Battle of Verdun
The French are now trying to get some counter-attacks going to push the Germans out of Thiaumont and Fleury, and away from Fort Souville. It sounds nice and controlled from the perspective of, say, General Nivelle. However, from the perspective of Henri Desagneaux…
At 3am, without warning, our own troops attack us from behind in order to recapture the terrain on our right. These troops, without precise orders, without maps, without knowing where our lines were, ventured off. They fell upon us, and the Boches were 100 metres in front, lying in wait. Bursts of machine-gunfire cut them down in our trench. We thus have another heap of corpses, and wounded crying out. Trench! Well, almost every evening we bury the dead on the spot. It’s they who form the parapets!
At 6am, the guns fire furiously and our own 75s fire at us. Terrible panic. Everyone wants to run for it. Agnel and I have to force the poor devils back by drawing our revolvers. Major David is killed by our 75s. Our green flares ask for the range to be lengthened, but with all the dust our artillery can’t see a thing. We are powerless, isolated from everything with no means of communication. There’s blood everywhere. The heat is atrocious. The corpses stink. The flies buzz. It’s enough to drive one mad. Two men commit suicide.
At 2pm, our 75s fire on us again. I send a loyal man at full speed with a report to the Colonel. Luckily he gets through.
Um, so another day I’ll be very grateful for this first-hand testimony of a French officer threatening his men with summary execution. But in the meantime: holy fucking shit. That is all I have to say. Holy fucking shit. With about 50 syllables in it. The battle is congealing in place, and here it will remain for the next little while.
Battle of the Somme
Meanwhile, the British commander-in-chief is having his own quiet, simple church parade, in a small hut next to GHQ in Montreuil. As ever, the Rev George Duncan gives the Chief and a few other congregants simple reassurance that God has a plan for the universe and that they are carrying it out. He reminds the Chief of the Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, kneeling in prayer shortly before sending proud Edward’s army homewards, to think again. At the end, General Haig lingers, and then invites Duncan to go with him in two days to his advance headquarters at Beauquesne.
At the front, the bombardment is being stepped up. There’s barely a British gunner anywhere in France or Belgium who isn’t working flat out. Today is “V” day; the battle to begin on “Z” day. Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler has a full day of trying to deafen himself.
A dull and cloudy day. The bombardment was more intense than ever. On either side of our guns is a French howitzer battery. One can see the projectile from the time it leaves the gun. As a battery we have only a 200-yards frontage of the Hun trenches to fire on daily, and the [field gun] batteries have an even smaller alotted frontage on which to cut the wire. As it was the night of the Bedfords’ raid we reserved fire until the early evening, then fired continuously onto the Hun machine guns. They took one prisoner, and had a very happy outing with no serious casualties.
Here we see the benefit of having the occasional field officer as a correspondent; their wider field of view brings up some interesting topics. Of course, everyone being on top of everyone else is not an ideal situation. It’s no laughing matter having people firing shells directly over your head, and accidents are depressingly frequent. Yesterday’s latrine-dweller Signaller Meneaud-Lissenburg (thank you to his daughter for correcting the spelling of the family name) has some observations on this point.
Immediately in the rear of the battery position a 60-pounder battery, 90th Heavy Royal Garrison Artillery, was positioned and proved more dangerous than anything the enemy offered. Invariably when in action and firing directly over us, a number of shells burst prematurely with frightening effect. In fact, except for the occasional German 5.9-inch, we had more to fear from our 60-pounder friends in the rear. Ever alert, we would rush to earth each time we heard the order ‘Action!’ in our rear.
Still. Can’t cook egg-based breakfasts without violating the sanctity of the protective covering. Or something. I’d make a joke about action in our rear, but I’m still trying to pick my jaw up after today’s Verdun update. Actually, seeing what’s up next, maybe I’ll just let it dangle a while.
Battle of Asiago
The Austro-Hungarian retreat is now more or less at an end, and I’m taking the battle off the “Actions in Progress” list. They’re now sending out skirmishing patrols to slow the Italian pursuit while the infantry digs fresh trenches. Meanwhile, Emilio Lussu’s divisional commander has, sadly, come down from yesterday’s tree and is now routing around with the patrols rather than going back to the rear and doing his job. A couple of patrols have run into enemy fire. Someone has ordered a brief halt while they figure out what’s going on. This does not meet with the general’s approval.
“Have that man shot this very instant!” the general ordered.
Captain Zavattari was a reserve officer. He was the oldest captain in the regiment. The order to have a soldier shot was an inconceivable absurdity. He left and came back to the general a few minutes later. He had gone and personally interrogated the man.
“Did you have him shot?”
