Passing the buck | Fromelles | 17 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

Time to talk about the Somme again. It’s back to Delville Wood, while I sneak off to frantically google “things that drift”. This will be a summer full of drifting, and I feel like I’ll need a healthy stock of “the battle continues to drift like…” gags to, ahem, tide us over.

Anyway. The blokes in Delville Wood. On the one side, the unstoppable force, played in this performance by the Germans, whose shelling is only getting heavier. Lieutenant Owen Thomas, now commanding his company, writes a rather desperate report to brigade headquarters:

‘The enemy continued shelling the wood very heavily all last night, inflicting many casualties. The Vickers machine-gun has been put out of action and the gun withdrawn. Nothing has been heard or seen of the 3rd Division [allegedly arriving in the area as reinforcements]. I was given to understand that they were attacking at dawn. My company has been so depleted, & the remaining few are now so exhausted that I do not consider we could put up an effective resistance if the enemy were to attack.

There are a lot of similar messages flying around. General Lukin, in charge of the brigade holding the wood, is trying desperately to get permission to withdraw. But behind him is the immovable object, the divisional commander, in the person of General Furse, who isn’t interested in such fiddle-faddle. The wood is a vital tactical position and must be held at all costs. How are they ever supposed to capture Longueval if they can’t even hold on to Delville Wood?

Further orders filter down to Lt-Col Thackeray, one of the few remaining officers above the rank of Captain, to attack south-east of the wood to obtain some breathing space. As Thackeray is currently in command of about 200 men (the fit remnants of his battalion, which has taken nearly three-quarters casualties, plus a few random stragglers), his reply is not dissimilar to that given the plaintiff in the much-celebrated 1971 legal case of Arkell v Pressdram. General Haig, meanwhile, is barely interested in the passage of the buck as it whizzes merrily between divisional staff officers like a polo ball.

Saw General Rawlinson about 3pm. He is as much dissatisfied as I am with the action of the 9th Division in failing to occupy the whole of Longueval.

I also think there has been a lack of close co-operation between XIII and XV Corps. The latter occupied High Wood with cavalry [on the night of the 14th], and dug a trench from that wood towards Longueval, while infantry dug line from High Wood to Bazentin. I think the XIII Corps should have at once connected up with the XV Corps in the direction of High Wood.

Nice idea, genius. Perhaps you could appoint someone to oversee the joint operations of those corps? Call him an “army commander”, maybe? And then there might be an even more senior commander, a commander-in-chief, who could make sure the army commander is doing his job properly? Wouldn’t that be a fine thing.

Fromelles

As it turns out, Haig is not much interested in the details of Delville Wood because he also happens to be occupied with playing hot potato with an entirely different buck. The weather at Fromelles has been thoroughly vile; and now that the push through Bazentin Ridge has now thoroughly petered out, is a diversionary attack really necessary? Yesterday Haig had his deputy chief of staff, General Butler, pass on a staggeringly cowardly verbal message to General Monro of 1st Army:

[It is the opinion of GHQ that] There was now no urgent need for the XI Corps operation. Sir Douglas Haig did not wish the attack to take place at all unless the commanders on the spot were satisfied that their resources were, in every way, adequate.

Or words to that effect. I am having unpleasant flashbacks to Sir Ian Hamilton on Gallipoli, unwilling to lower himself to the indignity of giving a direct order to a subordinate. Quite what Monro made of this is unclear. If you wish to be uncharitable to him, you’d accuse him of meeting GHQ’s cowardice with cowardice of his own, kicking the buck right back to them. If you wish to be kind, you might suggest that he suspected GHQ was trying to stitch him up by inviting him to take responsibility for cancelling the attack.

At any rate, this morning his response is along the lines of “the weather still sucks, unless it clears up soon I will have no option but to postpone, do I have authority to do so?” Well, clearly he does, as the man on the spot; hold that thought a moment. GHQ’s reply:

The Commander-in-Chief wishes the special operation to be carried out as soon as possible, weather permitting, provided always that Sir Charles Monro is satisfied that the conditions are favourable and that the resources at his disposal, including ammunition, are adequate both for the preparation and execution of the enterprise.

So, in the space of about 16 hours, we’ve gone from “[does] not wish the attack to take place at all unless…” to “wishes the special operation to be carried out as soon as possible…”. Mixed messages much? No wonder they’ve been making such heavy weather of their success on the Somme. No wonder General Foch’s staff have been writing rude messages to each other about the English staff being amateurs playing at war. More to come tomorrow.

