Sixth Isonzo | Gorizia | 8 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

Hopefully you’re not still chewing on your knuckles from yesterday. The irony here really is painful. The Italian Army has spent a long, painful year learning to be careful and cautious, to limit its objectives, to discourage junior officers from using their initiative. Now that’s exactly what they need to do. Junior officers feeling able to use their initiative today might just have dislodged the entire front. The message coming from high command early in the morning, is to do the exact opposite. Hard-learned caution reigns among the Brains Trust.

Meanwhile, at the sharp end, half a company of the Italian 28th Infantry has discovered a supply tunnel leading under Podgora towards the one intact bridge leading back to Gorizia. Here there is a rear-guard with the remaining machine-guns and ammunition; a particularly fearless lieutenant seizes a flag and uses its pole to steady himself as he fords the river, showing the men the safe way across. Some are washed away by the tide, but more follow him. The artillery’s observation posts watch the flag crossing the river and calls in fresh shelling to support it

By afternoon, the Austro-Hungarian rearguard is fleeing for the mountains, having done its job and bought the army time to fall back. To the south, on the Carso, opportunity is still knocking. General Cadorna has been told of the capture of Podgora, and quite reasonably he begins now to commit his reserves, pouring them in to follow up the success. In theory, they might just be able to turn south from Gorizia and get into that Austro-Hungarian second position before the defenders can get there.

They’ll be ready to attack in force tomorrow…but it’s going to be a day too late. On the other side of the hill, General Boroevic has already ordered the retreat to take place tonight, under cover of darkness. The western edge of the Carso is cut off from the main plateau by a deep, wide, dry valley, the Vallone Doberdo, often in this context simply called “Vallone”. Since time immemorial it’s been a natural boundary between Italians and Slovenes, and today it forms the border between modern Italy and modern Slovenia. (At one time there was a river there.)

By lucky hap, it’s also a first-class place to put some defensive works in a trench war. The positions are ready, and the artillery packs up and leaves by day. During the night, the infantry almost evaporates into thin air. It’s far from an easy march in pitch darkness over rough ground, but there’s nobody to interfere with them…

Battle of the Somme

Guillemont. Loud explosions. Men over the top, advancing nearly a mile just to reach the German trenches. Intact barbed wire. German advance posts out in shell-holes, lying concealed, waiting for men to advance past them before shooting them in the back with machine-guns. Strong German artillery fire, not enough BEF counter-battery fire. Horror, blood and death, and all of it of a kind we’ve seen before.

Still. Maybe something can be achieved somewhere else? With Pozieres in hand, some brave people have been right up to the top of the ridge, looking down towards Thiepval. Various HQs have been guilty over the last month or so of assuming rather blithely that to capture Pozieres is automatically to make Thiepval untenable. Let’s have the map again.

This map is for educational purposes, not navigational purposes.
This map is for educational purposes, not navigational purposes.

The problem here…the main problem here…one of many problems here, is that the Germans have put two large redoubts into the Second Line behind Thiepval. They’re linked into a large agricultural holding, Mouquet Farm, which has now been thoroughly fortified. It’s also sprouting a series of newly-dug trenches at right angles to the First and Second Lines. These now defend Thiepval against an attack from the direction of Pozieres. Hmm. This needs some serious thinking.

Meanwhile, General Haig is entertaining his King.

The King came into my writing room, and I explained the situation, etc, to him. He then spoke a great deal about a paper which Winston Churchill had written, criticising the operations in France, and arriving at the conclusion that nothing had been achieved! … [George V] also said that Sir John French had been very nasty and that he was “the most jealous man he had ever come across”. I said that these were trifles and we must not allow them to divert our thoughts from our main objective, beating the Germans. I also expect that Winston’s head is gone from taking drugs.

Miaow! Saucer of milk for the Commander-in-Chief! It’s also not entirely clear whether that was a private thought, or whether he actually said it to the King. Nobody should be surprised that in the typed version of his diary he altered this to the rather less bitchy phrasing “I expect that Winston’s judgement is impaired…”.

He’s also just sacked one General Keir, a corps commander at Arras, whose general lack of offensiveness has thoroughly offended his army commander General Allenby. Not moved to a quiet sector, mind you, sacked outright. And he didn’t even get a chance to preside over any horrendously bloody slaughters like Hunter-Weston, who still has his job, chateau, gluttonous meals, etc. Interesting, that. No wonder Keir is making a massive row, and openly threatening to go home and join Sir John French’s bitching society.

Eastern Front

A quick note now from the still-neglected Eastern Front. The German-led counter-attack at the Battle of Kowel is now ending; it’s put a massive dent in the Russians’ manpower. Absent any other considerations, the Brusilov Offensive could easily have ended here. But of course, they’re about to bring Romania into the war. The Russian staff has just about given up on taking Lvov back, but a drive to the Carpathians still appeals. If they can get into position to push through into Hungary from the north, as the Romanians advance from the east, it’s not impossible that the Austro-Hungarian army could collapse entirely.

