Ripples from Verdun | 1 Mar 1916

Battle of Verdun

The first phase of the Battle of Verdun is over. The Germans have poked the hornet’s nest and stirred it up real good. They’ve shoved the French back to within about six miles of the city, more than close enough for their biggest guns to shell everything left in French hands east of the River Meuse. They’ve pinched Fort Douaumont without loss, they’re digging in again in front of the new French line. Everything should, in theory, be nice and set for a solid few months’ attrition.

And yet. The line is far from neat and tidy. Douaumont village continues to hold out. The French are still in possession of all but one of their forts. If attrition pure and simple really is the goal, they need to transition over to the defensive as soon as possible. And they surely must do something about those guns west of the Meuse. How can they hope to stay alive when the French artillery can reach out and touch the German rear from perfect enfilading positions?

General von Falkenhayn’s decision to restrict the offensive to the east bank of the Meuse is surely one of the great blunders of the war. That’s not to say that had they attacked west, they’d certainly have won the battle. However, not to even try to do something there is proving to be a gigantic unforced error. Even better for the hapless German Chief, the Kaiser is in town, apparently waiting for his victory parade in Verdun.

This makes Wilhelm II privy to every single message, gripe, and complaint about von Falkenhayn’s failure to attack on the west bank. That weight of condemnation will soon make its way back to Berlin, and from there to von Hindenburg and Ludendorff on the Eastern Front. There are a lot of German eyes on Verdun right now.

Eastern Front

There’s a lot of eyes, full stop, on Verdun. General Joffre has sent out a rather desperate series of messages, entreating France’s allies to launch major offensives as soon as possible. The Russian Army has spent much of the last five months drifting aimlessly, rebuilding its strength as far as possible after the disastrous campaigns of 1915. Now the Tsar, desperate to support his ally, is ordering attacks within the month.

Never mind footling concerns like “everyone’s shattered and demoralised” and “there’s very little time for the staff officers to draw up proper plans and sort their logistics out”. The boss says “attack”; the correct response is “How hard?” The various Russian commands, seeing which way the wind is blowing, are now scrambling to get their excuses in first. More soon.

Italian Front

Long-time readers will doubtless be thinking that this cannot mean anything good, and they’re quite right. General Cadorna has been quick to promise his good pal Joffre a modest offensive on the Carso. This at least has a better chance of achieving some exceptionally modest success than whatever the Russians can produce from their butts. The Fifth Battle of the Isonzo has been in the making all winter, and all Cadorna’s doing is moving the timetable up a bit.

And besides, the Italians don’t really need to worry about an increased workload for staff officers. The attack will be be restricted to a front between Tolmein and Mount San Michele (sigh), but as for any finer detail, it mostly boils down to taking out the old orders and inserting new dates. Mostly. There will be some innovation. Sort of. Ye gods.

The Bluff

Well, there was a quick answer to my prayer. Today General Plumer’s 2nd Army is going to launch its exceptionally sneaky and well-thought-out attack to retake The Bluff in the Ypres salient. For the past little while they’ve been firing artillery in particular, defined patterns designed to encourage the Germans to react in certain ways. Now they begin trying to exploit this use of “Behaviour Modification”.

The bombardments in and around the Bluff increase in intensity throughout the day, still following the pattern “barrage/2min break/barrage again”. At 5pm the guns stop, and the BEF demonstrates with shouts and great action, waving fixed bayonets over the trenches, their officers blowing whistles. This demonstration is immediately followed by, yes, another bombardment. This time they don’t break off after a while, or resume the on/off/on pattern.

Instead, through the evening and the night, the British guns keep up low-level harrassing fire. It’s not going to kill or even suppress many Germans, but what it will hopefully do is discourage them from sending out wiring parties to repair the gaps in their barbed wire that have been cut by the earlier barrages. More tomorrow…

Grigoris Balakian

As generals everywhere encourage their men to commit suicide, at the River Halys in Anatolia, Grigoris Balakian is trying to stop men from doing just that. Ten of his fellow Armenians are about to jump into the river to save themselves from the horrors that lie in wait on the road. At length Balakian talks to them.

First, as a good priest should, he talks to them of God and religion. When that has no effect, as a good man should, he reminds them that they still have money and possessions that might be bargained for their lives. Finally, as a good patriot should, he tells them to live through these days to see Armenia free and reborn in the future. Some combination of these arguments gets through, and all the men live to die another day. Off they go again.

We began to ascend the deserted mountains, leaving behind for good the river. Our journey was exhausting as we climbed up snow-capped mountains, the cold wind lashing our bodies. After seven hours, we reached an isolated khan made of stone. It consisted of a single room, where again, supposedly by chance, more than twenty armed Turkish robbers were to spend the night with us.

Again, their pet Jandarma officer rises to their defence and keeps his walking piggy bank alive for another day.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley has a thoroughly miserable day as artillery shells and aeroplane bombs rain down on Kut. His mate Cockie has joined the Dysentry Sufferers’ Club, so he’s up in the observation post for all of it. The nearest miss is ten yards, plus several more at thirty yards. There is a slight consolation in the middle of the hell, mind you.

The heavy mortar, tiring of acting wallflower on the other bank, chucked her big bombs at us. Some went in the river near the horse boats. These were received calmly by the Tigris. Another got into the sand-heap near our butchery and fell into it without exploding. Some scientifically minded Arabs charged up to secure it and were within thirty yards when the thing went off to their huge astonishment. We had a good laugh at the way they sprinted back jabbering with rage and fear.

One of Fritz’s bombs, a 100-pounder, we saw toppling over and over in the air quite plainly. It didn’t go off. But another such sent a table at least two hundred feet into the air. This is true. I won’t spoil it by saying that the cloth was laid and set. It was merely a table and its four legs stuck up towards the evening moon.

There’s little sleep for anyone that night, between repairing what damage can be repaired and keeping a watch against the possibility of an infantry attack. Mousley comforts himself by reading The Count of Monte Cristo.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell attempts to lead another route march today. This time the whole battalion’s going out, and, well…

This was one of the mornings when the Company Sergeant-Major and I agreed that after the War there would be a few funny things to look back upon.

There was a lot of shuffling about of [B and C Companies] on the road, to the side of our real road, but the one on which we were drawn up waiting to join the column. We went down it some way, and helped, and turned about. Then ‘B’ came, of course through thousands of lorries, all [mixed up and] anyhow. So we had to shift down. Too far. Back. Not far enough. Back. About turn.

Found old ‘B’ with its “second front section of fours marking time like good ‘uns, and nobody else giving a damn”, as I observed to the Company Sergeant-Major.

I’m pretty sure that this comes to a funny story if you think about it hard enough. (Half a battalion attempts to march out onto a road, gets tangled up with itself and passing lorries, discovers some members have disappeared, marches back to starting point, finds missing members with a few conscientious types marching on the spot for lack of orders, and the rest looking at them like they’re idiots.)

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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