Battle of the Somme
Oh Christ, here comes another big attack at the Battle of the Somme. Let’s go round from the south again, like we did on the 1st. The map:
There are three areas of interest: the southern attack away from Trones Wood towards Guillemont, the northern attack in and around High Wood, and Reserve Army’s push for Pozieres. In theory, this is supposed to be a general offensive all along the front, but the staff work has since thoroughly mangled that idea. It’s also supposed to be a co-ordinated offensive, but we find the blokes in the south attacking at 3:30am, the blokes in the north attacking at 10:30pm yesterday evening, and the blokes at Pozieres attacking at half past midnight. And the French, of course, have sacked their supporting attack off until tomorrow.
You might expect this to go very, very, very badly, since the Germans have been gifted a few hours’ warning so they can prepare. You’d be right, too. At least at first. Multiple waves of attackers have gone over the top to their deaths by the time the 19th Manchesters, who were in the capture of Montauban, arrive to find uncut barbed wire and vicious machine-gun fire. But then they get lucky, most of the battalion somehow gets through all that unscathed. They set about the defenders, German morale breaks, and so by midday the Manchesters and friends are in Guillemont and working flat out to defend it.
We now have an episode from the file marked “Communication Problems”. Private Albert Andrews of the 19th Manchesters was wounded by one of the first German counter-attacks at Guillemont. A padre helps bring him into an aid post, gives him tea while he waits to see the medic.
While I was drinking this a general came, looked at my shoulder and said, ‘Manchesters’, asking where I was wounded. I told him, ‘Guillemont!’ He seemed as if he could hardly believe it, until a Yorks said to him, ‘Yes, Sir, the Manchesters are in Guillemont.’ He turned to me and said, ‘Are they in it now?’ I said, ‘They were when I left, but were being hard pressed in a counter-attack by the Germans!’ He waited no more and off he went with some other officers.
I asked who he was, with him being so anxious, and was told it was General Rawlinson.
This could surely not have been any earlier than about 3pm. Our correspondent Neil Fraser-Tytler, whose gunners have laid the only intact telephone line through Trones Wood to the rear, also has relevant information.
Macdonald had gone up with no less than fourteen linesmen, but even then communication was only possible in spasms. The Hun put down a terrific barrage, and the line had to be constantly relaid for the last 500 yards. [They] worked well, though the trench was choked with casualties and was being constantly blown in. One of them twice ran the gauntlet of rifle fire from 400 yards by jumping over the parados and then laying a line across the open, where it was less likely to get cut than in the trench.
But, with the best will in the world, even if the telephone line had worked perfectly, runners would still have to cross through over a mile of trenches and broken ground to bring messages back to it. And then there would have been no guarantee of getting through to HQ, with the line in constant use by gunners trying to contact their observation posts…
Once again, higher command is paralysed, the success is not followed up, and in the evening the relentless German counter-attacks force the survivors back out of Guillemont and then all the way back to where they started.
Rewind about 18 hours. There is absolutely nothing doing at High Wood itself. There’s been a few minor successes to the southeast, where some of the intermediate line has been captured and at worst they’ve at least pushed forward to within a few hundred yards to dig new trenches. (They were supposed to take all of this intermediate line, of course, but they have gone forward and held their ground.) So, Guillemont showed us communication problems. Here we see the problems caused by new German defensive doctrine.
In 1914, when the Germans dug their First Line, they dug their forward trenches facing the French opposite them the lower ground, carefully following the line of the hills. And yes, it was a forbidding position, but this is not ideal. However, between then and the start of construction on the Second Line, it was decided that reverse slope defences should be used wherever possible. It’s a slightly counter-intuitive concept; here’s a bodged-together cross-section.
At first glance it seems dumb, since you lose direct observation ahead of you, unless you put posts on the facing slope. However, there is one crucial advantage. When the enemy infantry comes over the hill, they are silhouetted against the skyline and make perfect targets for whatever you wish to fire at them. Reverse slope defences are an absolute bastard to attack frontally with infantry. It gets better, too. Reverse-slope trenches are much harder for trench mortars to hit, and field artillery is now on European Extreme difficulty. Another cross-section:
In 1914, the official daily communiques for the newspapers often made a great deal out of “Near the village of Franchouillard, we advanced approximately 400 yards” and implied there had been some great battle, when really all that had happened was that some poor battalion had been doing a lot of night-time digging in a sector where No Man’s Land was wide, and is now a bit narrower. Now it seems we’re back there again, except we also have to see a few hundred men slaughtered on the barbed wire first. Thank God we have a navy.
