We have some fighting worth speaking of at the Battle of the Somme. The BEF’s 36th Brigade is aiding us in our attempt to remind people that it wasn’t just the ANZACs who fought up at Pozieres, where the artillery fire is still extremely unhealthy. The problem remains the same; capture trenches OG1 and OG2 so that Pozieres windmill, the highest point on the Somme, can be directly assaulted. First, the 8th Royal Fusiliers and 6th Buffs are launching a surprise attack on Fourth Avenue, another trench from which an attack on OG1 and OG2 can be supported.
It doesn’t seem like much, but the weight of artillery being thrown around at Pozieres is such that the Germans’ barbed wire has been almost completely destroyed and they’ve been unable to replace it. The men creep across No Man’s Land in the dark, and the defenders are so surprised when the Tommies suddenly appear in their trench in strength, they all surrender. It’s quite the stunt, although the war won’t be won by sneaking into a few hundred yards of trench at a time. Tomorrow the ANZACs take another pot at that dratted windmill.
Race to Tabora
Meanwhile, in Africa. At the western end of the Central Railway, there are seperate British Empire and Belgian Empire detachments now heading for Tabora, the only large settlement for hundreds of miles. The German commander General Wahle has a sizeable force at his disposal; there might just be a chance to isolate and capture it, which would be a much-needed coup. Wahle isn’t interested in leaving without a fight and has been sorting out some proper forward defences for the last little while. More to come when somebody wins the race.
It has been said that the course of true love ne’er did run smooth. Neither too did the course of tank development, it seems. Albert Stern has just informed the new Minister of Munitions, Edwin Montagu, that tank production had been based on the assumption that all the initial order would be used in the field at once. Now it seems that General Haig wants to use a few as soon as possible. Problem! There are no spare parts yet. All the manufacturing capacity is being used on building machines, not spares. Only the engines have spare parts.
Mind you, this might not actually be a problem, depending on whose doctrinal views get the most traction. Stern himself, far from a tactical expert, thinks of a tank rather like a missile; extremely useful and destructive when pointed straight at the enemy and let loose, but useless after it’s arrived at its initial target and wreaked havoc. Missiles don’t need spare parts. He’s far from the only person thinking in this way. Opinions on the use of tanks are apparently like rear orifices; everybody’s got one.
Stern himself, incidentally, is unsatisfied with having to manage the Tank Supply Department through a committee. He’s used the wide-ranging powers which he granted himself back in February to dissolve the Tank Supply Committee entirely and reconstitute it as a powerless advisory talking shop. It is of course a reasonable principle of design to put all one’s eggs in one basket, having first made sure that one has built a really good basket. I suppose we’ll soon find out whether Stern is a good enough basket.
Our General Headquarters at Ismailia was bombed during the morning. An advance guard of our composite regiment left at dawn to prepare a camp at Gilbaan. During the afternoon we received orders to march to Gilbaan at dawn on the next day. We heard that we were now in the Fifth Mounted Brigade again, under our own Brigadier. I realized that if we went into action on the morrow we should have no Field Ambulance with us, as ours would not be able to arrive in time, and that we had no claim on the New Zealand Field Ambulance, as we were no longer in that Brigade.
A reminder that a “field ambulance” is not a vehicle, although it is considered a mobile unit. The first line of medical support is the aid post. From the aid post casualties are taken to a field ambulance, which makes the decision whether the man can be quickly patched up and returned to unit, or passed back to the Casualty Clearing Station, an immobile large-scale facility.
I went to the aviation field in Sofia; most of the machines were Ottos. In the afternoon, I went to the flying school. Our guide showed us as special attraction a Blériot, which he had. The school is still in the first stages of development. From there we went to the resort called Banje, which is nicely located. In the evening, I was at supper with a military attaché, and met Prince Kiril. He interested me very much, and talked quite intelligently about a number of things.
Like quite a few innovative thinkers, Boelcke’s writing only really comes alive when he’s describing his area of interest, aerial combat. Over the next few diary entries, we’re going to consider the principles he’s just outlined in his Dicta Boelcke, which will soon be required reading by all German pilots. Principle 1:
Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.
Of course, it’s harder to see anything when looking into the sun than when looking away from it. By “advantages”, he’s referring to a number of different factors (speed, height, surprise, and performance, among others). The more you have, the more likely you are to be successful. Boelcke was scrupulous about not attacking unless the situation was favourable.
Max Plowman is spending long days training at the Bull Ring, Etaples Base Camp. Evenings are his own, and the nearby seaside town, known either as Le Touquet or Paris-Plage, was a favourite haunt of artists in the quarter-century before the war.
