Smuts | Deserters at Verdun | 30 Jan 1916

Battle of Verdun

The worst-kept secret on the Western Front continues to be terribly kept. There’s a steady stream of deserters coming across No Man’s Land into the French trenches at night. None of them can, as yet, give any concrete details about anything. However, they’re all talking about leave being suspended, more artillery (and more heavy artillery) being brought in, unofficial warnings being passed down from their officers about difficult days ahead. There’s a few more items that sound more like latrine rumours; the suggestion that the Kaiser is planning a grand military review at Verdun, for instance.

We have a demonstration of two things. First; it is really, really, really difficult to keep a major offensive secret. Really difficult. But second; imagine for a moment that you are utterly convinced the enemy is planning a major offensive…somewhere else, and anything at Verdun would be a diversion. There is a seductive line of reasoning to follow. If you were in command of a diversion, wouldn’t it be a good idea to tell your men that they are in fact going to be in the main offensive? You don’t want the enemy to somehow capture orders saying “hey, this is just a diversion for the main attack 200 miles away”, after all…

One of Sherlock Holmes’s lesser-known maxims was that it is a capital make to theorise without data. “Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” But, of course, Holmes never had to investigate the intentions of an enemy during wartime. The start of the Battle of Verdun is two weeks away.


When we left the preparations for an invasion of German East Africa, we found General Smith-Dorrien resigning his new command, far too ill to take it up properly. His replacement has now been settled, and this one is the left-field choice to end all left-field choices. Jan Smuts is not a soldier, although he made his name in the Boer War. Having been a prominent lawyer, journalist, and eventually a politician, he originally served as a propaganda, logistics, and liaison officer.

By 1901, however, he was out in the field with a Boer commando unit, during which he caused the British Empire forces no end of trouble and played a leading part in the negotiations at the end of the war. Now he’s the second best-known man in South Africa, after its prime minister Louis Botha. His star is firmly on the rise after having led a South African army into German South-West Africa and conquered it in record time. He’s already turned down the appointment once, but now Botha and Smuts are both sure enough of their political position for General Smuts, as he is now, to accept.

There has been quite a bit of muttering among the red tabs who had been expecting to serve under Smith-Dorrien…but what’s the alternative? Send out Sir Ian Hamilton, or Freddie Stopford? As one of Smuts’s staff officers (and devoted supporter), Major van der Byl, pointed out, “British dugouts…had not been very successful”. The history of the campaign in East Africa so far has been one of old generals blundering around the place with their bootlaces tied together. Smuts can hardly be any worse. Can he?


With plenty of BEF reinforcements now opposite the Germans’ new home in Frise, neither side is now much willing to attack. Heavy mist keeps the guns mostly quiet, as well, which allows Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler to do something bold but stupid.

I did a bit of stalking into the marsh, getting within ear-shot of the Hun in Frise. Why is it one always forgets to take a rifle on these expeditions? However, it was so foggy that I should have had no chance of slaying, although I got quite close to them and could hear them talking and hammering and evidently making themselves quite at home.

…At least we can’t accuse him of cowardice. Over the past two months of war, he’s begun to develop a careful taste for killing. More on that to come.

Clifford Wells

But, for now, here’s another new boy. (Hold onto your hats; there’s quite a few more coming along.) This one’s Canadian, and he’s been in England about a month, training at Shorncliffe Camp. When first I picked up his memoirs I was hoping for an NCO’s story; he showed aptitude and was quickly promoted while still in Canada. Unfortunately, his well-to-do Montreal background (he’s in a University company for students interrupting their studies to go to war with friends) has proven too strong to resist…

For some reason or other a sudden shortage of officers occurred in the division, and the various battalions were asked to recommend for promotion a certain number of “NCO’s not below the rank of Sergeant.” The 11th Reserve Battalion was asked to recommend four. I was one of the four, two of the remaining three also being Sergeants of the 4th University Company.

Poor innocent lamb. Who wants to tell him “it’s because they’re all dead, mate”? So he’s been given a commission and sent off to a bombing course.

