Rain and raids | 28 Jun 1916

“Y” Day on the Somme

Just as most of the BEF’s part of the Western Front has been delivering intense artillery bombardments to disguise the location of the Big Push, the other three armies in the line are also raiding at night just as enthusiastically. Twelve or more raids per night, every night, from every army. The poor weather and the demands placed on the German air force from Verdun is also denying the defenders a great deal of critical aerial observation. And the men continue to suffer. They’ve been effectively confined to dugouts for four days, and after today there’s still two more days to go.

On the other hand, the rain of shells is being accompanied by a rain of rain, and if there ever was a time to be trapped indoors while it rains cats and dogs, it’s surely now. Over to Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler.

Heavy rain continued all the morning, and the country is rapidly becoming nothing but a slimy bog. We hear that the great Z Day has been postponed, as it would be quite impossible to attack over the ground in its present state. Today has been rather an unfortunate day, as there were several [shells exploding immediately after being fired] all around us, which caused many casualties. Besides, the enemy shelled Maricourt very severely.

Gee, postponing an offensive because it’s raining too hard for the ground to be passable by laden men. What an idea. Hope they don’t forget that that’s a thing they can do in years to come. Er, so there is another thing to note about the rain. Wet ground greatly increases the chance of shells not exploding when they land. The artillery is firing more time-fuze shells than ever before, many of them designed to burst in air to cut barbed wire, but there’s still a whole load of contact fuze shells out there as well. A contact fuze needs a firm impact with ground in order to explode. Soft ground is quite capable of just swallowing shells whole without ever providing enough pressure to detonate them…

Battle of Verdun

It’s another horrific day for Henri Desagneaux.

The Boches pound our positions, we take cover, some try to flee, we [officers] have to get our revolvers out again and stand in their way. Our nerves are frayed and it’s difficult to make them see reason.

Usually I don’t heckle combat accounts, and certainly not a relentless, hideous, horrible one like this. But I do have to say here, I am not sure that what you did was to make them see reason, Lieutenant.

At midday, while we are trying to eat a bit of chocolate, Agnel’s orderly has his back broken. The poor chap is groaning, there’s nothing we can do except wait for nightfall and then take him to the aid post. And will we be able to? The stretcher-bearers are frightened and don’t like coming to us. The nights are so short that they can only make one trip. One trip, four men to take one wounded on a stretcher.

It’s an inferno, the Boches are undoubtedly preparing to attack us. Shells scream down on every side, a new panic to be checked. At 6pm, when we are dazed and numb, the firing range lengthens, and suddenly everyone is on his feet, shouting “The Boches are coming!” They attack in massed formations in columns of eight! These troops, who moments ago were in despair, are at their posts in a twinkling. We hold our grenades until the Boches are at 15 metres, then let them have it. A machine gun which survived the avalanche of shells is wreaking havoc.

The Boches are cut down. We see dozens of dead and wounded and the rest retreating back to their trenches. Only about 9pm is it quieter. Our shell-holes are lakes of mud. It’s raining and we don’t know where to put ourselves. Our rifles don’t work any more. We can only rely on grenades, which are in short supply. Still no relief. Another 24 hours to get through. We lie down in the mud and wait.

Now then. These men have been out in the open for 13 days, barely any sleep, barely any food, barely any water. Twice as long as the Germans on the Somme will have been under continual fire when that battle starts, and then in deep dugouts. While it’s just shelling, French morale is at mud bottom. (I’d say rock bottom, but there appears to be no rock here.) But then, as soon as the alarm comes, this little knot of defenders pulls itself together, drags up the remnants of the last remaining kitchen sink, and throws everything they’ve got at the enemy.

That is not a promising sign for the Somme.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is writing his final letters home before going up the line for Z Day. He’s just had confirmation that the attack has been postponed and they will not be going forward today. It’s raining continuously where he is, well to the north of Fraser-Tytler.

