Smuts | Kondoa | 4 May 1916

Smuts and Kondoa

Just about the only news today is from Kondoa Irangi, where General Smuts has gone forward to see how utterly terrible things are for himself. He doesn’t have much to bring them except stiffening words, and promises that the first proper supply column is totally going to be here any day now you guys. On its own, a footnote to a footnote in any story of the campaign.

But as it happens, over on the other side of the hill Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is just three days away from beginning his counter-attack, having allowed a relatively relaxed timetable for his troop transfers. If he’d taken a little more risk and planned to start today, or yesterday! That could well have been van Deventer and Smuts both in the bag. We’ve had generals aplenty captured in the war, but as yet, no senior members of government.

E.S. Thompson

Meanwhile, about 270 miles to the north, E.S. Thompson is just finishing his journey to Arusha. Through the rainy season. Still ridiculous and ill-advised.

Got up late and had a good breakfast. Packed up our kits and tents tightly. There were about 500 porters altogether and 50 were given to us. They make an awful row and chatter like monkeys.

When I am given fifty black men to carry all the shit I can’t be bothered carrying, I too will immediately begin making racist comments about them and not be grateful in any way, shape, or form.

We started and had awful roads to traverse slipping and sliding all over the place. Every few hundred yards we would have to wade through a river thus never giving our boots the chance to dry.

No, he’s never met a nice South African, and that’s not bloody surprising mun, because we’re a bunch of terrible soldiers, dying of malaria.

We must have marched about 12 miles stopping at 3 o’clock for lunch. My feet were pretty sore but I managed to keep up. We passed any amount of motor cars stuck in the mud including 2 Armoured Machine Gun Motors. We arrived at Arusha about 5 and marched to our quarters. From what I could see of it it looks quite a decent town or village.

Thompson’s car has been left behind for just this reason.

Haig and Clemenceau

General Haig today has a rather interesting meeting with Georges Clemenceau, leader of the closest thing to a French opposition movement. Officially he is chairman of the Senate Military Committee, exercising political oversight of the conduct of the war. When not doing politics, his newspaper L’homme enchaine (The Chained Man, formerly The Free Man) hosts such criticism as censorship regulations allow.

[Clemenceau’s] object in coming to see me was to get me to exercise a restraining hand on General Joffre, and prevent any offensive on a large scale being made until all is ready. We cannot expect that Russia will be able to do much towards the defeat of Germany, so we must rely on ourselves. If we attack and fail, there will be a number of people in France who will say that the time has arrived to make terms. The French Government would certainly go out, and M. Caillaux would be the only alternative to M. Briand.

Yes, this is the same Joseph Caillaux whose wife, Henriette Caillaux, was at the centre of that hugely scandalous murder trial during the July Crisis. French politics, yo! Gotta love that “having a wife who shot a major newspaper editor” is not an immediate disqualification from office. (As I said at the time: imagine if Michelle Obama killed Roger Ailes, chief poobah at Fox News.) Since the start of the war he’s been trying to build a coalition for peace in the National Assembly. So far he’s not had too much success, but if things carry on the way they’re going…

I assured him that I had no intention of taking part prematurely in a great battle. Of course, I was making ready to support the French in case anything in the nature of a catastrophe were to happen at Verdun. But such a situation seems most unlikely to arise now. … He asked me, was I under Joffre’s orders? I said Certainly NOT. At the same time it must be realised that there can be only one man responsible for the plans. These Joffre and his Staff worked out for France and I did my best to cooperate with them. But I was responsible for the method of employment of the British forces. If anything unfortunate happened, I am responsible and must bear the blame.

Clemenceau assured me that he had only one objective; to serve his Country and help the Allies to win.

Dunno about anyone else, but I’m getting distinct “French Churchill” vibes from Clemenceau. Except without the bit where he threw a hissy fit and exiled himself to the trenches. Clemenceau is quite content to be a malcontent from the safety of his favoured Parisian cafes and salons, merci-vous very much.

The Sunny Subaltern

In the Ypres salient, the Sunny Subaltern has spent the last few days being strafed and raided at Hooge.

I went through my first heavy bombardment at really close range. They dumped Crumps, Coal Boxes, Shrapnel and Whizz-bangs to the number of about three hundred all around us for two hours and then attacked. Just as night overshadowed daylight and objects began to grow indistinct, one of my sentries reported a party out in the front. Suddenly from our right, rapid fire and machine guns opened up, and so I gave the order “fifteen rounds rapid.”

Keyed up and ready were the boys, and we gave them a few hundred capsules of steel. Squeals, grunts, and moans, then the reverberating roar of machine guns, and rifle fire ceased. So, our first real attack was repulsed. Further on, our line suffered more heavily but I guess we were fairly lucky. All the night they kept at us with bombs, rifle grenades and trench mortars to which we replied in kind vigorously, but they learned their lesson from that taut tense ten minutes. No more attacks.

The battalion has lost one officer and eight men killed, fourteen men wounded, and twelve have simply disappeared, never to be seen again. Six more have been dispatched to the rear to suffer an uncertain fate as shell shock casualties.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White has come out of the line, and is bagging on…himself? Well, this is an interesting new turn.

The Battalion marched through beautiful country. Everywhere Corot Landscapes, and avenues like those of de Hooch, and orchards just beginning to blossom, in one of which we halted. It was the first time I have marched as part of a Battalion with Transport, etc. The pleasure of it all was partly spoiled by my regrets at some gross pieces of incompetence on my part.

Even though he refuses tell us exactly what he did wrong, this is highly unusual. A lot of junior officers are usually quite prepared to say things in a general sense like “oh, we had no idea what to do, and just sort of muddled through somehow”. However, it’s much rarer to see someone admit to being any worse at his job than just “muddling through”, the Incident of the Boiled Beef (is it beef? is it boiled?) aside. And that was back in 1915, mind you.

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