“No, sir. The soldier didn’t do anything he wasn’t ordered to do. He never thought that by shouting “Halt!” he was emitting a shout of fatigue or indiscipline. He was transmitting an order. The scouts had just had one of their men killed. The halt was necessary to give them time to reconnoitre the terrain.”
“Have him shot anyway! We need to make an example of him.”
“But how can I have a soldier shot without any kind of proceeding and when he hasn’t committed a crime?”
“Have him shot immediately! Don’t force me to have my carabineri intervene against you as well!
Captain Zavattari is forced to agree, and disappears, doing some very quick thinking. The dead scout’s body is still nearby. The general hasn’t deigned to go and see the offending soldier in person. Zavattari assembles a squad and orders them to shoot a helpfully-placed tree. The stretcher-bearers load up the dead scout and bring him to the rear. The general is satisfied. Everyone carries on.
Heard the Germans had started to retire 4 days ago and that we had captured their observation post. Our big guns fired a good deal during the morning but got no reply from the enemy. Very chilly wind blowing and the sky overcast all day. New bandage put on my leg. Watton, who was shot in both feet, is being sent back to Nairobi tonight. Decent lunch but no sweet potatoes. Miserable, dull afternoon.
‘Mac’ Young went round foraging and managed to get hold of a big piece of lovely tender roast beef but slightly burnt. Had a good ‘tuck-in’ and felt satisfied the first time since coming into hospital. Slept well but dreamt that a German shell smashed me on the back, due I suppose to the good ‘tuck-in’.
This is one rumour that, as we saw yesterday, is almost entirely true.
It includes everything an officer should know; engineering, organisation and administration, military law, topography, tactics (my favourite subjects), riding, entrenching, drill, etc., etc. It is really a Sandhurst Course compressed into three months’ space. As a consequence we are kept tremendously busy. We begin with an hour’s squad drill before breakfast, an hour’s riding after breakfast, then lectures for the rest of the morning. In the afternoon, more lectures, or some outdoor exercises, like entrenching.
After the full reports of the [Battle of Jutland] were published, it became evident that it was a victory for our fleet, first in that they frustrated the German objective, whatever it may have been, and second, that they inflicted heavier losses than they themselves suffered. If only the battleship fleet could have cut off the Germans, it would have been an overwhelming victory. Great indignation was expressed by the English press at the misleading tone of the first reports of the battle, which gave our losses and left the impression that the Germans had suffered comparatively little.
One of the leading papers published a very strong article demanding to know who was responsible for the misleading report. The article was headed, “Who is the Idiot?”
Well, since someone asked, [INSERT PREFERRED SARCASTIC ANSWER HERE]. However, I think he might have been dispatched to America to lie low for a while, where he took up baseball and inspired a vaudeville comedy routine.
Malcolm White is still waiting for his number to be called.
Read C.H. Sorley’s poems which Jocelyn Buxton has sent me. [He was] at the King’s Choir School when I was up there…and was killed last Autumn. The bombardment has become more noisy. This afternoon three of the German observation balloons have been blown up. I should have seen one of them go, but when a Rifleman told me about it, all I saw was a straight column of smoke. Hell is really let loose to-night. I have been out to the east edge of the village, and looked over the fields at the murky horizon where the bursts of shell go flicker flacker. It is clear that their gun power is nothing to ours now.
And knots of foul-mouthed men stand about, men who have sat cowering and incapable of retaliation in the early days of Ypres, and now exult over the merciless hurricane that is raging over the Bosche lines. Officers stand about in their calm way and comment on the play, and a little white terrier brushes its way among the corn, which may and may not be reaped. Amid this pandemonium it is surprising to see and hear the ordinary circumstance of trench warfare. Occasionally a Very light goes up, scornful and inquiring, and ‘that’ machine gun gets in a word or two between the bursts.
And I have also been out along the lane to the west side of the village, past the wild roses and the dog-daisies, and looked across the spiky fringe of a battalion of corn at a quiet sunset, with violet clouds that looked like comfortable mountains, and watched a hedgehog trying to heave its way through the undergrowth.
In this collection of poems would have been one untitled one about “when you see millions of the mouthless dead, across your dreams in pale battalions go…” which I appropriated as a title for the book of 1915. And, as White reads it, Sergeant John William Streets of the 12th York and Lancasters is waiting in a different rest billet not too far away, and he is writing about what he sees. On “Z” Day, he will be attacking Serre, less than a mile to White’s left.
In a letter to a publisher, he has said “I have tried to picture some thoughts that pass through a man’s brain when he dies”; and he is now working on the lines that I have taken for the book of 1916. There are a hundred of these unknown spots in northern France that are about, for a few months, to become world-famous.
Actions in Progress
Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!