Mountain fighting in Italy | 14 Aug 1915

Second Isonzo

Ye gods, it seems like years since we were watching the Italians battering their brains out against the redoubt at Cosich. It’s been no more than two weeks since Second Isonzo quietened down, but ever since then it’s pretty much been all Gallipoli all the time.

Today they’re going to do their best to change that. Attacking along the mountain passes has now been abandoned entirely. The Austro-Hungarian defenders have been saving on ammunition on Mount Mrzli. They don’t need machine guns to defend the established human tracks up the mountain; they just need to shove a few well-aimed boulders downhill. The Italians know their main mountaintop redoubt as the “trincerone”, or the Big Trench.

Lieutenant Virgilio Bonamore of the 21st Bersaglieri is now more of a mountaineer than a soldier. To avoid the boulders, they’ve had to quite literally climb the mountain, already some 6,000 feet above sea level at their starting point, under cover of darkness. Of course they can’t make it to their jumping-off point for the final attack before the sun rises and the enemy gunners enjoy some target practice.

At 12:35pm, some 20 minutes after their own prepatory bombardment finished, and swords in hand, Lt Bonamore follows his captain up the final hill, this one just about gentle enough to crawl or walk. The barbed wire at the top is uncut. Some of the men are carrying wire-cutters, but they’re soon all cut down in their turn. Somehow Bonamore makes it to the top, and he finds the men desperately hacking at the wire with hatchets and bayonets; it’s like trying to break into a bank vault with a letter-opener.

In the end he finds a hole to crawl into and waits there, just under the wire, keeping quiet so as not to get grenades thrown at him. Through the afternoon, intermittent parties of men lose their nerve and try to escape back downhill. If the bullets and shrapnel doesn’t get them, it’s all too easy to lose their footing and go skidding into a tree, or a rock, or off a ledge.

Night comes, but not after that freezing Alpine rain returns.

We’re literally sodden in freezing water. The dead are in piles on top of each other. We tread on innumerable corpses. What a massacre! It’s raining non-stop, and we lie in the bottom of a ravine to spend the night amid the water and cold.

A thousand men went up the mountain. By tomorrow morning, the 21st Bersaglieri consists of Lt Bonamore and about 50 blokes.

Suvla Bay

Sir Ian Hamilton spends a nervous morning, waiting for the reply to his request to sack the leaders of IX Corps. At lunchtime, the dread telegram arrives from Lord Kitchener.

“If you should deem it necessary to replace Stopford, Mahon and Hammersley, have you any competent Generals to take their place? From your report I think Stopford should come home.

“This is a young man’s war, and we must have commanding officers that will take full advantage of opportunities which occur but seldom. If, therefore, any Generals fail, do not hesitate to act promptly.

He’s got what he wants, but Hamilton is quite unable to resist just a little sarcasm at the expense of his boss.

Close on the top of this tardy appreciation of youth, comes another cable from him saying he has asked French to let me have Byng, Horne and Kavanagh. “I hope,” he says, “Stopford has been relieved by you already.”

All three of these men are rising stars with a bright future ahead of them. Julian Byng has recently been promoted to commander of the Cavalry Corps on the Western Front. Appointment to command IX Corps will prove to be a major stroke of luck for him, and set his star very firmly on the rise. Henry Horne and Charles Cavanagh are in similar career positions. If Mahon, Hammersley, and Stopford are the donkeys, then these men are among the closest things to thoroughbred chargers that the British Army will ever have in this war. (Neither of them are military “genuises”; but they’re certainly military “not bad, considerings”.)

It’s worth pointing out here yet again that Sir Ian Hamilton had identified Byng’s talent back in June and asked for him (or else General Rawlinson, another man in this category) to command IX Corps, only for Mahon and Kitchener’s prissiness about seniority to get in the way. It can certainly be argued that Hamilton’s plan for landings at Suvla was horribly over-ambitious and couldn’t have led to victory; but it’s also very important to recognise just how hamstrung the plan was by the chain of circumstances that sent us Stopford.

As it happens, Hamilton decided not to record in his diary any account of how exactly General Stopford was relieved of his ill-fated command. I was looking forward to dancing round in a circle and singing “cheerio, cheerio, cheerio” at him. But it’s been done nevertheless, and by the evening IX Corps is under the temporary command of General de Lisle of 29th Division. Stopford is packing his bags. This isn’t quite the last we’re going to hear of him. He’s rather aggrieved at his treatment, you see. He’s full of beans and intent on spreading the fumes around. More soon, unfortunately.

Lord Brassey

Today also sees a rather odd footnote in the Gallipoli campaign. Lord Brassey is an aristocrat and adventurer who, along with his wife Annie, had forty years ago spent a year sailing a three-masted schooner called Sunbeam around the world. By some accounts this had been the first entirely private round-the-world voyage, without any commercial or governmental concern behind it.

Today he arrives at Mudros in Sunbeam with his second wife. He’s 79 years old, but that’s not stopped him bringing his boat and a contingent of doctors and nurses to Gallipoli to volunteer Sunbeam as a hospital ship. (This is not entirely unlike if the British forces in Iraq in 2003 had been supported by Ellen Macarthur sailing her catamaran up the Shatt-al-Arab to Basra.) It says pretty much everything you need to know about how good the medical arrangements aren’t. But, just in case you need more, there’s a case study coming up soon!

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of the Isonzo (Second Isonzo)
Landings at Suvla

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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