Mission creep | Somme | 21 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

I’ve been so caught up in shouting at British generalship over the last week that I’ve almost completely ignored a major French resumption of their offensive, which now comes to an end today. If there were more than the odd sentence written about it in English, I’m sure I’d have paid more attention. It’s not really gone very well, I’m sure there’s a joke about biting off more than they can chew. One corps south of the River Somme has moved a bit closer to Peronne, but only a few hundred metres.

But, get this. Generals Foch and Fayolle are keeping tight control over operations. Either the army is making a major assault, and everyone’s giving it the beans, or they’re using artillery to keep up the pressure on the enemy while keeping the infantry safe in their dugouts. Their casualties so far have been far fewer than their British partners, very roughly on par with those of the Germans. If there is ever going to be a good way to fight an attritional battle, the French 6th Army may well be on the path to figuring out how to do that.

Meanwhile, the British 4th Army is witlessly feeding another brigade into Delville Wood with little artillery support and orders to press on as hard as possible. The Germans are launching not-quite-as-witless but mostly ineffective counter-attacks. It’s quite remarkable how both armies have arrived at somewhat similar levels of futility (a word I’ve been trying my best to avoid using, but really it’s the only one that will do) by entirely different means. The Germans are struggling with bad doctrine; the BEF is just struggling with bad.

The next push

General Haig’s intentions for the next phase of the Battle of the Somme are now suffering from a terminal case of mission creep. A couple of days ago, the intention was to consolidate in the middle of the line while attacking on the far right, together with the French, around Guillemont and Ginchy, and also making a shove for Pozieres, on the Albert to Bapaume road. This shouldn’t have resulted in too much dilution of effort; the Ginchy operation will come from 4th Army, while Pozieres will be the first large attack for Reserve Army.

But then a succession of numbskulls in the rear have all put their hands up and said “oooh, me too”. The plan for the 23rd has now sprouted an attack to improve the position somewhere around High Wood, and then another attack to do the same thing between High Wood and Delville Wood. Then some other idiot has suggested “hey, why don’t we try to push all the way to that rotten switch line?” Then they’ve decided to bring that attack forward to 10pm on the 22nd, because clearly now night attacks are the solution to every single problem. Never mind that the artillery has barely any time to register on the next set of German trenches, and observation planes have frequently been grounded due to bad weather.

Oooooohhhhh, it makes me mad. I am just going absolutely red in the face and fixin’ to start screaming at people like Yosemite Sam when he gets all heated. If only one general on either side had had a quarter of the nous of Bugs Bunny, we’d all be a lot better off. Instead, it’s the Germans who are (inadvertently) playing the role of the wabbit. “Aha, I dare you to step over zis line.” “Okay!” “Now step over zis line.” “Okay!” “Now step over zis line!” Unfortunately, nobody appears to have provided them with a cliff to lead the BEF over. And wabbit season is open for a while to come.

The Chief

Speaking of Haig, here’s what he’s concerning himself with; he’s dropping in on General Rawlinson again.

We discussed the manner and time of attacking Enemy’s line north of the Bazentin-Longueval position. … It was decided that the attacks will take place as simultaneously as possible, and I went on to HQ Reserve Army to arrange with General Gough to attack Pozieres at the same time. The hour of attack is still under discussion. It depends to some extent on the time taken to get the troops into position.

Lord Northcliffe arrived today and stayed the night. I was favourably impressed with his desire to do his best to help to win the war. He was most anxious not to make a mistake in anything he advocated in his newspapers, and for this he was desirous of seeing what was taking place. I am therefore letting him see everything and talk to anyone he pleases.

Obviously this is some strange new definition of “simultaneously” that I wasn’t previously aware of. Lord Northcliffe owns The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, and the Observer; in terms of influence, he was very much the Rupert Murdoch of his day. Murdoch’s father Keith, by the way, is even now working for his prime minister, Billy Hughes, on proposals to introduce conscription in Australia.

BEF Intelligence

BEF Intelligence is now getting stuck into a giant serving of humble pie, and doing so utterly without shame. It seems that not only has the German army been able to relieve every single division on the Somme and sent it somewhere else, with all the men they’ve fed into the battle, they now have three times as many men here as they did on July 1. They shouldn’t have been able to do this, but unfortunately the enemy was not included in that meeting.

Set against this, there are some promising signs on the subject of German morale and how damaged it’s been by the overwhelming British artillery bombardments. Captured communications and letters home are beginning to paint a not-inaccurate picture of an army that is starting to get fed up with sitting in a hole in the ground for a year and a half, waiting for someone 600 miles away to win the war for them, trying not to die. On the other hand, they’ve managed to make a classic balls-up of what should have been useful information.

Someone’s captured a copy of General von Falkenhayn’s order to hold every inch of ground and counter-attack mercilessly, on pain of court-martial. This should be a good thing, right? Well, let’s remember this thing called the Battle of Verdun for a moment. (About to burst back into life, incidentally.) The strategy of attacking and then letting the French beat their brains out against recently-captured positions hasn’t really worked out the way it should. But the Somme is a long way from Verdun, and they don’t realise how it’s gone there, and it is a very seductive line of reasoning…

Last thing to mention. The German occupying authorities in Belgium and northern France have just conducted a good old-fashioned round-up of suspicious characters. This one, it turns out, is much better-targeted than most. The British spy network in these critical areas has all but collapsed. GHQ had been relying on reports of troop movements and number of trains passing from locations such as Lille and Liege to build its picture of German deployments. Even with the intact network they’ve made a giant Horlick’s of it. Now they have to work from an exponentially smaller pool of information.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas! Old friend, good chum, devoted grognard. You’ve been summoned to a parade in front of General Gouraud. You’re going to do some manoeuvres for him. Then he’s going to lecture you. Please, my man, bring me a pick-me-up. I must have some snark. I demand to have some snark!