And so to Pozieres. If you were to listen to an Australian, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only Briton within twenty miles was General Gough. This is unfair; the 1st Australian Division attacked from the east side of the Albert to Bapaume road, while the 48th Division attacked from the west. (The 48th, incidentally, is the first-line Territorial division who took their replacements from the 61st, the reserve division who got a needless kicking at Fromelles.)
On the other hand, for once I don’t mind Australians being short-sighted, because something happened here that could only have been done by the ANZACs. Despite the staff’s best efforts to screw the division around by fiddling with their orders, they went into No Man’s Land at the right time, benefited from an excellent hurricane/rolling bombardment, and after a hard morning’s fighting captured the German trenches protecting the road. Their orders were to do this and then wait for authorisation to cross the road into the village itself, which should only be done together with the 48th Division.
It took about 90 minutes. On their left, mostly unknown to the ANZACs, the 48th was struggling mightily against a far more tenacious defence. Just about any other division in France would, as happened on the 14th at High Wood, stayed in place and waited for orders. Not the Australians. Their lack of deference to their supposed betters has been ruffling feathers from Alexandria to Auchonvillers, but now it’s exactly what’s needed. On their own initiative, the men keep advancing into Pozieres.
And they find that German morale is, for the moment, collapsing. It doesn’t take too much effort to push all the way through and capture the entire village, already thoroughly wrecked. Now they’ve stopped for orders, but not by choice. The Second Line itself runs north and west of Pozieres, curving along the edge of the thin Pozieres Ridge. It’s still between the ANZACs and the very highest point in the sector, an old windmill (half-demolished, but still recognisable). As long as they hold the windmill and the little mound it sits on, the German position north of the Albert to Bapaume road is still secure.
Conference in Paris
Entente negotiations with Romania are proceeding slowly. However, it’s all on the basis that there will be a good big attack out of Salonika. So now there’s a military conference in Paris to work out what the hell they’re going to be doing. It’s quite obvious that the only reasonable option, with heavy fighting elsewhere, is some sort of attempt to stop the Bulgarians transferring large numbers of men north to kick Romania’s vulnerable back door in.
The composition and functioning of the various forces at Salonika is actually rather interesting, and bears a little examination. It’s a true multinational force, with over 100,000 men each from France, Britain, and Serbia; there will also soon be 16,000 Italians and 50,000 Russians. General Sarrail will have to be very good at his job to achieve anything other than hilarious gridlock. On the plus side, all the other nations have formally agreed to follow the Western Front model of command, as practised by Joffre and Haig.
In name, everyone’s chief general will have independent commands, but in practice they will be expected to do everything that Sarrail tells them. Interesting idea, that. File it in long-term storage in case we need it again.
Robert Pelissier has moved again; he’s gone from the Vosges all the way round the Noyon salient, through Paris, to an unidentified village in Picardy “not very far from the English”. As it happens, his regiment had been raised in the Vosges and is now a very long way from home.
We are living in a queer hamlet. The houses are poorly built- as no stones are to be had, the walls are made of the strangest compounds of bricks, mud, straw, nodules of silex, etc. The men from the Vosges, who are in the habit of seeing houses built so as to stand the severest winters cannot get over their surprise, and they show utter contempt for those wretched hovels. Moreover there is no water except in the wells, the billy-goats are called “matores,” brandy is called “bistrouille.” These men from the Vosges are positively scandalized because for them any kind of brandy is “gnole”.
All these things tend to confirm them in the belief that here we are not in France.
This is a very interesting point. In certain areas of France, particularly far-flung ones, the current generation is only the first or second one to not be composed primarily of peasant subsistence farmers. Various French governments have spent the last century trying to fully embed the concept of France as a modern nation-state into the minds of its people. We’ve seen how parochial Louis Barthas and chums can be; now, here’s some similar sentiments.
Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells remains trapped in purgatory, having been warned for France but not actually sent yet.
I and the others who were warned with me are still here. Rumour says we are going on Wednesday, other rumours say next Sunday. We have been warned, and are going some time – that is the only sure thing. I should have gone two weeks ago if my name began with A instead of W. When it was found that only half the officers warned were wanted immediately, the first half of the list (which was in alphabetical order) were taken. I belong to the second half, of course.
Some day I shall write an essay showing the influence on a man’s life of the initial letter of his name.
If “some day” ever came, it appears not to have been published.
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