It’s possible that mails will be interrupted a bit in the future. So, if you do not hear from me, I want you not to be unnecessarily anxious about me. There is nothing I can tell you,except that I am happy and very fit. The weather is fresh and the wind in the West, and it is beautiful weather, except for camping. For every now and then comes a heavy downpour.

News of Leslie Woodroffe’s death. I could never have thought that they would send him out again. He was so very much a part of [Shrewsbury School], and is still. Do you think that we all continue to have our part in the place after death, even when not remembered? I am very jealous of mine; and though I know such an article of faith is called animism or some such horrible name, yet I cling to the idea of becoming, after death, more completely a part of Shrewsbury than when I was an unworthy, active member of the community ; not by what I’ve done there, but by how much I have loved it.

It is inevitable, just at present, that we should think such things, and impossible, at present, for me to express them legibly or intelligibly. I expect Leslie Woodroffe thought something of the same sort, but I expect also that he met death easily, for I think he trained himself to self-sacrifice. Oh! I meant to say that there are five officers in this Company, and three of us are quoting “The Wrong Box” pretty frequently, much to the annoyance of the other two.

No surprises that The Wrong Box is popular just at the moment. It’s a black comedy novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (yes, the Treasure Island guy) and his stepson. The plot revolves around two brothers who are due to come into a lot of money if the other one dies first; hilarity ensues.

Madur

Near Trebizond, Vehip Pasha’s Third Army has finally evicted an extremely stubborn Turkistani battalion from the Madur mountain. From his perspective, further attacks have an excellent chance of cutting the Russians off from their newly-captured port. However, from General Yudenich’s perspective, this is neither here nor there. His own general offensive is nearly ready to begin, and when it does the attackers will have to retreat or be encircled. At this point, losing a mountain here or there is of singular unimportance to the Russian calculations. We’ll see who’s right.

Haig and the ANZACs

General Haig is dealing with one of the many knotty problems that the Commander-in-Chief has to deal with. It seems that for PR reasons, the Prime Minister of Australia, Billy Hughes, would prefer the Australian divisions currently resting loudly (more on them in a moment) near Boulogne be called the “Australian Army”. Haig gently points out that the “Australian Army” would be about half the size of any other BEF army. (He’s also mulling over the possibility of creating army groups along the French model.)

If an opportunity arose of using the two Australian corps independently under General Birdwood for any operation, I would try to do so, and then call the force the “Australian Army”. … Everywhere I found the troops in great spirits, and full of confidence. … Several officers have said to me that they have never known troops in such enthusiastic spirits. We must, I think, in fairness, give a good deal of credit for this to the parsons.

Mmm, you’re not really helping yourself in the “defending against accusations of turning the Army Chaplains’ Department into political commissars” stakes.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas, you may recall, has been employed on secret duties near Chenilles in Champagne. Not being stupid, they’ve soon worked out the secret.

[The work] consisted of digging shallow, projecting trenches with no more than two or three steps at the end. You didn’t need to be a wizard to figure out that these were shelters for preparing an emission of asphyxiating gas. Soon this was Polichinelle’s secret, and everyone added to it: we were going to launch these gases along the whole Champagne front; the gases we had launched up to now were nothing but simple insecticides, but these new ones would strike down the Boches to a depth of twenty kilometers.

Already in each regiment they were forming teams of “courageous” men to go explore, after the emission, the places where this breath of doom had passed. Special gas masks would be issued to them at Suippes, Mourmelon, and Châlons, and experiment after experiment would be carried out on the harmfulness of the gases and on the effectiveness of the gas masks.

Polichinelle is the commedia dell’arte character who in English is called Punchinello. He shares his secrets indiscreetly with the audience, so Punch’s secret is no secret at all. (Or, for our Australian readers: the secret you keep when you’re not keeping any secrets.)

E.S. Thompson

Speaking of bullshit latrine rumours, here’s one from E.S. Thompson, still in hospital at Kondoa Irangi.

Heard that Colonel Freeth paraded the regiment and made a speech in which he said that they were going into town to be re-equipped and that the hard work was over now and we would soon be homeward bound. He also thanked them for doing their duty so well. Major Hazeldene visited the hospital. There are rumours that the 7th and 8th Regiments are to be disbanded but I think it very unlikely at this stage.

