Smuts | Stewart | Fischer | 15 Mar 1916

Africa

General Smuts is deeply, deeply unhappy that Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is sitting pretty at Kahe rather than walking into a gentleman’s captivity. When the Commander-in-Chief is unhappy he often spreads it around with a shovel, and Smuts more so than most. He begins with the obvious step of sacking General Malleson. Amusingly enough, General Tighe has already recommended Malleson for promotion to Major-General, and this will take effect despite Malleson’s dismissal.

His next move is rather more contentious. He’s written a dispatch to the War Office in which he entirely blames General Stewart for not marching his men from Longido to Moshi and then to Kahe at the double. Apparently it should have been possible to do the entire march in five days and thereby encircle 2,000-odd Schutztruppe at a stroke, without a care in the world for concerns like “what if we get attacked?”

Indeed, if this genuinely was Smuts’s intention, why attack Salaita Hill so soon? Why not wait a couple more days and give Stewart plenty of time to get in behind? Why send the South African Horse to Moshi, which he surely could have guessed would prompt a Schutztruppe retreat to somewhere else? It’s clear that Stewart’s true flaws are failing to be recklessly offensive, and daring to question his boss. This will not do, and Stewart’s getting the tin tack as well.

And still Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck sits at Kahe. There’s a rather odd event often attributed to him and today that’s worth a moment’s consideration. The story goes that one Major Fischer, appointment unknown, has somehow disappointed von Lettow-Vorbeck that when they meet today, he provides Fischer with a pistol and lets the poor major do the gentlemanly thing. It’s not mentioned in von Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs; the source, such as it is, appears to be Robert Valentine Dolbey, an army doctor who wrote a combination memoir and rumour collection in early 1918, and prefaces it with “The tale is told…”

I’ve since seen the story retold in various forms. Nobody seems to be able to agree on what Fischer’s job was. I’ve seen him referred to as the commander at Salaita Hill, and the commander of the force that was supposed to be harrassing General Stewart. Dolbey says he was simply “in command at Moshi”. He also says, on an unrelated note, “In most of our naval operations our intelligence has been excellent”. This is the same intelligence that missed the salvage of both Konigsberg and Kronborg, mind you. I’d hate to see what bad intelligence looks like.

It’s also the same intelligence who’s completely missed the presence of one Marie, a repurposed minesweeper who today lands a vast cargo of munitions at Sudi Bay in the far south of German East Africa. This will be the last supply ship to reach Africa from Germany; her munitions will remain in theatre until the end of the war. It’s also carrying an Iron Cross for the boss, incidentally. Anyway, if that’s the sort of bollocks Dolbey’s talking about intelligence, I don’t see why we should believe him about von Lettow-Vorbeck and Fischer. More soon.

Meanwhile, in Europe

Two things of note in Europe today, aside from the continuing meat grinder at Verdun. In Portugal the three-months-old government has just fallen after Austria-Hungary adds its obligatory declaration of war. Which is a good start for their stalwart campaign against the villainous Hun, I’m sure. But don’t worry, the new government is just as committed to the war as the old one.

Up at the front, those supposedly-obsolete French forts are finding a new lease of life. The Germans are advancing, very very slowly, on Fort Vaux and Fort Souville. These forts are quickly becoming major strongpoints in the French defensive system, even though the infantry battle hasn’t quite reached them yet. The others are all proving useful as supply dumps, troop barracks, field hospitals, and pretty much any other function where a giant concrete building is a desirable asset. They’re keeping French troops alive.

Meanwhile, the Germans have only Fort Douaumont, and it’s getting more than its fair share of heavy artillery attention from over the way. Perhaps it might have been better for General von Falkenhayn to attack Belfort instead, after all?

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian’s luck has just taken a turn for the worse. In the middle of nowhere, the caravan has heard gunshots. Two Jandarma go down the road to investigate, and they don’t return. The caravan eventually follows, and finds a band of what Balakian calls chetes waiting for them, a word of changeable definition. They’re carrying army equipment and wearing some elements of uniform; they could well be from the Special Organisation, as Balakian thinks, although there’s a possibility that they could be deserters from the army who’ve gone into business for themselves.

The first Jandarma we had sent was with the leader, who began to beat him with his own rifle. He had dared ask these men firing their Mausers who they were. The leader grabbed him and beat him severely, cursing the local government for ‘having made Jandarma out of pieces of wood like this’.

Mounted brigands were stationed on all the escape routes. Our blood froze, our minds weren’t working. Our consciousness and judgement were drained. We were truly a flock of sheep. If they attacked us, then we would have just extended our necks to meet the blades.

They’re at yet another bridge over the River Halys. That’s the last resort if they can’t somehow get out of this. This time there’s no canny Captain Shukri. Not even money can help now, since these are men prepared to kill and take it all. There’s only a priest and whatever bullshit he can think up in the next five minutes. Somehow he holds the leader’s attention just long enough to get the man to read their safe-conduct to Kayseri.

He read it twice. The second time he read aloud the lines, “Inform the Minister of the Interior and the government in Cankiri by telegram upon their safe arrival in Kayseri.” Then, giving a signal to the Turkish officers around him, he said to me laconically “You can go.”

To our poor caravan, already worn out from walking for six or seven hours, these last minutes seemed like years. We tried hard to contain our panic unitl we could get out of this place. None of us dared to look back, afraid of turning to pillars of salt.

After a few more hours, they reach a hamlet with a small coffee-house and collapse, barely able to sleep.

Herbert Sulzbach

Life goes on at Evricourt for Herbert Sulzbach.

The telephone lines to the batteries have all been shot through. When it gets quieter at 2am, we go out on telephone patrol, mending lines. Our duties out at the front take us into neighbouring sectors, as far as Dreslincourt, where the trenches run through houses and cellars. We make our number with the neighbouring infantry sectors, so as to find out what they want.

