Sixth Isonzo | Bir el Abd | 6 Aug 1916

Battle of the Somme

It’s just about job done at Pozieres. All they need to do now is dig in. This morning the ANZACs finally rotated the 2nd Australian Division out, in favour of the 4th Australian Division. Lucky them. There’s no trenches as such up on the Windmill Hill, in the lee of the still-not-totally-dead windmill, just a line of conveniently-sited shell holes. Corporal Charles Smith is heading into the wasteland.

Ghastly sights were witnessed on that journey through the sap. Scores of bodies had been partially buried in the soft earth, and bloody hands and feet protruded at frequent intervals. Boxes of rations and ammunition were scattered about, telling plainer than words that the fatigue parties had come under violent artillery fire and had been annihilated. … Dead were scattered everywhere. Broken trenches, twisted barbed wire, mutilated rations and military equipment, stretchers with their once human contents, and bearers now cold and stiff, all gave mute evidence of the recent carnage.

And they thought ANZAC Cove was bad. There’s slightly less dysentery around here, that’s true, but it’s not much of a consolation.

Sixth Battle of the Isonzo

Urrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. Yes, we’ve had a spring and most of a summer’s holiday from the slaughters on the Isonzo. But all good things must come to an end, I suppose. And at least General Cadorna has learned his lesson, after having had it taught to him five times. This is a strictly limited attack. New artillery doctrine has been laid down. Italian industry has been manufacturing vast quantities of guns; more have been bought in from France, and plenty of trench mortars to go with them. On the other side of the hill, what little new artillery has been manufactured is mostly going to the Eastern Front, and then being lost again.

The length of the preliminary bombardments have also been significantly curtailed. Most of the attacks are going ahead after only 12 hours of bombardment. In 1915 this would surely have been a death sentence. But the Italian gunners have learned a thing or two about clearing barbed wire after a year and a bit of war. And so, believe it or not, what we’ve got here on the first day of Sixth Isonzo is a considerable success. The critical northern stronghold at Mount Sabotino, north of Gorizia, falls in just 38 minutes.

A few isolated platoons and companies try to hold out inside deep dugouts. The Italians have no time for this bullshit, so they pour petrol down the stairs and then set the caverns on fire. As they do so, the entire Austro-Hungarian line is finally wobbling. By nightfall, the whole of the Podgora hill just to the west of Gorizia is under Italian control. Away to the south, there are men poised to push up and over the whole of Mount San Michele, and more occupying San Martino village to the south.

After nightfall there are counter-attacks, but not only is there hardly any general reserve left, it’s stationed four days’ march behind the front. Local reserve formations are barely worth mentioning. The Isonzo front has been heavily milked over the last few months, first for men for the Battle of Asiago, and then for men to oppose the Brusilov Offensive. In some positions they’ve even run out of artillery shells. Put all this together, and there might just be a chance for the Italians to make something big happen here. More tomorrow.

Battle of Romani

The Ottomans have completed a successful withdrawal to Bir el Abd, although they’ve taken plenty of casualties and their morale is now suffering badly. General Chauvel, commanding the Australian/New Zealand mounted division, is proposing a frankly hair-raising scheme to send his mounted troops on long rides to attack the Ottomans from three sides at once. We’ve seen schemes like this badly backfire on more than one occasion, and it’s going to be an all-or-nothing gamble. It’s either going to break the enemy for good, or else give them fresh heart to carry on.

Meanwhile, Oskar Teichman and his broken leg are waiting patiently to be taken to the rear, but he’s not going to die of it any time soon.

We were well looked after, our wounds were dressed, and we were supplied with excellent rations. On asking when we should be removed to the railhead, we were told that the line was so congested with Turkish prisoners that it would be impossible to evacuate us at once.

During the morning a Major from the Canterbury Regiment was brought into our tent, and he told us that the mounted troops and infantry had cleared Katia, and that the Turks were putting up another rear-guard action at Oghratina. He had met some of our infantry in a fearful state through lack of water, with blackened lips and swollen tongues. After all, we mounted troops did not know what it was to march through heavy sand. In the afternoon there appeared to be still no chance of moving the wounded, and the various Field Ambulances became very full.

I have to say, even the most optimistic of soldiers usually get a bit miserable after they get shot. This is by far the stiffest upper lip I’ve seen. Even the Sunny Subaltern got a bit unhappy about being unable to liberate the Ypres salient on account of his wounds.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier is still at rest, close enough behind the Somme front to hear the guns firing on Pozieres. However, he’s got enough free time to write to an American friend and offer some in-depth thoughts on the USA’s foreign policy, leavened with some casual racism.

Your war with Mexico has ended agreeably. It is a good thing. You can gain no glory fighting Greasers… . In spite of the Lusitania, Wilson may loom big yet in the history of the world. I absolutely refuse to put a small dingy political motive back of his foreign policy. It seems to me that he acted logically as representing a Nation made up largely of convinced pacifists. It is not time to talk peace now in France, but after the war it will be a shame if all the fine, and generous movements for general peace which were at the bottom of most political discussions are not taken up again and with more vigor.

After two years of this fighting business I can’t agree with those who say that there will always be war, and any man who has the generosity to fight for peace [against all odds] seems to me most respectable. It’s very easy for a Roosevelt to be popular. All one needs to do is to appeal to the cowardice of those who are afraid and to the passions of those who are, above all, proud or vain or greedy.

Romain Rolland is getting damned up and down because he keeps airing his belief that in spite of all things done, there may yet be a few good Germans in the world. He is very much more creditable to his nation than that ass of Saint-Saens, who since the Belgian and Northern atrocities, has discovered that Wagner had no musical sense at all.