He looked quite no-nonsense, this general; around him swarmed officers bedecked with ribbons and medals who made themselves as stiff and attentive before their chief as they would be arrogant toward a subordinate. Our demonstration drills of attacking and defending a trench were crowned with success, as they always were on manoeuvres. Our firing onto targets which we’d carefully plotted out the night before were naturally deemed to be marvelous in their precision. All those present were astounded, or pretended to be. Then we listened raptly to the warlike thunderings of General Gouraud.

The Pope delivering a sermon at St. Peter’s could not have been listened to more respectfully than the general was, by this crowd. I could hear a cricket singing. Amazingly, I actually heard a few bits and pieces of the speech; a simple corporal couldn’t make his way up to the front row and plant himself right under the nose of such a lofty personage. The rifle was obsolete, he said, and would have to be relegated to the museum of prehistoric arms. We weren’t killing men one by one anymore; let’s talk about grenades, bombs, flamethrowers, machine guns, etc. With all that at our disposal, we’d soon have the Boches on the run.

At the end, the general said the Battle of the Somme was at full force and that the 4th Army “would soon be taking its turn and claiming its share of glory.” We didn’t doubt the accuracy of this promise.

Ahhh, that’s the good stuff. He’s off back to his battalion tomorrow, with his new 37mm pop-gun.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman has some fascinating observations on emergency drinking water in the desert. That’s not sarcasm. I love crunchy logistics questions like this. If an army can’t drink, it falls over and dies very quickly.

When it got light we found the Warwickshire Yeomanry, who had been here three weeks, camped close by. The following order was issued:

“It is forbidden to drink water from desert wells, which are nearly always polluted. At the same time it is recognized that there may be cases where it is unavoidable. … In order to treat water from the wells, each man will be supplied with one bottle of sulphate tablets; should a man find himself in such a position that he must drink well water, he will add two tablets to the contents of the water-bottle each time he fills it. He will then shake the whole thoroughly, and not drink the water until a full half-hour has elapsed.”

These tablets were issued to units, and when the occasion arose were extremely useful. Whenever it was possible, all water was properly sterilized by medical officers with chloride of lime. At this time the water allowance was good – one gallon per man per day.

Such observations are keeping his mind off the increasingly worrying estimates of enemy strength at the Suez Canal.

Alan Bott

Quick reminder: Alan Bott, of the Royal Flying Corps, has several times been warned to leave for France over the last two months; the date has been postponed three times. The subaltern-who-knows, in the officers’ mess, spent an extensive amount of time pooh-poohing the idea that they’ll be leaving for France on the 21st.

And at dawn on July 21 the battalion, battery, or squadron moves unobtrusively to a port of embarkation for France.

Whereas in most branches of the army the foundation of this scaffolding of postponement is indistinct except to the second-sighted Staff, in the case of the Flying Corps it is definitely based on that uncertain quantity, the supply of aeroplanes. The organisation of personnel is not a difficult task, for all are highly trained beforehand. The pilots have passed their tests and been decorated with wings, and the mechanics have already learned their separate trades as riggers, fitters, carpenters, sailmakers, and the like.

The only training necessary for the pilot is to fly as often as possible on the type of bus he will use in France, and to benefit by the experience of the flight-commanders, who as a rule have spent a hundred or two hours over Archie and the enemy lines. As regards the mechanics, the quality of their skilled work is tempered by the technical sergeant-major, who knows most things about an aeroplane, and the quality of their behaviour by the disciplinary sergeant-major, usually an ex-regular with a lively talent for “blasting”.

Oooh boy, time to get to grips with Royal Flying Corps slang. Sorry, Squadron Leader, I’m not following your banter! “Archie” was the original RFC phonetic alphabet word for the letter A, and refers to anti-aircraft guns (for the same reason that they’re more familiarly known as “ack-ack” guns; “Ack” is the Royal Artillery’s word. And, for some reason, these pioneering flyers often called their plane a “bus”.

They won’t be off to France for a few days still, but they are now moving to their point of departure.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is now arriving at Etaples Base Camp. Maybe this one will give us a proper description of the Bull Ring at its height?

Dusk is falling as we detrain at Etaples. We have been a long time making the short journey, and are glad to shake our limbs after being wedged tight in those uncomfortable wooden carriages. We drop out by the side of the rails and scuttle up a sandy slope, where we report and receive details of our quarters for the night. We wander through a sea of canvas, our valises following, and now by the light of a candle unroll them on the wooden floor of a bell-tent. Zenu, Hill and two others share this tent with me. They are soon asleep. Even the longest day comes to an end at last.

A gramophone at a YMCA hut some way down on the side of this sandy hill is playing tunes from The Maid of the Mountains. It stops. Through the door-flap of the tent I can see the stars. Hill snores loudly as I get into my bag. What a release to feel alone and free from military busyness! Passionately I try to send waves of something deeper than thought across the estranging miles, and in the effort fall asleep.

More soon.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

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