Ruanda | Mort Homme | 21 May 1916

Ruanda

In 1916, Ruanda was a major province of German East Africa; today it’s independent as Rwanda. Incidentally, anyone ever heard of a vicious civil war and genocide between Hutus and Tutsi in the second half of the 20th century? The original Kingdom of Rwanda was politically dominated by Tutsi, and after taking it over, the German Empire has been happy to allow this to continue via British-style indirect rule. Today we find that the Schutztruppe have been evicted from Ruanda by the Belgian Congo’s Force Publique, but this is going to be very much a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. A big hand for the Belgians, folks.

Certainly the Belgian Empire will be intensely relaxed about allowing its client Tutsi regimes to continue tightening the screw against the Hutu population. But remember, European colonialism was totally a civilising influence, and not at all a gigantic protection racket/resource extraction exercise. Just ask that nice Kipling fellow, he’ll tell you. The Force Publique now turns its attention to Urundi (today Burundi), and with all the Schutztruppe off trying to recapture Kondoa Irangi with colourful language, it’s going to go the same way.

For the Belgian government, this is an absolutely vital exercise. They’re deeply worried about getting screwed over by any post-war settlement, and see control of as much African territory as possible as the best guarantee they can have of protection from diplomatic shenanigans.

Battle of Verdun

We’ve been hearing a lot from Louis Barthas on the French side of Hill 304 lately. Let us now rebalance things slightly with some words from a German. Lieutenant Christian Bordeching is in a support trench, and like Barthas he’s waiting for his relief. While Barthas has been trying not to die on Hill 304, Bordeching has been doing the same on the Mort Homme. His trenches, incidentally, would have had a perfect view of Hill 304; perhaps the lieutenant looked out one morning through his binoculars…

The stench of unburied corpses rises from the ravaged former French trenches. Valuable equipment has been discarded everywhere along the road, weapons, munitions, food supplies, gas masks, barbed wire, grenades and other instruments of war. The last patches of grass are already well behind us and all we can see is a wilderness totally and violently created by explosives. The shell holes merging one into the other testify to the horror of the German artillery fire that preceded our advance and the answering fire of the French guns.

It will take a miracle to cross this broken landscape, but we will soon have to do it, for it is the only way to reach our positions in the rear, the lifeline to our victory at the front.

News arrives through relays of runners for no telephone line stays intact for more than an hour, the cables are destroyed as soon as they are laid. If you pass the most dangerous zone of the hill at a run, you can cross the slightly less bombarded north flank of the hill and reach our position without being seen. The summit itself is at the moment neutral ground, it is a plateau a hundred metres long. Chancing their arm, some of our pioneers have crept out and dug trenches and set up barbed wire entanglements.

Thus we can hold our own on the slope without too many losses, for the French shells cannot reach this flank, it is only random shots that get here. Up here we are always on alert so as to be ready to defend ourselves or to attack. As regards sleeping or eating, it is not worth thinking about. We just have to put up with our hardships. The hill itself was originally partly wooded but now no more than a few blackened trunks are left visible, and there isn’t a green leaf or a blade of grass, but in spite of this and amidst all the horror we have a daily miracle.

Every morning, a lark sings and a multitude of maybugs buzz around us and remind us that beyond this war, which we have to endure, there is still a marvellous spring in progress, which, once we’ve taken our punishment, will delight us again.

Crossing the broken landscape back to safety is, of course, exactly what Barthas has just done. Bordeching too will survive the battle, only to then die in the Nivelle Offensive, almost 11 months to the day later. Over now to Louis Barthas himself, who I think would appreciate his words and the words of a German appearing right next to each other. He’s still trying to get out of it when he bumps into an officer. Who immediately pulls a pistol on him.

Sublieutenant Roques represented a common type of young officer: brave, courageous, well-trained, but immature, play-acting, filled with pride, treating the men like children, sometimes having fun with them but, in a quick mood swing, capable of meanness and petty vexations. In a word, just as likely to commit dramatic acts of egotism and cowardice as acts of heroism, depending on the circumstances (and the amount of hooch consumed).