Romain Rolland is a French writer and academic who has indeed stuck by his pacifist beliefs. Camille Saint-Saens is an ageing composer of classical music who is now 81. When he isn’t railing with equal ferocity against French modernists such as Claude Debussy and German Germans such as Wagner, he’s constantly touring France giving piano performances to raise money for war charities.

Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, is now starting his campaign for re-election as President, in what will turn out to be a damned close run-thing. His chief slogan is to be “He kept us out of war” (cough, cough). Meanwhile, perations in Mexico against Pancho Villa are now more-or-less over, with Villa still at large. For a while it looked as though things might escalate into all-out war with Mexican government forces, but Wilson’s pulled back from the prospect.

Oswin Creighton

British Army padre Oswin Creighton is about to move from Romsey to Witley Common near Aldershot, to join a new battalion, the 5th Lancashire Fusiliers. On his way out of the door, he has a few thoughts about the officers he’s been trying to socialise with at Romsey.

I do hope they will find someone who will be able to come here and really get on with these officers. I cannot tell you how much I blame myself. I have never really mixed at any time of my life with men of this type, and I am afraid I simply don’t understand them. I have never hunted nor been to a race-meeting. There are good fellows, I know, among them. I would give anything to know what they really think about things to be able to get near them. But after nearly five months I simply feel I am leaving a lot of strangers behind me. I feel entirely outside them. They have been preparing for weeks for a gymkhana to-morrow, and have talked of little else.

Creighton is no proletarian; he went to public school and then to Keble College, Oxford. And these chaps are too toffy even for him. “Gymkhana” is a word from the Empire; in this sense, it’s a multi-disciplinary horse-riding competition. He continues with some thoughts on the apparent lack of religious feeling among the blokes.

Two men came to the Holy Communion. This is the Sunday we are keeping as the anniversary of the war and the memorial of the fallen. The Church Parades were cancelled, as we are going to have this big voluntary service to-night. I cannot dismiss all these men and feel they have no religion. I know they have finer feelings. As far as I know only two are even coming to the service to-night. What is the National Mission going to say about a situation like this?

I must say I simply feel bewildered. It cannot be all my fault. They don’t even go to the Abbey. They do their Work splendidly and untiringly. It is difficult to see how they could do it better. The general tone is high. But they simply have no apparent feeling for religion as I have learnt it. Have I learnt it wrong, or is the way I have learnt it one and theirs another?

I don’t have the heart to poke fun at him. He sounds so very depressed, poor man.

Max Plowman

Thoroughly scandalised, 2nd Lt Max Plowman goes on parade for the first time with his new battalion.

One figure stands out. It is Company Sergeant-Major Steel. He is a tall, thin, dark man of about five-and-twenty, with a long hooked nose and a slight stoop. He wears the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but his manner is casual, and there is nothing of the parade sergeant-major about him. Indeed, I wonder at first how a man of such weedy appearance can have attained his rank. But when Captain Rowley introduces us, I see a couple of keen, intelligent eyes looking abnormally bright, like eyes that have seen too much.

As we step aside, Rowley describes him to me as the bravest man in the regiment, who obtained his distinction by bringing in fourteen prisoners, single-handed, on July 1st. In days to come I am to see much of this man. Many a dreary hour in the trenches we shall wile away together, talking of his home in the West of England where he used to be a confectioner, and where his young wife and child wait for him. There’s strange galvanism in this man, for he can pull the whole company together with a word, and yet his natural habit of mind is soft and reflective.

Already he is utterly sick of the war and many a time he is to tell me, in response to some chaff about his ribbon, how gladly he would exchange it for a week’s leave.

I am trying to work out whether or not Plowman is using the standard convention of false names; it doesn’t say so in the introduction.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has an afternoon to himself, which he spends by a railway line, watching the trains.

In one [train], there were men stretched gloriously asleep on the floor, while over them and nearly on them, stood their animals tethered and patient. Repose, certainly, in the GS wagons, which packed on the trucks, carried a gunner or two on the front seat, serene in air with cigarette and magazine. Repose too, I devoutly hope, for the animals; but eight horses to a [train truck] is a tight fit, and made no less so by the spurious label [“Sheep”] which stands on their carriage wall.

We are not at all perturbed by the delay; at least, I think not: I know one officer who (after his manner) is loving it. The rest of two Battalions are stretched before me, about four deep among the rails, and I do not think they are in undue hurry. A Royal Flying Corps car dashes up beyond the rails, and a cyclist whizzes down the road behind my head. Aeroplanes, of course, come (with their kind of coquettish curtsying, peculiar to their kind when infantry are about), to see the trains and their loads. A Red Cross car flits in and out of the station. Frenchmen wander down the line in shirt-sleeves and white trousers.

But nowhere is there much of a hurry, thank God. It is true the guns are pelting away somewhere or other, but nobody cares. The sun shines over our shoulders, and it is the infantryman’s day out. Every moment sees him, indeed, a thought more comfortable; and, as I write, he is already beginning to get his tea.

Incredibly good concert in the orchard last night. One Baynes (late Cambridge University Boating Club; he rowed against me) is now our Medical Officer, and very remarkable he is: he is one of those men who sing like birds, and swim, and dive (WITH somersaults), and do a lot of shouting, and are very good, in fine. You should have heard him take 300 men clean off their feet with “Songs of Araby” last night; an old, old friend, of course, but I never saw it so effective. Nor any one so priceless as the modern Royal Flying Corps man: he is perfectly immaculate, salutes all officers, and drills like a Guardsman.

For the moment, his time in the rear continues. “I’ll sing thee songs of Araby” is by WG Wills and Frederic Clay.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani
Battle of the Isonzo (Sixth Isonzo)

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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