You wouldn’t know there was a major offensive going on if he hadn’t mentioned it. Lineman’s duty, by the way, is one of the most horrible jobs in the whole of the Army; inevitably at night, grovelling in the dark to find a wire that may or may not be there any more. Then all you have to do is connect it back up to the correct wire at the other end, which also may or may not be anywhere near where it’s supposed to be. (It’s never the right line first time, of course.)

Without the linemen, messages can’t get through. Field-telephones don’t work. Artillery support can’t be called in. Messages have to go by runner. And there’s always the sneaking suspicion that if a shell’s landed here once, why isn’t another one going to land soon…?

Bernard Adams

Nothing of importance is going off at the Bois Francais; so Lieutenant Bernard Adams decides to live in slightly more interesting times than he has been. A brother officer, Lieutenant Todd, passes him in the trench, and they strike up conversation.

“Where are you off to?”
“Going on patrol,” was the reply. “Oh, by the way, you probably know something about this rotten sap opposite the Quarry. I’m going out to find out if it’s occupied at night or not.”
“Opposite the Quarry” said I. “Oh, yes, I know it. We get rather a good view of it from No. 1 Post.”
“…The worst of it is I was going with 52 Jones; only his leave has just come through. I’m trying a fellow called Edwards, but I don’t know him.”

Men named Jones are as common in a Welsh battalion as Smiths are in an English one; as Lieutenant Todd shows here, the usual practice is to distinguish them by the last two digits of their army number.

“If you can’t get Edwards,” I said suddenly, “I’ve a good mind to come out with you. Meet me at Trafalgar Square, and let me know.”
As Will disappeared, I immediately repented of my offer, repented heartily, repented abjectly. I had never been on patrol, and a great sinking feeling came over me. I hoped with all my might that Edwards would be bubbling over with enthusiasm for patroling. I was afraid. With all the indifference to shells and canisters that was gradually growing upon me, I had never been out into No Man’s Land. And yet I had volunteered to go out, and at the time of doing so I felt quite excited at the prospect. “Fool,’ ‘I said to myself.

Men who regularly volunteer to go out into No Man’s Land on patrol, or on raids, are often excused going over the top during an attack. Instead, they form the survivor cadre of men who are deliberately left behind in case of disaster. With a deep breath, Adams takes the plunge.

When I saw Will and Captain Robertson to-gether on the fire-step peering over, I felt rather bucked with myself. Hitherto I had felt like an enthusiastic bather undressing, nearly everyone else having decided it was not warm enough to bathe. Now it was as if I suddenly found that they were watching me as I ran down the beach, and I no longer repented of my resolution. Next moment I was climbing up on to the slimy sandbag wall, and dropping over the other side.

The extended bathing metaphor continues as they crawl out towards the German wire.

“Swiiis-s-s-sh.” A German flare shot up from ever so close. It seemed to be falling right over US! Then it burst with a “pop”. I had my head down on my arms, but I could squint out sideways. It seemed impossible we should not be seen; for there, hardly twenty yards away, was the German wire, as clear as anything. Meanwhile the flare had fallen behind us. Would it never go out? I noticed the way the blades of grass were lit up by it; and there was an old tin or something. … I started as a rat ran across the grass past me. I wondered if it were a German rat, or one of ours.

Then at last the flare went out, and the blackness was intense.

They confirm that there are, indeed, Germans in the sap, obviously some kind of listening-post (it must not be listening very hard), and then turn for home. At which point, the Germans begin letting off some Minenwerfer rounds.

Up it mounted, up, up, up, hovered a moment, then turned, and with a gathering impetus blazed down somewhere well behind our front trench. “Trafalgar Square,” I thought, as I lay doggo, for the blaze lit up the sky somewhat. I enjoyed this. It was rather a novel way of seeing canisters, and moreover a very safe way. Two more streamed over. Then our footballs answered, and burst with a bang in the air not so very far over into the German lines. The trench-mortar fellow was evidently trying short fuses, for usually our trench-mortar shells burst on percussion.

Calling them “footballs” indicates that the local mortar units haven’t yet received the latest Stokes mortars. They must instead be using the oft-nicknamed Medium Mortar, known also as the “toffee apple” or “plum pudding” after its bulbous bombs-on-a-stick.

In the distance I heard four bangs, and the Boche 4.2s started, screaming over at Maple Redoubt. I determined to move on. Then suddenly came four distant bangs from the right of our lines (as we faced them), and four whizz-bangs burst right around us, with most appalling flickers. “Bang—bang” … “bang-bang” in the distance again, and I braced every muscle tightly, as you do when you prepare to meet a shock. Behind us, and just in front, the beastly things burst. I lay with every fibre in my body strained to the uttermost.

And yet I confess I enjoyed the sensation!

There was a lull, and I began crawling as fast as I could. I stopped to see if Will was following. “By God,” I heard, “let’s get out of this.” So I was thinking! Then as I went on I saw the edge of a crater. Where on earth was I? … It was not long before we could see wire in the distance. Then I got up and ran. How I got through that wire I don’t know; I tore my puttees badly, and must have made a most unnecessary rattling. After which I fell into the ditch.

“Thank heaven you’re all right,” was the greeting from Captain Robertson. “I was just coming out after you. Those damned artillery fellows. I sent down at once to ‘phone to them to stop…” And so on. I hardly heard a word. I was so elated, I could not listen. As we went back to Trafalgar Square for dinner, I heard them warning the sentries. “The patrol’s in.”

I looked up at the sandbag parapet. “In,” I thought. ”One does not realise what ‘in’ is, till one’s been out.”

Adrenaline, folks. It’s a hell of a drug.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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