Outraged by this highly impolite way of stopping people, I hoisted my Lebel rifle and replied to him, “You’ve got your revolver, I’ve got my rifle, so what do you want to do now?”

Seeing us moving downhill at all deliberate speed, he had figured that we knew where we were going, and he had wanted us to wait for him and his orderly so that we could guide them along, too. He swore, besides, that he had no intention of using his revolver on us, but just like Captain Barbier he wanted to shoot down the first artilleryman he ran into. Which he didn’t do, nor would he have.

Soon after that, we met up with a poilu completely draped in armor made of platters, canteens, and cooking pots and pans. It was a conscientious rationer, transporting all of his cooking equipment. We were joyfully surprised to discover that this peaceable warrior was none other than our fellow Peyriacois, Paul Alpech.

I do not believe that Barthas has yet pointed his rifle in anger at a German; but now he’s done so to one of his own officers. Anyone who is surprised by this, you’re either new or you’ve really not been paying attention. The Battle of Verdun grinds on; but for some, there is hope. Isn’t it so that tomorrow General Mangin will launch a heroic assault upon Fort Douaumont and recapture it for the Republic? I, for one, will not be holding my breath.

Battle of the Somme

Elsewhere, the sound of frantic scribbling rises over the line as men commit their innermost thoughts to their diaries at double-quick speed. First, General Fayolle, commander of the French 6th Army, on the immediate right of the British 4th. (The French artillerymen who Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler hangs out with are attached to units of the 6th Army.) Fayolle has seen his bosses’ grand plans rapidly diminishing, and is now well aware that, although official sanction cannot come until after an upcoming Anglo-French conference, he’ll most likely be playing second fiddle to the BEF.

The approaching battle will cost 200,000 men, and I wonder if there is any interest in admitting it. Attrition, is it such that we can hope for a decisive success? I don’t think so … Will it be necessary to spend another year in the trenches? Yes.

On the extremely small bright side, Fayolle is a firm supporter of the new methodical battle/bite-and-hold French doctrines. The Battle of the Somme will be costly for the French, but hopefully not affected by General Haig and his optimism. Speaking of whom, the general’s diary today has a rather different concern.

We had quite a large party of clerics at lunch. In reply to a question, I told [the Archbishop of Canterbury] that I had only two wishes to express, and I had already explained them to Bishop Gwynne, and these are:

First, that the Chaplains should preach to [the troops] about the objects of Great Britain in carrying on this war. We have no selfish motive, but are fighting for the good of humanity. Second: The Chaplains of the Church of England must cease quarrelling amongst themselves. In the field we cannot tolerate any narrow sectarian ideas. We must all be united. The Archbishop thought his people were very united now, but possibly six months ago some were troublesome!

“All I want is for the C of E to become a propaganda machine.” The historian David Englander once wrote that Haig’s view of chaplains saw them as being the closest thing the British Army ever had to a political commissar. This is perhaps slightly unfair to the Chief. Let’s take a moment and consider this in a little more detail.

Haig is, in his own quiet way, a deeply religious man, and he’s very concerned with the role of the Army chaplain. He’s believed for a long time that morale is critical to modern war, and that the chaplain has a vital role to play. He does also understand that the chaplain may have other ways of distributing spiritual comfort than high-minded sermons. On a personal level, he’s a Presbyterian, having been born and raised in Edinburgh.

Although he’s often had to worship with Anglicans during his Army career, he bumped into the Rev George S. Duncan at the start of the year in St Omer, liked his sermons, and has taken Duncan with him to his new HQ at Montreuil. It is quite impossible, if you want to try, to understand Haig’s character and demeanour without understanding his religion. To the modern British eye it is seductively easy to write him off as a fundamentalist, or a crank, or to immediately begin drawing sweeping comparisons between Haig and Tony Blair.