The other two Sergeants promoted from our company were both qualified Lieutenants when they enlisted. I hope we shall be sent to a regular school of training after we finish our Bombing Course. My military knowledge has been picked up in a haphazard kind of way, and there are gaps in it which make me wish for a regular officers’ training course.

I am a full Lieutenant with two stars on my sleeve. There are no Second Lts in the Canadian Army. London is full of English 2nd Lts with one star. A week ago I should have saluted them. Now I can treat them with calm indifference.

Meanwhile, his company commander is trying his best to stop the university boys from getting swelled heads.

The [Officer Commanding] of the company now is a Captain John Collins, an Irishman with a truly wonderful vocabulary. He has been in the army for 29 years, rising from the ranks, and has great contempt for school-boy officers, and school-boy NCOs. Some of the expressions which he uses are really classic. It is a pleasure to be “called down” by him.

A poor young Lieutenant made a mistake recently. John’s comment, loud enough to be heard by the Battalion, was, “for goodness sake, put some intilligint private in charge of that platoon.” An expression which he used of one of our men was: “that imbecile son of some Montreal millionaire.” We are “imbecile sons of Montreal millionaires” to the rest of the camp now. Every sentence he utters is picturesque and shows the Celtic imagination, and his brogue is delightful.

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is moving out from Montagne and marching back to the war. He’s still in an extremely chipper mood after Third Army School and then leave, but he’s detecting a distinct strain of pessimism among his company. Most of the battalion goes on ahead of him; his company stays behind to clear up odds and sods, and hand over the billet to the next lot coming in to rest. At length, off they go also.

I rallied them. I persuaded. I whistled, hoping to put a tune into their dull hearts; and as we swung downhill into Riencourt they began to sing. It was but a sorry thin sort of singing though, like a winter sunshine; there was no power behind it, no joy, no spontaneity. Suddenly, however, as we came into the village, there was a company of the Warwicks falling in, and everyone sang like fury. Baker, one of the last draft, was the moving spirit. But he is young to this life, and later on, when the fog had entered their souls again, he said he could not well sing with a pack on. Yet is not that the very time to sing, is not that the very virtue of singing, the conquest of the poor old body by the indomitable spirit?

The march goes on. They rest, they eat, they’re accompanied part of the way by a stray dog. A few men fall out. Then something interesting happens.

We had just turned off the main Amiens road, and come to a forked road. I halted a moment to make sure of the way by the map, and while I did so apparently some sergeant from a regiment billeted in the village there told Sergeant Hayman that the battalion had taken the left road. The way was to the right, and as I struck up a steep hill. Sergeant Hayman ran up and told me the battalion (which had started nearly two hours before us) had gone to the left. ‘I’m going to the right, sergeant,’ said I. And the sergeant returned to the rear.

Up, up, up. Grind, grind, grind. I began to hear signs of doubt behind. “Did you hear that? Said the battalion went t ‘other way,” and so on. “Ain’t ‘e got a map all right?” from a believer. “Three kilos more,” I said at the next stop. But some of the fellows had got it into their heads, I could see, that we were wrong. I studied the map; there was no doubt we were all right. Yet a mistake would be calamitous, as the men were very done.

Hasn’t everyone who’s trying to navigate themselves to an unfamiliar place had this feeling at some point? He’s getting more and more nervous as the march goes on. Is he destined to turn into Commandant Quinze-Grammes, who reads a map like a carp reads a prayer book?

Ah! a [signpost]! ‘Two kilometres to…’ a place not named on the map at all. This gave me a qualm; and behind came the usual mispronunciations of this annoying village on the stone. But lol on the left came a turning as per map. Round we swung, downhill, and suddenly we were in a village. Another qualm as I saw it full of Jocks.

The doubters were just beginning to realize this fact, when we turned another corner, and almost fell on top of the Commanding Officer! In five minutes we were in billets…”

They’ve marched over 20 miles today. No wonder a few of them couldn’t handle the pace and fell out; that’s “retreating from Mons” speed.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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