Suez Canal

Meanwhile, in Egypt. It seems that another long-expected offensive against the Suez Canal is at hand. Royal Flying Corps patrols have spotted at least 5,000 men, probably more, gathering at Bir el Abd, close to the west bank of the canal. These are some of the many men who have been released by the abandonment of the Gallipoli campaign; the Ottomans have sent an entire division of about 12,000 men here. It seems that Egypt’s status as a giant training camp is once again under threat. More soon.

JRR Tolkien

Having captured Ovillers, JRR Tolkien’s battalion comes out of the line to Bouzincourt once more; they arrive at 6am and immediately collapse to sleep. When they wake up, there is bad news for Tolkien in the form of a letter. Tolkien’s friend G.B. Smith is himself up the line, but just before leaving, he was able to see a newspaper with a casualty report. And in that casualty report is the name of Rob Gilson. Smith barely appears to have had words to deal with the news. “O, my dear John Ronald, whatever are we going to do?” If it were played upon the stage, I would condemn this dialogue as an inarticulate fiction.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

We now go to the Voie Sacree, and a report from the world’s most ridiculous student summer job courtesy of Briggs Kilburn Adams, who is now piloting an ambulance up and down the road as long as his nerves can stand it.

All our cars are around Verdun, and after it is dark, they begin to work. They fall in line with the ammunition and food wagons and go along in pitch darkness and no lights. The Germans know exactly where the roads are now, so they can set their guns in a certain position and know they are hitting the road. They know the ammunition and reinforcements are coming up all night, and so they fire away and get a lot of them.

The Fords drive along as tight as they can. They cannot see the holes in the road that the shells make, so if they do not avoid them by instinct, they have to get lifted out by the constantly passing stream of soldiers; that is why they use Fords. They can pick them out of holes easier. If they manage to keep out of the holes they have to dodge the big wagons going the other way; horses going at full gallop, or big trucks tearing like mad. They cannot hear them coming because the noise is too great. Then to add to the charm of driving is the constant popping of shells.

When they come back over the same road they find twenty or thirty new holes to fall into!

No wonder he’s dreaming of being a fighter pilot when he graduates from university; this nonsense makes it seem like an entirely reasonable career choice.

Thiaumont

Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, very close to where Henri Desagneaux clung on by his fingernails, it is the turn of a German called Anton Steiger to keep his head down and try not to die.

Our dugout was an old, half blown-in, French casemate about 150 yards away from Thiaumont. From our side it had looked a mere hummock of earth. The entrance was like that of a fox’s hole. At the end of a short passage some broken steps led down into the place we had occupied for four days. Dead bodies were lying under the soil, one with its legs protruding up to the knees. There were three separate chambers down there: one was full of rockets and detonators; another – as big as our kitchen at home – in which we were housed, also contained French ammunition; the third was full of French explosive.

It was pitch dark the whole time, as we had only a few candlesticks. There was a horrible smell down there too – the reek of decomposing bodies; I could hardly eat anything.

Heavy artillery fire started early in the morning and continued until 9:30pm. One opening was closed up by the bombardment. Through the other a man could just hope to squeeze without his equipment. Finally the French fired gas-shells at the mouth of the hole. The Sergeant got up, feeling ill; a few others got up and then collapsed. Then the Sergeant shouted “Get out, all those who can!” When we got up, we all fell over. Then there was a regular scrum, everybody struggling for breath, trying to get out. One man fell down and blocked the way for the rest.

He’s now heading to the rear; but his luck will not hold long. He will go to the rear for rest, and then to the Somme, and then down into a shell-hole in mid-October.

Clifford Wells

When last we heard from idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells, he was being warned to leave for France. And yet, he’s still sitting in his camp near Folkestone, about as close to Boulogne as he can possibly get without falling into the sea.

Numerous officers from other reserve battalions had been warned at the same time, but for some reason at which we can only guess our departure has been delayed, and we are still here. Last week I received another notification to hold myself in readiness, but nothing has come of it yet. Perhaps this is due to the fact that most of the Canadian Forces in France are in reserve undergoing reorganisation at present, or perhaps because the transports are being used for other purposes.

Various rumours are afloat regarding the cause of the delay. The only clear fact is that we are still here, nominally still confined to barracks awaiting instructions to proceed at any moment.

The big push is really on at last. Every night when I have gone to bed, and the camp is quiet, I can hear the guns at the front 75 miles or more away. I suppose it is only the big guns that are audible, but they pound away steadily. I can hear 80 or 100 shots a minute. This will give you some idea of the expenditure of ammunition. I said that I “hear” them, but I sometimes doubt whether the perception is through the ears at all. It seems as though one feels a pulsation in the atmosphere rather than hears a sound.

This is, sadly, not unusual. Still, there seems little danger of the war ending before he can get to it.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

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