomings are the criminals, I suppose. The men hardly ever use abstract nouns, which is quite a relief, and their vocabulary appears to range from eight hundred to fifteen hundred words. In their stories, reference to the hero of the chronique scandaleuse is invariably made by the opening, “There was a bloke…”

Family names and formal introductions are disregarded; everybody in the hut addresses everybody else either as “Jim” or “Bill” or “George.” Only one man has been labelled “Toothie”, a method of gentle cynicism, for the poor fellow has no upper teeth at all. There is “nothing doing,” or to use another phrase of the boys to describe our enforced state of idleness, it is “very slow.” We are waiting for our papers to arrive from London.

I for one am absolutely itching for the invention of a time machine so I can go back and ask Private 83 Smith what he made of being in camp with Mugge.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
Lake Naroch Offensive

Further Reading

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One thought on “Mining | Noel Pemberton Billing | 29 Mar 1916

  1. It’s worth pointing out that when Pemberton-Billing was elected as an MP, he sold his aircraft manufacturing business to the factory manager, who renamed it to the identifier that had previously been used for its aircraft – Supermarine.

    It might not have had much effect on this war, but the next one…

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