So the offensive continues, slowly and painfully, the combined casualty figures ratcheting relentlessly up past a million dead, wounded and captured. More than the Somme and Verdun put together, you know.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has been on the march for a good few days now, doing more than ten miles per day. Nevertheless, you’ll be pleased to know that he’s still just as much a plonker as he was back in camp.

Road awfully dusty and the country very hot and dry. Camped at 10.45am. Made some tea out of dirty yellow water which made nearly every one in the section feel queer for a while. The boys drew no water and were very dry. Had a rest and aired our feet. Saddled up and moved off at 1pm. A snake was found in one of our ammunition pack saddles and promptly despatched. Camped in an open plain, very dry and tired. Some of the men made a rush for the waterholes, but the colonel stopped them. Smikky, Dick, Bibby and I went for wood and a big branch of a thorn tree fell on me, tearing my shirt a bit.

Total for the day 12 miles. Colonel sick in the motor car as a result of the water, I suppose.

Chortle chortle, tea that makes you feel queer. On a more serious note, there’s enough disease going round at the moment (most units have now lost 60% or more of their men to disease) without this cretin trying to poison everyone.

Herbert Sulzbach

Germany’s laziest gunner-sergeant Herbert Sulzbach is being shuffled about. I wonder if this will mean him having to do any more work?

I move house to the Loermont site, a hillside position which is, if anything, even more idyllic than Evricourt. It is in a meadow at the edge of a wood; there is still a huge amount to be done, reinforcing dugouts and completing the concrete gun-pits. It’s beautiful up here as the late summer days pass. In the evenings we sit at the guns and entertain each other, and in addition we get entertained by our Very light lookout, who sits up a tree on and sings songs. This sentry is up there to keep track of the coloured lights the infantry fire off. The colour codes are often changed, of course, so the French don’t find out what each colour means.

Of course not. The trench mortars on each side get into semi-frequent scraps, but the field artillery remains mostly quiet, conserving ammunition. It’s a lovely war.

Louis Barthas

Let’s keep the mood up, shall we? Louis Barthas spends rather a lot of time describing a particular position where the French hold one part of an old communication trench, and the Germans another, with a small and rather weedy barricade in the middle. Then he wonders how scared some rear-echelon slacker might be if he were forced to garrison this most dangerous of outposts.

Calm and tranquility reigned in this area. Some smoked, others read, some wrote, a few squabbled, without lowering their voices one note. And if these patriots, these slackers, had lent an ear, they would have heard the Germans coughing, spitting, talking, singing, etc., with the same lack of ceremony. Their stupefaction would have changed to bewilderment if they had seen the French and German sentries seated tranquilly on their parapets, smoking pipes and exchanging bits of conversation from time to time, like good neighbors taking some fresh air at their doorsteps.

From relief to relief, we passed along the habits and customs of these outposts. The Germans did the same. Even if the whole Champagne burst into flames, not a single grenade would fall in this privileged corner. It’s certain that a clever command could have profited from this opportunity to gain specific intelligence about the sector: the likelihood of poison-gas attacks, the plans for blowing up mines, or attacks, or various positions. All that would be needed would be a few litres of pinard or a few quarts of eau-de-vie, which the Germans lacked, to loosen their tongues.

But no one would have dared suggest this to our bosses. This would have been admitting the start of fraternisation with the enemy. A firing squad could well have been the response to such a suggestion. It’s as if, in the time of the Inquisition, a poor fellow had confessed that he had just had a conversation with Satan.

Barthas, unsurprisingly, likes this sort of thing, and continues his loving exposition for several pages. I do like to hear about sensible chaps getting along with each other, but I can only do so much writing per day…

Clifford Wells

Lieutenant Clifford Wells is still training at Le Havre, with enough time to make friends with attractive chaps, cough cough, and still write home to his dear mother.

It has been, and is, extremely warm and dusty, and the swim in the sea, which I manage to get in nearly every day, is very refreshing. I can really float in the salt water, so you no longer have the family monopoly of that accomplishment. I am beginning to like salt water for swimming, although I always used to prefer the fresh. What kind of a time did you have in Knowlton this year? I was glad to receive the picture post card of the place.

It seems more than a year since I was there. I am enjoying life here. I have many nice friends among the officers, and am continually running across men whom I have met in one capacity or another since I enlisted. When I first joined up, I knew scarcely anyone in the whole Expeditionary Force. Now I have many acquaintances and friends from all parts of Canada. One of my best friends is a boy named Ford, who recently received his commission. He was at McGill University when war broke out, and is an exceptionally attractive chap.

He is commonly called “Henry” after his famous peace-making namesake, who, as he is very careful to state on every possible occasion, is no relative of his.

Knowlton is a small village on the banks of Brome Lake in Quebec, which has long been a favourite haunt of the wealthiest Montreal millionaires (and their idiot sons). When Princess Anne competed in the Olympics in 1976 and her family all came to Canada to support her, including the Queen, they stayed in a large country house on Brome Lake.

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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