We might be in England. Someone has had the good taste to open a tea-shop in Paris-Plage that, but for its military customers, puts the thought of camps and army routine a thousand miles away. The cretonnes about the windows are in strong simple colours, and the china might have come from a Cottage Tea Room. Half a dozen of us have walked and trammed to Paris-Plage solely for the luxury of feeling English civil ease again. What creatures of environment we are! We could buy the same food in the [Officers’ Mess] for half the money; yet no one would mistake us for dilettanti.
There is little attraction about Paris-Plage itself. The front is deserted: the normal life of the place is suffering war repression. Like every English seaside town during the war, Paris-Plage wears by daylight the fancy dress of last night’s dance. We wander round and the time hangs heavy on our hands. Nothing is more desolate than forsaken gaiety. Let’s jump on the little tram and go back to camp.
Cretonne is a heavy fabric often used in curtains. And, of course, Le Touquet has been reserved for officers. Other ranks are restricted to the other side of the river, in Etaples itself, which is rather less salubrious. Plowman won’t be here much longer.
E.S. Thompson, you’ll be shocked and appalled to hear, is not only malingering, but also arsing around with his mates.
Pretended I was ‘indisposed’ so stayed in bed to miss roll call. Had breakfast in bed. Had a shave before parade which was a bathing one preceded by ‘surprise attack’ tactics. Had some naked races along the sands then a fine bath. ‘Baai’, a porter, got cuts for refusing to carry ammunition boxes. Heard the sergeant and colonel of the East African machine guns were shot for refusing duty and others given long terms of imprisonment. Got our orders for marching tomorrow.
Laid our waterproofs when Pintlebury came in and started a ‘rough and tumble’, making our blankets and ground sheets in a frightful mess. After he left we paid him a return visit and ruffled his tent, and 6 of them packed on to 4 of us.
Well, that was a quick swing from naked horseplay to reputed executions.
I say “reputed” because if there was an execution, the men do not appear in the official list of 346 executed men. (Of course, neither did Henry Pedris…) It’s also deeply, deeply unlikely that a colonel would be tried, never mind executed (of the official list, only three officers were shot, all of them second lieutenants; although Pedris was a captain). But who knows what lurks deep in the archives? It may be just another latrine rumour. Or it may not. And it’s almost entirely overshadowed the casual reference to what seems to be the brutal physical punishment of an African porter. What a cheery day.
Maximilian Mugge may not be a particularly good soldier, but he’s at least learned how to complain like one.
This morning a lynx-eyed officer discovered there were some weeds around his tent. At once a powerful fatigue-party of ten was detailed off to pull out the tares sewn by the Evil One. Must have been a [bloody] Hun, that “enemy!” We did the work most carefully. The first non-commissioned officer who had charge told us to pull out the weeds. When he grew tired of directing the complex and difficult operations and went to “see a man about a dog,” his successor ordered us to cut the weeds. The third NCO asked us to cut only the points.
Thereupon I used my scissors, whilst one of the men, a professional barber, instructed me in the gentle art of appearing busy. At intervals we asked the NCO, “What is a weed?” “Is this a weed?” Which cross-examination he did not like, but since there were some quaint flowers in the Officer’s garden, sown, not by the Evil One, but by a Captain with visions of Kew, the botanical lore of our NCO was sorely taxed. In the afternoon we had to scrub the officers’ tents.
As an aspiring literary type, Mugge is surely familiar with not doing much work. However, the concept of having to pretend to work to divert unwanted attention is a new one. The techniques have changed in the 21st century to meet the changing needs of the Army; the basic object, however, remains the same.
And we scrubbed! We swept and swabbed, we mopped and scoured. We scrubbed the wooden circular flooring of ever so many tents. It was hard work and aggravated by the total lack of utensils. You had to wait for the chaps in the next tent who used the one sound brush available whilst yet others bullied you for the one piece of soap and the hot water without which they could not start. There is a rumour about that tomorrow the sand will have to be dusted and that all the tents in the Division here, some three hundred, will have to be whitewashed. I am convinced it’s just an invention of the cooks.
The office people tell me that the War Office Practical Joke Department have not yet answered my application for a transfer to the Interpreters’ Corps. It is not fair to shut up like that. Hitherto each application, though not eliciting a real reply, has at least resulted in my transfer to another regiment. Now I seem to be a limpet.
Well, they’ve already thrown him into the Non-Combatant Corps and then pulled him out again. What else can they possibly do to him?
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