Serbia and Italy
The Third Invasion of Serbia continues, albeit rather slowly due to violent rainstorms. Rivers everywhere are flooding, or else flowing so fast that engineers can’t work, pontoon bridges are washed away, boats can’t make headway against the current. In the south, the French advance guard has laboured its way forward to Strumica and helped the Serbian garrison repel some Bulgarian scouts.
Meanwhile, in Italy, it’s not good news. General Cadorna’s telephone has barely stopped ringing as all and sundry get on his case to demand he attack the Austro-Hungarians immediately, if not sooner. Attack there must be. The main thrust will be an attempt to bite off Gorizia, in the middle of the front; but this will be very difficult if the enemy can move all his reserves into the area. So clearly this means that what’s called for here is another general offensive. In the Alps, against Gorizia, on the Carso. Even failed attacks away from Gorizia will at least pin men in place, right?
Cadorna is quickly proving himself Sir Ian Hamilton’s superior in the field of self-deception and doublethink. It’s not that he didn’t have doubts about another general offensive, you understand. He’s still an intelligent human being. He can see how difficult a job it’s going to be; and he’s consciously deciding not to pay any attention to that.
(Incidentally, when Sir Ian Hamilton goes to bed tonight, he’s soon awoken by a messenger; again, a “secret and personal” cable from Lord Kitchener has arrived, instructing him to decipher the next message personally…)
Under cover of the thick fog which covered the landscape each morning, some of us went out to find rifles, revolvers, et cetera. A few of the less scrupulous went through the pockets of the dead men.
This is the tale of Corporal Cathala. Buckle in: it’s truly amazing.
One morning Corporal Cathala, of our company, out in the open on such a mission, was hit by a bullet which wounded him gravely in the thigh, leading to a subsequent amputation. He dragged himself back to the trench, where they staunched his wound. He was lying on ground soaked in his own blood. All of a sudden, here was General Niessel, whom we saw often in the trenches at daybreak—when all was calm.
“Ah!,” said the general, “Where was this corporal wounded?”
We couldn’t tell him that he had been pilfering the pockets of dead men. So we said it was at an observation post.
“Find me the captain! Are you satisfied with this soldier’s conduct?” he asked our Captain Cros-Mayrevielle, who had quickly appeared on the scene.
“Yes, very satisfied,” stammered our captain.
“Very well. He will be commended, and will get the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire.”
And that’s how Corporal Cathala became a hero.
This is also just one of many reasons why I don’t go in for stories of derring-do and medals. Of course, Cathala is not the only man to enjoy forays into No Man’s Land. More soon.
A gentleman like Lieutenant Bernard Adams of the 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers does not, of course, go in for such lootings and pillagings. He’s back up the line near the Hohenzollern Redoubt; he’s been detailed to occupy a strong-point in between the fire trench and the support trench.
For three days and nights I was in command, isolated and ready with stores, ammunition, water, barbed wire, bombs and tools, to hold out a little siege for several days if necessary. I used to leave it to get meals in the support line; otherwise I always had to be there, ready for instant action.
Here is a typical scene in the trench. A dug-out, 6ftx4ftx4ft. Smell, earthy. Time, 2:30 AM. Voices outside [belonging to the sentries]:
“What’s the time, kid?”
“Dunno, about 2 o’clock, I reckon.”
“Rum job this, ain’t it, kid?”
“Well, I reckon if the fucking Huns were coming over, we’d know it long afore they got ‘ere. I reckon we’d hear the boys in front firing.”
“I dunno. Suppose there’s some sense in it, else we wouldn’t be ‘ere.”
As Adams is a gentleman, he has helpfully censored the swearing. This is a Regular battalion; it’s safe to assume that its language would have been to the point, so I’ve filled in the likely words. The sentries themselves do also have at least half a point; they’re not in the fire trench, so why do they need to be standing out there in the cold looking at nothing? (The answer is in case of raids, or something else; it’s all very well to know that they’d hear something from down in the trench, but if they’re already up and looking out, they may well see what it is and be able to let people know details. In theory, at least.)
“Fucking cold on this fucking fire step. Guess it’s time they relieved us.”
“Don’t them flares look funny in the mist?”
“I guess old Fritz uses some of them every night. Hullo, there they go again. ‘Ear that machine-gun!”
(Long pause, during which machine-guns pop, snipers snipe, flares light up the sky. Trench mortars begin behind us. The Germans reply, sending two or three over which thud behind. The invisible sentries have now become clearly visible as I look out of my dug-out.)
(With a sudden thud, a trench-mortar shell drops fifteen yards behind us.)
“Hullo, Fritz is getting the wind up.” This stolid comment from a sentry is typical of the attitude adopted towards Fritz when he starts shelling. He is supposed to be a bit jumpy!
It seems hard to realize that Fritz is really trying to kill these sentries. The whole thing seems a weird, strange play.
Nothing of importance has happened. More tomorrow.
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