Sixth Isonzo | Boselli | Bissolati | 17 Aug 1916

Romania

Negotiations for bringing Romania into the war have finally concluded, to the alleged satisfaction of all parties. I’m far from convinced. After a little subterfuge, everyone seems to think they’ve got either what they wanted or what they can easily renege on, and the papers have been officially signed. General Joffre’s somewhat exasperated verdict on the negotiations: “a web of Penelope”. In Greek myth she was the wife of Odysseus, and spent twenty years fending off the advances of other men while he was off doing his twenty years’ worth of mythical deeds.

The deeds done now will be, ahem, slightly less than mythical. At one point there was a hope that Romania could be attacking on or around the 1st of August. Now they’re looking at August 28th. General Sarrail at Salonika has been accordingly ordered to delay his pinning attack until the 20th. Gee, I sure do hope that no large-scale Bulgarian movement of troops is going to interfere with this plan! That would be an absolute tragedy, I tell you. Meanwhile, the Romanian government is drawing up a declaration of war, to be delivered to Austria-Hungary right as their army rolls over the border into Transylvania. More soon!

Sixth Isonzo

There had also been hopes that Sixth Isonzo could have been launched to coincide with the Romanian entry into the war, which really would have been a kick in the dick. Alas; after a week’s worth of fruitless uphill attacks across the Vallone Doberdo and east of Gorizia, General Cadorna calls a halt. But he’s in the best mood he’s been in since the start of the war. Two victories in the summer fighting, and he’s successfully deposed an energetic Prime Minister and installed an apparent non-entity instead. Of course he’s ordering a Seventh Isonzo, to begin as soon as possible to capitalise on the Romanian entry into the war.

As it turns out, “as soon as possible” will mean “in mid-September”. Which by lucky hap will also coincide with General Haig’s Flers-Courcelette offensive. I wonder who will have the most success? Or, should I say, the least failure? On which note, there’s just space to mention that the casualties for Sixth Isonzo are about equal; 51,000 Italian and 42,000 Austro-Hungarian.

Anyway. Cadorna’s position is not quite as rock-solid as he’d like to think. The new Prime Minister, Paolo Boselli, has formed a government of national unity. Bypassing the official minister of war, deputy Leonida Bissolati has been given a cabinet post without portfolio and responsibility for “relations with the military”. Bissolati is perhaps the closest thing Italy has to Winston Churchill; he argued to join the war, and then put his money where his mouth was, volunteering at age 58. He’s won two bravery medals, and is now back at his parliamentary duties.

For the last month or so he’s been touring the fronts to see what’s what. This has not gone down at all well with General Cadorna, of course, worried that his glorious victories might in fact be misinterpreted as bloody failures. Cadorna is now trying to get him banned from the front, but Bissolati has had plenty of time to travel around and find out who’s got the dirt. Chief among them is one Colonel Douhet, staff officer and aviation pioneer. Douhet has given him an uncompromising and highly accurate assessment of the commander-in-chief as a blithering idiot…

Central Railway

In German East Africa, General Smuts is trying to advance to Morogoro on the Central Railway, just over 100 miles west of the capital Dar-es-Salaam. It’s the same old story here, though. He greatly outnumbers the enemy, but they all rather rudely are refusing to just stand and fight, preferring instead to run a series of delaying operations as they retreat through the Nguru Mountains. Meanwhile, the Navy has landed a small detachment of men at Bagamoyo, just up the coast from Dar-es-Salaam.

Just pushing the enemy back, or capturing towns, isn’t going to do any good, though. What they need are encirclements and captures of large bodies of Schutztruppe. General van Deventer’s South African Horse is now back on the move, but Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is now well south of him. Spoilers; van Deventer won’t be able to link up at Morogoro in nearly enough time to trap the enemy forces out to the east. All the attackers appear to have achieved is marching an awfully long way, looting a number of small towns en route, and losing more than half their strength to disease.

Edward Mousley

Speaking of which. Edward Mousley is trying hard to make the best of a bad job.

The mornings continue fine and sunny, but in the afternoons a sharp, shadowy wind springs up, and the evenings are quite cold. We are anxiously awaiting the parcels waylaid in Stamboul. The fever has largely gone, but muscular rheumatism has taken its place. No one hears from or is allowed to write to Yozgat or Kara Hissa.

The Turks here seem to have already settled on their plan of campaign, which is to make us get into debt at huge prices, which already are increasing. I am, however, assuming a sublime indifference to money matters. The financial anxiety of the trek was enough, and I have a long score to pay off against the Turk in this respect, so once in his debt he will have to facilitate our getting our money from home, or else receive cheques.

What a quaint town this is! All water is drawn from springs or wells. There are no lights of any kind, except, possibly, some faint glimmer burning from a police station. There are no trams or much vehicular traffic, donkeys being the chief transit. In the early morning one hears the ancient Biblical solid-wheeled oxen cart groaning on its turning axle beneath the weight of a huge tree trunk brought in for firewood. At night the distant tinkling of bells sometimes reaches one as the goats come back.

And, later still, over the sheets of darkness in deep, pulsing waves, like the voice of a dark and mysteriously moving spirit, floats the muezzin, which is taken up from mosque to mosque until the whole town echoes with the cry.

“Stamboul” is a common pre-1923 rendering of “Istanbul”, for the city which at the time was still officially Constantinople. Sometimes the name was used by English speakers to differentiate the historic walled city from the general metropolis.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

Briggs Kilburn Adams is now finishing up his insane summer job driving ambulances on the Voie Sacree. He’s been rotated off to another unit at Juilly. and I’d like to believe that the casualties he’s been evacuating included men who were shelled by Herbert Sulzbach’s guns. Things are much quieter here than they were at the Battle of Verdun.

The fellows in this squad are all very nice, and but one older than I, being in the thirties. The sergeant is an Englishman exempt from service for some physical trouble. He is a circus in himself. Every minute of the day he is saying or doing some ridiculously funny thing, and he has a very fine bass voice, by which ordinarily he earns his living. One evening we came upon a piano in one of the empty recitation rooms. One of the fellows sat down and began to play, and I happened to find a violin in good condition in the cupboard. The sergeant brought out some songs, and we spent a very enjoyable evening.

Juilly is within a couple of miles of the farthest advance by the Germans on Paris in September, 1914, and the place where actual fighting took place is within easy walking distance. We hired a car the other day and went for quite a long ride, to and through the region of the Battle of the Marne, and it was very interesting. Hundreds of graves are lying in every direction according as the men fell, the Germans mixed in among the French, the former being marked only by a black stick, while the latter are marked by a wooden cross and a wreath or two.

You would never believe one of the greatest battles of the world had been fought here; for everywhere rich crops of grain are growing, and nothing is prettier than the golden oats, among which are scattered red poppies and blue bachelor buttons, like kale in our oats at Hilltop Farms.

And this is the last we’ll hear from him for an entire year. He’ll soon be on a boat back to America and Harvard University; but this is far from the last he’ll have to do with the war.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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