Parcels for the dead | 30 Sep 1915

Autumn offensive

Today is a mostly quiet day. Second Champagne is put on hold as it becomes apparent that news of a breakthrough was in fact spurious bollocks and there is in fact no hope of same. General Joffre authorises a temporary transition to local actions in order to straighten the line out, with a view to having another push in a few days.

Meanwhile, the French are also winding down Third Artois in order to re-organise for a second combined French-British push towards Lens. Fighting continues on top of Vimy Ridge, but it’s looking less and less likely that either side can be easily dislodged. No Man’s Land is narrowing sharply, as both sides know that artillery is only accurate to about 90 metres, and if they can get closer than that to the other side’s front line they’ll be safe from shelling because the enemy won’t want to risk hitting their own trench.

A major adjustment of positions is going on. The BEF has spent most of 1915 taking on gradually larger parts of line to allow General Joffre to use the men formerly holding it as a strategic reserve. Now they’ve agreed to do the same thing in reverse; the line around Loos will be taken back by the French so the BEF can have another reserve for another push on the 3rd south of Hulluch. At the same time, the French will push again against the northern part of Vimy Ridge and so break through onto the flat ground south of Lens.

Meanwhile, reinforcement-drafts are being sent out to some of the battalions who were in the first couple of days at the Battle of Loos. Private Carson Stewart of the 7th Cameron Highlanders has only just arrived to join his new battalion, and they’re already filling his head with tales of being on top of Hill 70.

Soon after I got there, there was a mail came in. All the boys in my company crowded round to see what there was for them. The Post Corporal was calling out the names, dishing out the letters and parcels. Half the names that were called, there was nobody to answer for them.

Then a voice would call out “Ower the hill.” Then one or two more, then another name. There would be silence. Then his chum would call out “Ower the hill.” That was all you could hear. “Ower the hill.” “Ower the hill.” “Ower the hill.” If it was parcels, they dished them out anyway and we all got a share of the parcels that were meant for the boys who’d got killed.

It may sound rather callous, but this is exactly what the dead men would have wanted. There was an extremely strong culture in the BEF of share and share alike. Sergeant Beard, who went over the top a few days ago eating the last of his cured ham, would almost certainly have shared most of it with the men in his platoon. It was a vital part of bonding the men together, especially during their spells up the line.

Louis Barthas

After yesterday’s attack was cancelled, Louis Barthas and chums were put to work deepening a trench, which they’ve spent all night doing.

At daybreak, our commandant Quinze-Grammes sent the battalion adjutant, the Peyriacois François Calvet, to check on the work we had done. He had barely entered the trench when a stray bullet tore up his right shoulder quite badly. One centimeter closer and there would have been one less Peyriacois in the world. Our pal Calvet was hardly bothered by this. “My wound might save the lives of others,” he said, “because before I’m evacuated I’ll say in my report that this trench is in full view of the Boches and open to enfilading fire.”

We had worked ten hours for nothing, but this thought of Calvet’s showed a generosity of spirit that many others, in the emotion of being wounded and the joy of getting out of these bad places, would not have had.

The sharp-eyed may notice that there’s not been an awful lot of time for the squad to get some sleep in the middle of all this nonsense.

Gallipoli

Yesterday, Sir John French came under attack from his subordinates; but he’s not the only senior British officer being undermined from the rear. Sir Ian Hamilton is in serious trouble, although he has no idea of it. Quick recap: on the 21st, Keith Murdoch was arrested in Marseilles, and the letter he was carrying was lawfully confiscated. A couple of days ago, the news filtered back to General Braithwaite, Hamilton’s chief of staff, who immediately and unwisely expelled Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (the Daily Telegraph correspondent who had been involved in writing the letter) from Gallipoli. Ashmead-Bartlett is now sailing for London, clutching the mother of all axes to grind.

Meanwhile, Hamilton is carrying on his extensive slagging-off of the prospect of going to Salonika, and is keeping his pecker up by chortling about recent events. He’s just been informed that Murdoch was carrying a critical letter for the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.

I could not help laughing heartily at the blue looks of Tyrrell, the Head of our Intelligence. After all, this is Asquith’s own affair. I do not for one moment believe Mr. Asquith would employ such agencies and for sure he will turn Murdoch and his wares into the wastepaper basket. I have reassured Tyrrell. Tittle-tattle will effect no lodgment in the Asquithian brain.

This is a staggeringly short-sighted view. Once his letter had been confiscated, Keith Murdoch was released and allowed to go to London, where he made contact with the editor of the Times. Murdoch is still carrying a valid commission from his own Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, to investigate various aspects of the ANZAC war experience. He’s used that to write another letter home, but of course it has to travel back by steamer. It’s likely that when it finally arrived in Australia and been passed on to London, it would have had a similarly devastating effect, but in the meantime the length of the fuse on the bomb has been considerably shortened. He’s had a personal meeting with David Lloyd-George, and Lloyd-George has had a copy of the letter passed on to the Prime Minister. Asquith in turn has immediately begun circulating it among senior figures without asking for a second opinion.

And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the not-yet-disgraced General Stopford, who has no intention whatsoever of carrying the can. He feels, not entirely unreasonably (only mostly) that he’s been completely stitched up. Stopford’s been doing his own rounds with his own version of the story, in which he battles manfully against impossible conditions, incompetent men, and ridiculous over-optimism from the Commander-in-Chief. Hamilton has no way to defend himself against the whispering campaign that Stopford is stoking in his own little way.

It’s kind of hard to feel sorry for Sir Ian Hamilton at this point. Once again his judgement has proved dead wrong, and now his dreams of being pulled under the water are coming closer and closer to being realised.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Loos
Battle of Champagne (Second Champagne)
Battle of Artois (Third Artois)

Further Reading

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