Preparing for Flers-Courcelette | 15 Aug 1916

Battle of Flers-Courcelette

Deep, long-suffering sigh. For reasons that we’ll get into in a moment, General Haig has decided that now is the time to begin preparing one more great heave at the Battle of the Somme. The Germans are apparently out of men. The French aren’t getting anywhere south of Guillemont. Time for an operations order; it goes on at some length, but here’s the important bit.

The general plan of the attack projected for the middle of September will be to establish a defensive flank on the high ground south of the [River Ancre], north of the Albert–Bapaume road, and to press the main attack south of the Albert–Bapaume road with the objective of securing the enemy’s last line of prepared defences between Morval and Le Sars, with a view to opening the way for the cavalry.

That “last line” is what at the end of June we were calling the Third Line. In the month and a half since, it’s gone from a half-finished half-outline to a perfectly cromulent defensive system with all German mod cons. And guess what? Some clever sod has had the idea to begin digging out a Fourth Line, which the Royal Flying Corps will no doubt be discovering if they can make it that far into the German rear. Let’s have the map again and see what’s what.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

The eagle-eyed will note that General Rawlinson is now being ordered to capture the Third Line, which is still the line over there somewhere. There’s still the switch line behind High Wood to deal with before they can even have a wallop at the Third Line. All right, so unless someone can talk the Chief out of it, they’re going to have some tanks to throw in. Is that really going to be enough to stop this just turning into one great big Guillemont attack, biting off far more than they can even fit in their mouths, never mind chewing it?

Charteris and Intelligence

This is becoming a bit of a theme, isn’t it? “Why was Haig so unreasonably optimistic?” “He was working from flawed intelligence.” You know, a few hundred years before this war, every military commander worth his salt had his own personal astrologer to ensure he acted at the most favourable time. I wonder how differently the war would have turned out if we could just throw General Charteris into a muddy shell-hole and replace him with Mystic Meg?

I’m rather peeved about something. A couple of weeks ago, the said Charteris, General Haig’s intelligence chief, was delivering a series of perfectly sober and accurate assessments to General Macdonogh, his boss, the Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office. They both seemed in agreement that German manpower had been dented, but they weren’t in danger of running out for at least another year. Now he’s changed his tune almost entirely. Like Haig he wrote extensively to his wife with his thoughts.

His thoughts are about to flip 180 degrees. Apparently he’s now thinking that the Germans themselves are “absolutely sick of war”, and that there might be an even chance of ending the war entirely in the next six months. “[The] crack may come much sooner than many expect”. Quite where he got this idea is not clear. There have been a few prisoner interrogations of remarkably demoralised officers; but then, there are similarly demoralised British prisoners talking to German intelligence, and the Germans aren’t expecting a British collapse any time soon.

On top of that, the Chief is also getting a very interesting report from Macdonogh at the War Office. Apparently (although such efforts are yet to reach London) the German government is trying to send unofficial peace feelers out to the Entente; and if they’re unsuccessful they fear “a serious revolt” among the civilian population. No wonder there’s such enthusiasm about renewing the offensive. Haig is getting more and more indications that he’s in fact on the verge of winning the wearing-out battle.

And now I feel obliged just to remind everyone about First Ypres, back in 1914. It was Haig’s job to defend Ypres, which somehow his corps managed to do despite being flagrantly outnumbered. They were literally throwing engineers and cooks and drivers and anyone who could hold a rifle into the line. The Germans had them right on the point of complete attritional defeat and then, after being repelled time and again, they gave up with the Channel ports at their mercy. It’s impossible to overstate how determined Haig is to not make the same mistake.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman continues the long march forward, towards Mametz.

Hardy and I are off to Pommiers Redoubt, where we are to report that the battalion will arrive this evening. We descend the long hill leading to Fricourt, dodging about the stream of traffic that stirs the dust of the road to a thick haze. Near the bottom of the hill we come upon the old front line of July 1st.

The country here is stricken waste. The trees that formed an avenue to the road are now torn and broken stumps, some still holding unexploded shells in their shattered trunks, others looped about with useless telegraph-wire. The earth on both sides of the road is churned up into a crumbling mass, and so tossed and scarred is the ground that the actual line of the front trenches is hardly distinguishable. … Everything needs pointing out, for the general impression is of a wilderness without growth of any kind.

