Smuts in East Africa | French politics | 19 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

Not today, thank you. It’s still raining. Still no battle. As we saw yesterday, the Germans are now starting to get slightly restless with all the waiting.

French politics

Rumbling distrust of the army’s (and General Joffre’s) ability to prosecute the war haven’t gone away. The Chamber of Deputies has thoroughly debated a motion that would have “reminded” the government that the chamber has the right to control “all mobilized national forces”. The motion’s been defeated, but it’s an important reminder that the political situation is a very long way from stable, and nobody can consider their position entirely secure. Hey, you know what would really suck? If, against this backdrop, the enemy were soon to launch a heavy and apparently successful offensive somewhere on the Western Front.

Africa and Smuts

Meanwhile, in Africa. General Smuts, who’s just arrived to take command of the theatre for the British Empire, is not the most conventional of men to take a command. As he sets off on a quick tour of the front, it’s probably unsurprising that not everyone in the Army is entirely enthusiastic about serving under him. For one thing, he’s just been told in detail how exactly the affair at Salaita Hill was screwed up. For another, he’s already had time to display one aspect of his personality; he’s constitutionally incapable of taking criticism. Anyone who expresses anything other than agreement with his ideas and theories is immediately in his bad books.

This is a big problem. Like General Smith-Dorrien, he’s got high hopes for the upcoming offensive, and he’s confident of success. Unlike Smith-Dorrien, that’s as far as his analysis goes. Smith-Dorrien had recognised the possibility that he was planning a gamble, and one that could easily turn into a difficult and protracted campaign. He’s even written one of his legendarily long-winded letters to Smuts pointing this out. But Smuts has absolutely time for that sort of thing. More soon.

Erzurum Offensive

With the Ottoman Third Army fast making tracks towards Erzincan, it’s time, as promised, to look back to the Black Sea coast. The Ottomans are holding some strong positions on the banks of the River Buyuk, too strong for the Russians to displace them simply by shelling from the Black Sea Fleet. General Lyakhov has therefore decided that the best thing to do, not two months after the abandonment of Gallipoli by the British Empire, is an amphibious attack.

It sounds like a stupid idea, and therefore it’s the only thing the Ottomans aren’t expecting. The general’s men have recently appropriated two cargo steamers built specifically to operate their current waters, with an extremely shallow draught for their size. Each ship can just about hold a battalion of men, after much pushing and packing and squeezing. Last night they set out, sailing without lights, for a pair of quiet, well-scouted, and entirely undefended beaches just to the rear of the Ottoman positions.

Not only do they land unobserved, it takes them just forty minutes to get the men ashore and ready to fight. They advance cautiously, and it’s only after their transports have reversed course and made good their escape that the Ottomans notice that there are suddenly two battalions right in behind them. Not a little panic ensues, quite understandably. They attempt artillery fire, and in the dark succeed only in allowing Russian observers to sight and range their muzzle flashes. After dawn the Black Sea Fleet appears, and very soon after that the Ottomans are on the retreat once again, this time falling back on Rize.

Rize is small, but with considerable local economic importance. It also happens to be only 30 miles from Trebizond. More soon. It’s such fun to see anyone achieving anything in this dratted war.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier describes his current situation, high on the Hartmannswillerkopf in the Vosges.

[I am in] a shack roofed over with tree trunks and rocks. It’s about seven feet and three feet to the ceiling. It opens right on the trench, which is as far from that of the Dutch as the Brooklyn house is from that across the two back-yards. Three sleep while three watch. My business is to see that they don’t sleep while out of the shack, that they look over enough to see, but not enough to be seen.

A year ago it was a finely forested little mountain overlooking the valley. Now there is not one whole tree on it; a few stumps only and those full of holes and shaky. The rocks kicked up by last year’s shelling show everywhere. We have been here for three weeks, but there is nothing much doing, just watching and watching.

When Pelissier writes in English, he uses the word “Dutch” to mean “German”. He spent time in America before the war, maybe he’s just having a giggle about the Pennsylvania Dutch. (Maybe someone was having a giggle with him?)

Maximilian Mugge

Time now to join someone who will have an extremely singular view of the war. Maximilian Mugge is a very, very minor author who’s published two books; one about Nietzsche, one about the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. He’s writing a third, a collection of Serbian folk songs, to raise money for Serbian refugee relief. He lives in London and he’s of German descent (whether he’s a first or second-generation immigrant from Germany is unclear), but he now is a naturalised British subject, and as far as he personally is concerned, his loyalty is to the King, not the Kaiser.

In fact, he’s spent the past year and a half trying to prove this by joining up, but he’s been continually rejected on suspicion of being a German spy. He’s tried to join the Army, and the Navy. He’s tried every possible route to the war, including the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Nobody wants him. But now it’s changed…

After many disappointments, at last my attempts to join the Army and “do my bit” are crowned with success. Hitherto I was turned down everywhere from the V.A.D. to the Recruiting Officer at the Mansion House, who all “regretted” and “were exceedingly sorry.” The War Office has at last in reply to my request issued instructions to admit me into the Army.

Based on the dates, I would say that there’s a reasonable chance that they’ve admitted him as one of the last British volunteers, instead of one of the first British conscripts. (The Military Service Act doesn’t come into force until next month.) Anyway, there will now be a delay while the War Office machinery clunks into action, but we’ll be back to Mugge in good time.

Edward Mousley

At the Siege of Kut, Edward Mousley has now relocated, but there’s precious little good news to be had.

This afternoon I spent some hours in Cockie’s observation post, river front, which is a tiny sandbag affair arranged around an opening in the roof to which a ladder leads from the first floor of the heavily bricked and sandbagged building on the river bank, and some forty yards from the water. This tiny strip of land, once the wharfage, is now grass green. To cross it is certain death. The Turks are thickly entrenched on the other side of the river, and have a bee line on every brick on the water front.

The post commands a view of three-quarters of the horizon, the whole of the right bank, and has artistic advantages all its own. The solitary waters of the sunlit [River Tigris] and the misty distances between and beyond the palm trees invite one to pleasant dreams after the strenuous times of trench days, and fort days, and perpetual dug-out days.

The reinforcing division is said to have embarked at Port Said on the 10th. That would remove the date of relief at least to the end of March. Food may be made to stretch, but the casualty list of sick will be very high. Even now some castes will not eat horseflesh, and the Mohammedans have refused to touch it.

They’ve also heard, somehow, of the fall of Erzurum. Mousley hopes, rather plaintively, that that might mean good news.

Malcolm White

Another day of settling in at the village of Canaples for Malcolm White. He’s already having mildly inane discussions with his brother officers, which is always a good sign.

Russell-Smith says the French are more patriotic than the English. I wonder if “Empire-building” nations are ever really patriotic. Perhaps we have expended our patriotism on imperialism. “Puck of Pook’s Hill” and the Sussex enthusiasm of Kipling have always been a surprise to me.

God knows what he’d make of Britain today, if he’s questioning whether Britain in 1916 was a patriotic nation. Puck of Pook’s Hill is a spectacularly cloying English fantasy book by Kipling.

Moved to A Company, where people received one with the same silent and detached air of saying, ‘This isn’t much of a picnic. Take a chair and share our boredom. Carry on.’ I heard the guns for the first time. It was very exciting, the first hearing. It was like seeing great men and saying, “So that’s Mr Asquith”.

Rumours of the Man’s Battalion coming here. That seems too incredible.

“The Man” is how White and his friend Evelyn Southwell referred to each other; as masters at Shrewsbury School, they were known simply as “The Men”. More soon.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

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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