Battle of the Somme
Today General Joffre pays one of his little visits to General Haig at GHQ in St Omer. You may recall that a month ago, he wrote a long letter suggesting that an area of Picardy around the River Somme might be a good one for an offensive. The British-held part of the Western Front currently extends from the Ypres salient to a point just south of the Somme. If they were to attack there, then French and British soldiers would be able to fight side-by-side, an important propaganda concern.
Whether by accident or design, Joffre has also managed to frame his proposal for the offensive in terms that Haig will be predisposed to approve of. A letter sent a few days later talks extensively of the need wear down the enemy before seeking a decisive victory. Hello, “wearing-out battle!” They’re still working around a rough start date of July 1st for the main push, but Joffre’s also trying to sell Haig on the idea of two major pre-push battles in April and May to wear the Germans down. (A large debate follows among Haig’s staff as to the best way for politely telling Joffre to place this idea where the sun does not shine.)
Back in Blighty, it’s another important milestone for the development of tanks. In Lincoln’s Burton Park, Mother has been brought out for her first live firing test. It’s worth remembering that this first tank design doesn’t look much like what we now think of as a tank. It’s a large diamond-shaped box with tracks running right up onto the roof and no turret. Instead, the tank’s weapons will be held in two “sponsons” (it’s a silly naval word), forward-facing boxes attached to each side of the tank.
One sponson will hold a machine-gun, but the other will be armed with an artillery piece. French tank development quickly went down the road of “we ‘ave zese soixante-quinze guns, ‘ow do we make one to go on ze tank?”. However, without an iconic gun to adapt, the British designers have ended up trying to shoe-horn a Hotchkiss 6-pound naval gun into the things. There are now some concerns that the gun’s recoil might be too high for the design to cope with. Indeed, original Landships Committee member Thomas Hetherington has a £50 bet with one of the chief designers, Walter Wilson, that the entire hull will collapse under the shock.
And it’s not the best of starts. The first attempt to fire a shell fails to fire. Hetherington and Wilson wander over to inspect the gun, at which point Mother lets off what’s surely one of the most spectacular Bang-Fucks in British history. (So called because when they happen, the gun says “Bang” and you say “Fuck”.) After a long pause while they go off to find the shell, they manage a few better-controlled shots and the machine proves perfectly stable. A drive across some suitable obstacles follows.
Mother is now ready to be demonstrated in official trials; preparations have been underway for some time. Time to accelerate them. More soon!
Back to the desert. The best plan that General Aylmer and friends can manage to deal with the Hanna chokepoint is to send as many guns as possible onto the far bank of the River Tigris to shell the Ottoman positions from the side. They’ve got four battalions of infantry across, but “as many guns as possible” has turned out to be one battery of field artillery and half a battery of the Royal Arse Hortillery. The remaining men, also about 4,000 strong, wait on the right bank of the river to charge.
A frontal attack is the only thing possible. On the right the Ottomans’ flank is held firm by a vast marsh. On the left; the attackers may be able to put men across the river, but there’s no way of getting them back over the river to attack the defenders’ rear or flanks. Most of the day is spent launching intermittent artillery bombardments and demonstrations. They have no way of knowing that most of the defenders are quite safe in strong, deep dugouts. They have no means of digging proper jumping-off trenches, as would be done on the Western Front, to minimise the amount of open ground that the infantry will have to cross. No Man’s Land will be some 500 yards wide, five times the width that anyone would have planned for in France.
And yet, if they sit and do nothing, Kut-al-Amara only has so much food. Incidentally, the Ottomans have just made an unsurprising change of command. Colonel Nureddin is removed in favour of Colonel Halil, who will be more willing to listen to his boss.
Robert Palmer’s mind is on other things than writing. He spends the day on the march.
Fair, sun, heavy bombardment all day. Post going.
He’s spent the previous two battles in general reserve. That makes him and his fellows of the 1/4th Hampshires the closest thing available to fresh troops. The only consolation is that they will be fighting on the extreme left of the attack, next to the river; the main thrust will be further to the right. The attack is scheduled for dawn tomorrow.
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