Second Champagne | 5 Sep 1915

Second Champagne

Yesterday we looked at the planning for Third Artois, and were sure to pay careful attention to how it bore no resemblance whatsoever to Second Artois, or First Artois. No way. Not at all. Not a sausage. Not a saucisse.

So now it’s time to check out Second Champagne, and here we do actually see some variation. Here’s the thing; Vimy Ridge dominates the approaches to the Douai Plain and the cities on its western edge. There’s no way to get at Douai without dealing with the Lorette and Vimy Ridge. If you don’t, the high ground is very defensible even as an isolated salient and there’s every chance that the enemy could break out as you try to advance past them, and now bad things are going to happen.

At Champagne the situation is rather different. The objective is still that rail junction at Mezieres, but there are many roads to Mezieres, and Generals de Langle and Petain have somewhat more room to vary the areas on which the hammer will fall. de Langle, commanding the 4th Army, is planning two pinpoint attacks, one west of Auberive and another west of Perthes. This will create the “rupture” that General Joffre’s been talking about a lot recently, and enable his men to drive in strength towards Somme-Py and cross the River Py before the Germans can get their shit sorted.

Meanwhile, to his east, General Petain is thinking along rather different lines. He may now be commanding men in Champagne, but a month of inspecting the trenches has confirmed his tendency to believe that bite and hold is the only way to advance as things stand. To maximise the weight of artillery, he’s planning only one attack (east of Massiges) and will throw everything he’s got at it.

The weight of artillery has increased considerably since the last offensives. However, that’s not necessarily a guarantee of success. The BEF at Loos is about to show this in painful detail; they have more artillery than ever before, but the width of the front that Joffre has convinced them to attack over is wide enough that the actual density of fire will be less than at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle or the Battle of Aubers Ridge. But don’t worry, guys! Having gas is totally going to make up for that!

Gas instruction

Speaking of which, the BEF is now being trained in how to use gas offensively. Captain Bagot-Chester and his fellow company commanders have been pulled away from their men and sent off to St Omer to see a gas demonstration. His experience is rather banal; meanwhile, Lieutenant Waterlow of the 19th Londons is having a rather more interesting time at Houchin.

After the lecture, we all had to pass through the gas. They had a cylinder of gas on the edge of one of the practice trenches, hissing it in our faces as we passed along the trench in single file. We had only the plain helmets on, with the piece of mica for a window, and my helmet was by no means gas-proof! After getting a whiff of it which made me cough, I held my breath, but the queue in front was very slow in moving, and I was held up with the cylinder blowing the stuff right into my face! I wasn’t chancing a second breath of it, so my lungs were nearly bursting when eventually I got clear.

General Barter carefully tied a gaily-coloured silk handkerchief around his head before donning his helmet – a mirth-provoking sight.

There isn’t enough gas going round for all the blokes to take a practice whiff, but training areas such as Houchin do have other innovations for their benefit. A huge scale model of the battlefield has been constructed, far enough to the rear to avoid the enemy’s spotter aircraft. (The scale is approimately one half-brick to the house.) They’re taking pains to learn from previous experiences (such as the time at Neuve Chapelle when a battalion mistook one stream for another in the dark) here.

Kenneth Best

Not even Kenneth Best is safe from gas mania on Gallipoli. It’s perhaps one of the very smallest mercies possible that gas never made its way to this theatre. Still, that doesn’t mean they get excused precautions, just in case.

Gas drill and gongs all over Peninsula. New kind of respirator helmeting now in fashion, a sort of diver’s helmet. One man absent when new issue was made, and had only old respirator for nose and mouth. Yesterday at parade order to fix respirators, the man gazed at his little pad, bewildered, glanced wildly around, but got no tips on how to cope. All he had was stupid little pad. Eventually in desperation, he put pad on top of his head and tied string under his chin like a bonnet.

Best doesn’t see fit to record the subsequent language used by the man’s sergeant, but I think we can safely assume that it was extremely poisonous.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach’s fun and games are just put into a little context now. He’s had a good time of it pretty much for all of 1915. However, he’s still at war, and today he gets a short, sharp reminder.

I moved with my gun to another position to do some ranging shots for another battery. We had hardly started back for our old position when the French put down fifty rounds of the largest calibre they had, exactly on the spot where we’d been. My telephone operator had gone for cover with three infantrymen when their cover took a direct hit. All three infantrymen were seriously wounded, while by some miracle, nothing at all happened to my operator.

Incidentally, I am the only lance-bombardier to be in charge of a gun.

There’s another interesting point here; no matter the weight of fire you drop on any given place, it is almost impossible to kill or incapacitate everyone. Somebody will almost always survive in enough health to shoot back. The weight of shellfire delivered onto enemy positions is going to increase exponentially as we go into 1916 and 1917 as they chase the dream of a bombardment so overwhelming that the infantry can just walk in and take the other trenches unopposed. It’s not going to happen in any meaningful sense, though. There’s always going to be some deafened and seriously pissed-off bloke at the bottom of all the rubble.

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