Yeah, for once I’m on his side. This all is completely without foundation. The sort of thing that puts a bloke’s back up if he should hear it too often.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley has been allowed a short halt at Nisbin. On arrival he tries to follow up a rumour of a dead officer. This leads to a discovery.

I was led through a doorway of matting hanging from the mud-brick wall into a courtyard, where through an opening in the wall I saw a sight that staggered the imagination.

A bare strip of filthy ground ran down to the river some two hundred yards off. Along the wall, protected by only a few scanty leaves and loose grass flung over some tatti work of branches through which the fierce sun streamed with unabated violence, I saw some human forms which no eye but one acquainted with the phenomenon of the trek could possibly recognize as British soldiery. They were wasted to wreathes of skin hanging upon a bone frame. For the most part they were stark naked except for a rag around their loins, their garments having been sold to buy food, bread, milk, and medicine.

Their eyes were white with the death hue. Their sunken cheeks were covered with the unshaven growth of weeks. Some of the men were too weak to move. The result of the collection of filth and the unsanitary state in the centre of which these men lay in a climate like this can be imagined. Water was not regularly supplied to them, and those unable to walk had to crawl to the river for water. One could see their tracks through the dirt and grime. Three or four hard black biscuits lay near a dead man. Other forms near by I thought dead, but they moved unconsciously again. One saw the bee-hive phenomenon of flies which swarmed by the million going in and out of living men’s open mouths.

I talked long to [an officer] who understood some French, and told him how this sort of thing was destroying the name of Turkey and how for these things the day of reckoning must come. He was more moved by the latter than the former, knowing that in Turkey officials may be sacrificed for any caprice of another person. An Armenian was there also, and I much despised him for expressing horror to me of “les barbares” when the Turk was outside, but obviously siding with him when together.

I know, I know, there’s no way that Mousley could possibly know anything about the Armenian Genocide yet. But it still makes me grind my teeth. Incidentally, the railway he’s heading towards is of course the same one that our old correspondent Grigoris Balakian (of whom more when space permits) is now working on.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is out of the Non-Combatant Corps back in the ranks. From his latest comedy place name (it’s a joke about the Field of the Cloth of Gold), I am certain he is now in a camp near Balinghem. These days Balinghem has a large field hospital and its name, along with Tatinghem, has inspired three more hospitals named “Mendinghem”, “Dosinghem”, and “Bandagehem”. Mmm, that’s some seriously good crap punnery.

My new mates are, of course, quite a different type. At first, after a rather prolonged though compulsory stay with the gentle-spoken Conscietious Objectors, the sudden plunge into the atmosphere of strong language is as bewildering as the high-dive on an October morn. Instead of the genial criticism of some officer, calling him a “Silly old fool”, the worst language to be heard amongst the COs, here he is annihilated by the grim “Hie nothus constuprator!” In fact the various members of the word-family to which the most objectional adjective belongs occur again with deadly monotony in almost every sentence. “B” and Cicero’s “stercus curiae” are merely “also rans” compared with the great “F” group. The result of damnable social system and silly education!

For the present I am attached to the 12th Division. My tent corporal is a youngster of about eighteen – could be my son – from Northamptonshire. Nice boy ; worked in a shoe factory. We are only eleven at present in our tent. Every one of my tent-mates has been “out” at the front. Glorious material to study. At present they are all “off,” for outside the camp-gates the Australians are running innumerable Crown and Anchor games. “Shove it on, milads!” “Shove it on!” “Up she goes!”

My advisor on dead languages has very little idea what “Hie nothus constuprator!” is supposed to be, but “stercus curiae” is very probably something like “full of shit”. Nice to know Mugge can swear as long as it’s in Latin! Also, the apparent information about which unit he now belongs to is entirely useless and in fact outright aggravating, for reasons which I’ll go into when there’s not a major offensive starting in three days’ time.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina

Further Reading

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