Mouquet Farm | Contalmaison | 11 Aug 1916

Battle of the Somme

Problem: To dislodge the Germans from Thiepval, Reserve Army needs to push north-west from Pozieres and threaten their rear. Just over a mile down the hill, Mouquet Farm links two strong German Second Line redoubts. So now, having had their fill of attacking uphill, they’re going to get a chance to attack downhill. Can’t attack Mouquet Farm without jumping-off positions, after all. Stands to reason, that does. And so, under the guns, Mucky Farm is getting muckier by the day.

Meanwhile, the Germans have just thrown in a couple of fresh divisions to meet this latest attack; of course it’s the ANZACs who’ve got to do it. The attack today is often only looked at from the BEF’s familiar side of the hill, where it comes over like another penny-packet half-arsed attempt to bite and hold. (It is at least a relatively successful one, gaining about 600 yards of ground; note use of word “relatively”.) From the German side, it’s an entirely more sinister affair, though. For a moment, although it would have taken a major stroke of luck for the attackers to know, they were in serious trouble.

The inexperienced new battalions coming into the fight have been thrown into an unfamiliar world of trenches, with few maps, where everything looks the same, under heavy shelling. The two who were supposed to be the divisional boundary didn’t have time to properly link up with each other before they were under attack and falling back. For a few hours there’s a rare gap in the German line, and a great deal of confusion up the chain of command. But of course the attackers can’t know, and they’ve taken bad enough losses as it is just pushing forward and getting counter-attacked and falling back a bit.

In the end, just one of a thousand missed opportunities. As all this is going off, a new field ambulance has just arrived at Contalmaison to assist with the ANZACscasualties. Medical officer Lawrence Gameson has been given some rather odd sailing directions that nevertheless proved completely reasonable. The conditions in his new place of work, on the other hand…

Contalmaison is quite completely ruined. We were told to turn left at the second bad smell. The directions proved to be as accurate as a precise map reference. We live in the remains of a chateau. A few chunks of wall and part of one room is all that is left above ground. The cellars are sound. Soon the wounded began to arrive: some walking, some carried, some just helped along; the usual bloody, patient battered crowd, without a grouse and with scarcely a groan. Here at Contalmaison I feel most curiously and disturbingly isolated, as if one was going to be stuck here forever.

The flow of work in our cellar was uncertain. Times of slackness alternating with times of great stress, when the place was filled with scores upon scores of reeking, bleeding men. These times of great stress were not isolated incidents, to be dealt with, cleaned up, then forgotten, like a railway accident. They recurred regularly. They went on and on and on. Sometimes a man on a stretcher would vomit explosively, spewing over himself and his neighbours. I have seen mounted troops brought in with liquid faeces oozing from the unlaced legs of their breeches.

Occasionally a man would gasp and die as he lay on his stretcher. All this was routine and the waiting crowd looked on unconcerned. No one spoke much during these seemingly endless periods of congestion.

Look at this, our Susan. “Died of wounds”, it says here. “Died of wounds”. What does that mean? That nice Lieutenant Eyewash-Woggler wrote to us and said our Tommy, he died quickly and without any pain, he saw it himself…

German defences

Regardless of General von Falkenhayn’s intermittent burblings about holding every inch of ground (more on him very soon, I promise), the German units who have been through the Somme are doing some extremely quick institutional learning. This is no time for pooh-poohing ideas that might work. If some hairy-arsed private has an idea, he’ll probably get a chance to try it. If he dies, it probably isn’t any use. If he lives, or at least takes a lot of the enemy with him on the way out, it’s probably worth doing again. The secret machine-gun or bombing post is just one such idea that’s catching on very quickly.

Someone crawls out to a random shell-hole about 50 yards in front of their main fire trench; there are plenty of those around. They lie still and quiet (often under a blanket) until the BEF’s latest attackers are right on top of them. Then they open up at point-blank range. Other units are, very quietly, experimenting with allowing attackers into booby-trapped trenches and then counter-attacking only after the attackers trigger the traps. These methods are currently being passed on by word of mouth. Perhaps someone might collate these things and turn them into doctrine; wouldn’t that suck to have to attack?