We come upon guns hidden under the banks of the roadside and camouflaged above by netting. The road through Mametz is still under enemy observation; so we turn sharply to the right to go round the back of the rising ground that faces us. All that remains of the village of Fricourt is a pile of bricks; there appear to be just about enough to build one house; and Mametz Wood is nothing more than a small collection of thin tree-trunks standing as if a forest fire had just swept over them.

A little farther on we come upon all that remains of a German field cemetery: two or three painted triangular wooden crosses; the other graves will now go unmarked for ever. Here we leave the road and begin to climb over the forsaken trenches. Barbed wire, bombs, bully-beef tins, broken rifles, rounds of ammunition, unexploded shells, mess-tins, bits of leather and webbing equipment, British and German battered steel helmets, iron stakes, and all the refuse of a battlefield, still litter the mazy ground.

I come across a skull, white and clean as if it had lain in the desert.

This is an excellent and detailed description, and this is what it’s going to be like for just about everyone on both sides who goes up the line on the Western Front through the rest of the war.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is still at Le Havre, but he’s also having a most jolly time.

I am not yet with my battalion, but am enjoying life in this most interesting and historic region. It is really a great piece of good fortune and a great privilege to have been of an age and in a position to come overseas to take part in this war. I only wish I could write in detail of all the interesting things I see day by day. On Sunday a grand band concert was given at the camp here, and the country people for miles around came in to hear the music. They seemed especially interested in the pipers.

It was very interesting to see the country folk in their best Sunday clothes, mingled with hundreds of Canadian, and a few French, soldiers. I have seen lots of German prisoners. They are well treated and always appear to be on good terms with their guards. I heard of a German Major who, when told he was to be sent to England with other prisoners, laughed and said he knew that was impossible, as England was completely blockaded by the German fleet (presumably he meant the German submarine fleet).

This is a true story.

I love how he too feels the need to mention “I am not making this up” after some particularly ridiculous funny story.

E.S. Thompson

Our favourite felonious South African soldiers are attempting to improve their situation.

John went foraging and returned with an old sofa for a bed. Bibby and I went afterwards and brought back one each. They were rather heavy but we managed to get them in. Went to town to get a long bamboo and pinched one from our camp. … Fine boiled pig and sweet potatoes for lunch. Went to a German house and got a door for a table, a shutter for a shelf and some planks. Major Thompson and Colonel Freeth made an inspection and were quite pleased. Nice stew and mashed sweet potatoes. Started to mount guard but were relieved by B Company later.

There’s a footnote which claims that the sofas were actually seats from discarded railway wagons. I am extremely skeptical of this claim.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge continues to annoy me with his discretion.

The position of [Pease Pottage Camp] is fine. On one side lined by pinewoods, it has trees on all the others. A two-hourly bus service connects us with Reptum. Our tents are all blackened or patterned to keep off the Zepps. On the neighbouring squarethere are several other regiments stationed here; the Queens, the R. Fusiliers and another [Middlesex Regiment]. Innumerable parties of “Housie-Housie” players sit about and, with their monotonous sing-song break the peace of these pretty woodlands.

Walking with two chums of mine to [Crawley],I was stopped by a military policeman, who informed me that though we were walking on the left side of the High-road, we were yet at fault. Men should walk two deep only. Since the high road is as broad as Oxford Street I asked him most courteously whether the latest order was already in force that the pocket handkerchief should be used with the left hand only. The watchdog of the Law growled and we went along in triangular formation, as long-as he could see us.

Conversation begins to pall, since injustice and stupidity are the everlasting topics. The boys refer again and again to a pre-eminent personage, and say he ought to be Honorary Colonel.

Who? Who, damn you? The Fairy Tinkerbell? At a wild guess I’m going to suggest that it might be Prince Louis of Battenberg, who was run out of the Admiralty on a rail in 1914 by a hysterical anti-German witch-hunt from the newspapers. (Thank God our respected Press doesn’t do that any more!)

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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