It’s time for the official trial of Mother, the British tank prototype, attended by the great and the good. This being the case, the trial is scheduled for after lunch. Thank God they’re at an important country house. Nothing has been overlooked. Albert Stern and Colonel Hankey have, in many ways, the most important duty of all. They’ve been assigned to babysit Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man who’s supposed to be paying for all this. McKenna gets his lunch at a club in London and is then driven, suitably lubricated and primed by conversation, to Hatfield in Stern’s Rolls-Royce.
The details of the trial are much the same as we’ve already seen; the tank drives around, goes up and down some slopes, crushes plenty of barbed wire, and generally looks mean. The well-refreshed McKenna effectively writes a blank cheque. The equally-refreshed Arthur Balfour insists on having a ride inside Mother himself. Minister of Munitions David Lloyd-George is deeply impressed. General Haig’s representative, General Butler, asks a number of questions that all come back round to “when can we have some tanks, please?”
Then there’s the question of Lord Kitchener. He may not have his former official power, but he’s still running the War Office, and the whole “war hero” thing means that his opinions will carry considerable weight. Kitchener arrived early and saw a private demonstration. He then sat alone with William Tritton for a comprehensive discussion of exactly what the machine can do. And Tritton’s sense of the conversation is that Kitchener was deeply skeptical, finishing with the words “without serious military value”. Colonel Swinton later overhears Kitchener talking loudly about how they’ll be knocked out by artillery before they can do any good. Lord K even leaves before the end of the afternoon display.
This reading of events is sometimes used as support for an argument of further resistance on the part of the Army against newfangled ideas. There is another interpretation, however. It comes to us via Wully Robertson and Kitchener’s aide General Whigham, who both accompanied Lord Kitchener to the trials. On their telling of the story, this was all an elaborate public bluff; Kitchener is appearing disdainful for security’s sake. By Robertson’s telling, Kitchener immediately approved an informal suggestion that an order should be placed for 100 tanks. And there is also the matter of a War Committee meeting tomorrow, at which Colonel Hankey will minute Kitchener reporting that he was “impressed by the trials”.
Mother will stay at Hatfield for a few more days at the request of the King, who would like a private ride in the thing. More soon as people work out what to do next.
An anonymous German official in neutral Washington DC was apparently heard, about now, to remark in relation to Africa that “nothing more to our liking could have been done if we had the ordering of [the Entente’s] military movements ourselves.” Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is becoming extremely popular, and well he might be after all the men he’s tied up away from Europe over the past year and a half. He’s also conducting a major recruiting campaign among both colonists and Africans, and has raised the strength of his force in German East Africa to between 15 and 20,000 men.
And he’s got no intention of throwing in the towel; not now, not ever. His only objective is to keep fighting, no matter what the cost, to keep the enemy from being able to conclude the campaign and withdraw his forces. He’s quite happy, if it should come to that, to turn the theatre into a gigantic game of Whack-A-Mole, with his men as the moles. Defeating an enemy who’s trying to win is one thing. Defeating an enemy who only wants not to lose is quite another. It will be well to remember this as the 1916 campaign begins…
The sad story of L19, the doomed German airship, concludes. Early in the morning, a British trawler, King Stephen, appears on the horizon, having seen the airship’s distress rockets. When the ship’s master sees what he’s being faced with, he refuses to take anyone on board and sails away. (Turns out that he only saw the signals because he was fishing somewhere he wasn’t licenced to be fishing.) The crew write last messages; the airship sinks with all hands a couple of hours later.
When the details emerge, the reaction will be somewhat predictable. The German press spits and fulminates at this most hideous and callous of events, which of course proves how hypocritical the supposed gentlemanly British are. The British press isn’t overly concerned that the crew of an evil baby-killing Hun airship got their just desserts, and what’s a score of dead Boche compared to the sack of Louvain, anyway? War crimes are as war crimes do.
Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien is still in exile at Brocton Camp, cold, wet, and bored. His old school friend Rob Gilson, having joined the war rather sooner, has now made it to France as a platoon commander and today goes up the line for the first time near Armentieres. (He has a sweetheart at home and apparently never tried to find Mademoiselle.)
It is a strange and dreary looking place – wasteland and shattered trees and houses. What most impresses me at first is the appalling expenditure of human labour on merely hiding each other from each other’s devilishness. I had never grasped it with my imagination. It is one of the very saddest sights I have ever seen.
The Western Front is becoming host to more and more of these places, where battles have been fought in the past and are still close enough to the front lines for artillery to still touch them. So many shells have been fired that everything around Armentieres except the men and the rats is dead and barren.
Air raids over Durazzo continue. However, to the sharp mind, this is but another opportunity.
Some bombs had fallen in the neighbourhood of a camp of Italian soldiers, who had to vacate it. A company of hungry Serbians near by had with great presence of mind seized the opportunity to go in and clear the deserted camp of all the bread and everything eatable it contained, and they were heard to express a wish afterwards that there might be a visitation of aeroplanes every day.
Yeah, there’s currently a small Italian detachment running around Albania doing nothing of much consequence except embarrassing their government. (Presumably the blokes were all far too relieved at not being on the Isonzo front to care.)
Bernard Adams is up the line for the first time in months, but his optimism is still opting in.
In the trenches. Everything very quiet. We are in support, in a place called Maple Redoubt, on the reverse slope of a big ridge. Good dug-outs, and a view behind, over a big expanse of chalk-downs, which is most exhilarating. A day with blue sky and a tingle of frost. Being on the reverse slope, you can walk about anywhere, and so can see everything.
Have just been up in the front trenches, which are over the ridge, and a regular, or rather very irregular, rabbit-warren. The Boche are generally only about thirty to forty yards away. The trenches are dry, that is the glorious thing. DRY! Just off to pow-wow to the new members of my platoon.
He will later note that the weather was dry at the time; when the weather is dry, the trenches are dry, and when the weather is wet…
We’ve hit a rich vein of new correspondents here. There’s rather a couple of big battles coming up in the next few months, you see, and I’m trying to find enough so that I can be sure a couple of them, at least, will get through the other side. Lieutenant Evelyn Southwell is from Shrewsbury; before the war, he and a very good friend (of whom more later) were both masters at Shrewsbury School. Duty, King and Country, etc etc.
He’s been in France since October (arriving at about the same time as Bernard Adams), in the Ypres salient; but has been having about as dull a time as it’s possible to have anywhere near Ypres, having nearly died on only two occasions (once when nearly caught out in No Man’s Land with a wiring party, once when he caught pneumonia). Like Bernard Adams, he’s also recently been home on leave. He’s just come out of the line to Elverdinghe, north-east of Ypres itself.
We came out absolutely “flat-out” into the farm last night, the men quite exhausted after a bad time. I am tremendously happy to be here at rest for two or three days; so are the men. It was grand to see how they loved a rest in the mud of the road coming down last night, falling asleep constantly in some case.
As usual, I took my short airing down the road past the French, saluting and nodding like fun; there is not enough of that business. It has never failed to be the adorable time of the day, but to-day, after a certain amount of fairly real misery [-2 degrees Celsius], I strode down that road inhaling the air of the universe, and even I counted my breaths, fifteen yards at a time!
We’ll remember from one of Louis Barthas’s stints of rest that, for some reason, French Army units are often sent to rest behind BEF and Belgian-held sectors.
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