Speaking of doctrine, the French have just managed to capture in a trench raid some spectacularly useful papers. Some of them set out the defence in depth theories that von Falkenhayn is so determined to ignore. Some of them discuss lessons learned from infiltration-style attacks early at the Battle of Verdun, the first use of proto-stormtroopers. Food for thought for the intelligence department, especially when compared to reports that the Germans seem to know this is a good idea, but they’re not being allowed to do most of it…

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is thinking about how best to ingratiate himself with his men. Well, he’s not putting it in those terms, but.

I am getting to know the men of my platoon. About a third of them, the pick of the bunch, are miners from the north of England: short, tough, reserved men, used to hard work and not given to “grousing.” More than half of them are married. … Spencer is a tall, red-faced lad, awkward but intelligent. I presume the pits have given him that incurable stoop. The trades of the rest make an extraordinary list. Labourer, wheelwright, railway storekeeper, farmer, platelayer, cabinet-maker, rag-conditioner, oil-presser, painter, shoe-salesman, driller, grinder, wool-sorter. What occupations a civil world provides!

Barlow calls himself a “horseman,” and, being the platoon fool, can give no more explicit description of himself. … Jenkins is an “interpreter” of languages, perhaps; but I rather suspect the description as being designed for purposes of reference when those “chits” from the orderly room come round, promising comfortable billets for men of strange trades. I suspect this because Jenkins shows himself a cute student of his own well-being in other ways.

That little wisp of a man, Jackson, who has been to India with the regular army, is something of an enigma. He is smart enough, but he wears a bored expression and seems strangely reticent and unresponsive. To-day, when I told him I wanted him to [become a lance-corporal], seeing that in point of service he was nearly the oldest soldier in the platoon, he replied that he would rather not. Well, he must, for there’s nobody else.

Corporal Neal, who escaped injury on July 1st with the old battalion, has lost his nerve, if he ever had it. He is demonstrative in his authority; but I do not like his stupid, shifty eyes or his subservient manner. Still less do I like the sergeant I am saddled with by the colonel. He has a criminal look, and why he should suddenly be promoted from the ranks to full sergeant I cannot imagine. He has served in Gallipoli, but we do not know his record. Like Neal, he is too servile, and I am a bad judge of men if he proves trustworthy.

He almost certainly feels much more of a connection to the men than to his brother officers; he left school at 16 and worked in his father’s brick business.

Neil Tennant

Neil Tennant hasn’t been mucking around in boats so much as boating around in muck on the River Tigris, but he’s finally making progress.

Ali-Gharbi proved a mere collection of Arab shelters and the tents of a small British post; not a tree to be seen. Here we left T3, as she would only have blown on the shoals in the shallow and tortuous channels above. I shall never forget going ashore that morning in this god-forgotten spot; bending low against the gale, I searched for a British officer. Eventually there appeared a ragged individual in pyjamas and helmet; he had been there all summer and had long since lost all interest in life. The arrival of fresh blood from England, however, cheered him, and talk of London over a bottle of warm beer seemed to awaken further desire to live.

Our intention of crossing the desert to Sheikh Sa’ad in a motor was not advised on account of possible attack by Arabs, so a telegram was sent to Squadron HQ for their motor-boat. Captain Murray, commanding at ‘the time, met us, and we ran up to Sheikh Sa’ad in four hours in spite of taking several shoals at twelve knots. The tents of a squadron of Flying Corps and afew other troops were the sole means of distinguishing Sheikh Sa’ad from Ali Gharbi. Otherwise, as spake the British Tommy, “there was miles and miles and miles of sweet fuck all!”

Tennant claimed the British Tommy actually said “sweet damn all”, but we know better than that. He’s arrived now to take command of 30 Squadron and kick it into some kind of fighting shape, but that might not be easy.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson continues to, oh, I’ll let him say it.

Slept late. Had a narrow escape from boiling porridge falling on my face as half a dixie full upset.

The man is a walking pratfall, he really is.