This is unfair. Unlike Blair in modern times, Haig’s faith would, at most, have been considered a mild quirk. Duncan’s sermons were extremely simple and understated. Haig didn’t want hellfire and brimstone; although he did want constant reassurance that he was in the right and acting in assurance with God’s wishes. None of this is in any way unusual for any man of the time, or for a general of the time.

Anyway, generals are dull. If you think something else and you want to really dig into Haig’s personality, I advise starting here.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White, still in temporary command of his company, is leaving his rest billets and going back to the trenches via their old out-of-the-line billets.

I am sorry to leave this place, its duck-pond, orchard, and cider-press; the little boy who leads a different dog every day about on a string, and the other good people of the farm, who can’t know about life in towns, whose kingdom is sufficient “the red clover fields, and the orchard where our cookers are quietly busy” the nightingales, and the May blossom.

When we got here this morning, the owner of our Mess billet was ready for us with a marble chimney slab, which she says we broke last week, when we were here. I should think she did it with a sledge-hammer, myself. After a long shrieking argument with her, she getting in ten words to my one, I said I would make myself acquainted with some of the elementary facts of the case. She said that it was a matter of 100 francs.

I am feeling rather incapable of writing a decent letter to anyone. Life has been very depressing lately, as I’ve been very incompetent as [Company Commander], and when that happens, the authorities make it their business to make one feel like the boy who goes about perpetually saying “What shall we say if he asks us, where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing, etc?”

Malcolm White continues to get more and more interesting every time we see him; that last paragraph is extracted from a letter to someone else. This is rather a long way from the stiff upper lip, old boy.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman’s Diary of a Yeomanry Medical Officer clunks and grinds its way back into life.

Alexandria was reached at 10 am, the sight of which now appeared quite familiar. Being in charge of Royal Army Medical Corps drafts for the 52nd Division, my first duty was to march the men to the Base Details Camp at Mustapha.

Once again, I say that this account will pick up a lot once this journey ends and he gets where he’s going.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is trying to adjust to life in the Non-Combatant Corps and to make the best of things.

We have neither belts, nor cap-badges, nor shoulder-numerals. A poor lot of military outcasts. Yesterday with a hut-mate to Lancing. Delightful walk over the Downs and through the lanes; hawthorns and chestnuts in bloom. Stood where once upon a time “Heart’s Delight” bungalow had housed us, ten years, ten long years ago! And now the waves were lapping the new foreshore. Far away the crimson disc of the sun delved into a sea of molten gold. Sic transit…

On our way back we entered a hotel in Shoreham to get some refreshment. Three sergeants with their wives walked deliberately out! NCCs! The lepers! If A.D. 3116 citizens of a civitas terrestris will refer to a golden book of Early Pioneers as we refer to the Early Christians, the NCCs must console themselves with the prospect of such dubious long-distance honours. At present they are having a “hell of a time.”

The menin the fighting unit have their meals apart from us in their huts. The men in the fighting units have the usual bed-boards, trestles, three blankets, pillow and palliasse, we have no bed-boards, no palliasses, and only two blankets. In “D Company we had each one bowl of tea, here two men share the same bowl. I drew the attention of Harrison, the Company orderly, to the fact that in Hut four are- stored up stacks and stacks of palliasses. He shrugged his shoulders, “My dear boy, I cannot get at them. They belong to the officers’ training corps!” Good old Army!

Personally I do not mind the leper life for a time. The D Company men I know and old Fred, the mountain-policeman, have taken me under their protection and they are formidable preachers to any newcomer who might think that “George” is not an”Owd sodjer.” Incidentally they insist upon my wearing the Royal Fusiliers’ badge.

The standard round-up: “Sic transit” is the opening of one of the better-known Latin phrases, “Sic transit gloria mundi”. Literally, “thus passes the glory of the world”; more imaginatively, “worldly glory is fleeting”. A palliasse is a straw mattress; and “civitas terrestris” is a reference to something by St Augustine which was about how Christians live in an “earthly city” and a heavenly city at the same time, or something. Seems to me like Mugge was trying to evoke the image of a great future in which everyone reveres the first objectors and has rejected war and militarism.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

Further Reading

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