Sewed patches on my shorts and packed my valise putting my camera in again. Still feeling a bit stiff and footsore. … Got orders to move at 4pm. Made doughboys for the stew and had it at 3.15pm. Marched 3 hours doing 7.5 miles, then halted for 2 hours and made some coffee. Feet very sore from little splinters in the left foot. Marched on again for 4.5 miles. Total for the day 12 miles [19 km]. Collected some wood and made some porridge and coffee.

His mates have also vented their feelings about not being able to drink the machine guns’ water by confiscating a sergeant’s oversize water bottle. There’s not much water around for anyone right now, but as long as they make good time they’ll be in Dodoma tomorrow.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has found an excellent way of occupying his time at rest in the rear, as he tells to his father.

This morning I was alone; so I went along the river bank, and made a highly important discovery, which is that the Field Service Post Card makes a capital boat in skilful hands like yours or mine. I put one afloat this morning, within twenty yards of a huge artillery camp on the bank, but not in the least abashed by the watchful eyes of one or two inquisitive gunners at their ease on the bank. I put her well out, and with a poke from a stick off she went.

All went well (this was a very important voyage, and you must forgive me if I dwell on it rather lengthily) for quite a long time- it was necessary to throw one big stone into a shallow, to prevent her coming to rest much too soon. And there was a certain home-sick look about her (perhaps she caught it from her designer), which was a little too apt to make her aim at unexpected little harbours on the way down. With this exception, however, she did well, and it was no fault of hers that she did go right down to join the — Oh dear, here’s the Censor again. One can’t even run one’s private navigation without being careful.

Of course he can’t say which river this was. I do like to imagine the other half of this anecdote, though. That’s the story told by the two gunners (I also want to think they’re from Neil Fraser-Tytler’s battery) who were sitting around having a quiet rest, when suddenly this idiot officer appears and starts floating a boat folded from a field service postcard down the river…

Curiously, it is far, far easier in a less easy period than in what we call a ‘cushy’ one. In the Ypres days, ‘twenty-four hours out’ was a thing to look forward to, and down in our last place a week out seemed short! So I fully hope it will be, here: in fact, I know it is so. One says to oneself that it is silly even to think of anything unpleasant till we get to So-and-so at the earliest, and there one stops. At least, I think so.

“So-and-so” is clearly somewhere like Albert, the last big town before the Somme battlefield begins.

Maximilian Mugge

Private Maximilian Mugge, newly-minted member of the 30th Middlesex (a unit, as we shall see, of many nicknames) still has his outrage in first gear. Today he contents himself with a description of his new unit’s history. But don’t worry, he’ll have plenty of time to get steaming mad about being exiled to the “Boche Battalion”.

I hear that this Battalion was formed on 12-7-16 as the 33rd (I.W.) Bn. Midshire Regiment, at Balmy Camp, Sussex; Captain P. L. Thornly 10th East Lancers Regiment assuming temporary command. The majority of the men are conscripts and were recruited under Army Council Order 1209; they are of enemy (German, Austrian, Hungarian, Turkish and Bulgarian) Alien parentage.

On the 13th July 1916 Headquarters and 300 men of this Unit proceeded to Peas Pudding Camp, Reptum, as an advance party; on the twentieth Colonel Byle took over command of the Battalion, and seven days later the remainder of the battalion arrived. On the 3rd August, 1916 200 men of A. Company under 2nd Lieut. Singleway proceeded to Fodderham and were attached to the Guards for Trench Digging at the Bombing School.

Usually I translate Mugge’s pun-filled substitute names into their real equivalents, but here I’m leaving them as written. The officers too have had their names obscured; but Mugge does like a good pun, so perhaps someone can work out who they are. For an example of how his mind works; Peas Pudding for “Pease Pottage” is relatively transparent, and “reptum” is a Latin verb meaning to creep or crawl, as in Crawley, the large town near Pease Pottage village and Army camp. Good luck.

Army Council Order 1209, incidentally, was drawn up right after someone noticed that conscription was going to require taking into the Army men of alien parentage who had previously attempted to volunteer and not been accepted.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani
Battle of the Isonzo (Sixth Isonzo)
Battle of Doiran (First Doiran)

Further Reading

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