Somme ennui | Erzincan | 5 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme continues drifting aimlessly. At the top, both commanders-in-chief are busy fiddling around with the organisation of their forces. General Haig has now all but abandoned the idea of “Reserve Army” as a breakthrough formation, used to create and deliver a cavalry push on Bapaume. Let’s have the map again.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Instead, attempting to react to the changing situation, he’s divided the Somme battlefield in two. Reserve Army has been moved into the line and taken over responsibility for everything north of the Albert to Bapaume road. This will in turn allow General Rawlinson’s smaller, leaner 4th Army to concentrate on exploiting its success south of the road. General Gough is busy trying to wrap his head around his new job, completely different to what he was originally supposed to be doing. Rawlinson is happily chatting away with the French about pushing on to Longueval, Guillemont and Combles.

Meanwhile, corps and division commanders are still doggedly trying to carry out their original orders as best they can. There’s still sputtering fighting going on at Thiepval. A German counter-attack throws some men out of a small lodgement near the Schwaben Redoubt. The BEF brigadier orders a counter-counter-attack; it wins another toehold on the Leipzig Spur. Another German reply follows; another BEF response. It is at least keeping German manpower flowing north of the road, but ye gods, could there maybe have been a less bloody way to do it? To the south, the only real movement is a series of small-scale leapfrogs towards Contalmaison. (The out-of-whack map scale, or lack of same, makes them look quite a lot more than they actually are.)

General von Falkenhayn, meanwhile, is burning his candle at about four ends at the same time. He’s trying to plot a major re-organisation of forces on the Somme, and oversee the latest plan to capture Fort Souville, and keep up with the news from the Western Front, and keep up with Berlin politics. Second Army’s General von Below is preparing for an upcoming reorganisation, and trying to form a working relationship with a new chief of staff.

And so the situation on the ground is drifting in exactly the same way. Without fresh directions from higher command, middle layers of command are trying to get things done as best they can. This is translating into badly-coordinated small-unit attacks with very little chance of success. The BEF is launching them against Ovillers and Thiepval, the Germans against Mametz, Montauban, and the French near Peronne. They’re keeping the doctors in work, but that’s about it. I’m not sure this is what attrition is supposed to look like, yo. Right now, nobody seems to have much control over anything. The battle is drifting.

Battle of Erzincan

Russian operations west of Erzincan have just hit a snag. On their right, General Lyakhov was supposed to wait for the attack on the left to break through towards Bayburt. This would have allowed him easy progress against enemy forces with an excellent excuse to withdraw quickly to keep in touch with their retreating friends. However, this passive attitude doesn’t suit his personality. There’s not much glory in refusing to fight until your opponent falls over from someone else’s attack, and then kicking him while he’s down.

So he’s attacked towards Mamahatun now, while numbers are still even. Here the Ottomans have committed some brand-new German artillery pieces, and their German chief of staff Colonel Guse has been able to pass on advice on how to best use them. It’s a bloody day for Lyakhov’s men, with only slight territorial gains; more tomorrow.

JRR Tolkien

Good news/bad news for JRR Tolkien. Good news is that he’s not on burial parties any more. Bad news; this is because his battalion is going up the line. Bad news again, they’re going to to La Boisselle. It’s still an extremely unhealthy spot as the occupying BEF forces play Whack-A-Mole with the slowly-dwindling number of German defenders. But, good news. Let’s remember that Tolkien is a signals officer. He’s been left behind at Bouzincourt, partly for general liaison purposes, partly to be in the survivor cadre, and partly because Divisional Headquarters, also in the village, needs an extra subaltern.

So, having just begun to form a bond with his men, he now has to watch them march off up the line to a deeply uncertain future. Well, one part at least is certain; some of them will not come back.

Neil Tennant

Bring on the new correspondents! Neil Tennant is a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Flying Corps. Why bring him in when we’re already hearing from Alan Bott? Because Lt-Col Tennant is not going to the Somme. He’s going to command 30 Squadron, which you may recall last hearing of in the dying days of the Siege of Kut, when they manfully attempted to airlift supplies in to Edward Mousley and his mates.

We join him on board ship in the Red Sea. He’s not going direct to Mesopotamia; for reasons best known to the War Office, he’s first sailing to India, and from there back to the Middle East.

The Briton had not been built for these climates; the saloon at meals was like an Inferno, and it was too hot to sleep. The stokers were white men, and unable to carry on unsupported, so forty volunteers were called for, and the Welsh Fusilier ex-miners responded. The temperature of the sea rose to 92 degrees Farenheit, and the atmosphere was soaking. The ship’s doctor died of heat-stroke; we buried him over the poop deck next morning in a thick haze of heat. The human frame could stand little more; the perspiration ran from head on to deck and down legs into boots.

No sooner had we buried the doctor than one of the crew went down outside my cabin; his clothes were taken off, and we put him close to the side of the ship to get any air there might be, but despite all efforts he was gone in two hours. Such is the Red Sea in July.

If nothing else, our new man is affecting an iron-stiff upper lip. Don’t worry, he gets more interesting when he actually starts doing his job. Infantry battalion commanders are now being encouraged, in no uncertain terms, to resist the temptation to lead their men over the top, and instead offer direction from the rear. RFC officers, on the other hand, are most valuable in the air; Tennant will be fighting like a private and commanding like a colonel at the same time.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier, who before the war lived in the USA, is still decompressing from service in the Vosges. There’s not been much in the way of rest, though.

We are out here to get into walking training once more and to forget the trenches in case the attack in the North with the English should be successful. It is a very nice change, for the present at least. The summer so far has been very rainy and the trenches where we were in places were so sandy that we were kept building the walls all the time while in other spots the water did not drain off and the dugouts were very unhealthy places. There was so much sickness that at one time we were not more than one hundred men for eight hundred and fifty yards!

Now everybody is fattening up and all the troubles are forgotten. We don’t expect to go up North before the middle of the month and we fully enjoy our dip into civilized life without worrying about what may come later the motto in this business more than in any other being “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”.

Yesterday was July 4th. That date must have had a special significance to the USAfolk this year, after these months of tribulations as a neutral nation, a narrowly escaped Mexican war and a presidential campaign ahead.

Now, this implies that he’s going to be heading to the Battle of the Somme, which would make me very happy. We’ve seen the sharp end of Verdun twice, but English-language accounts of the French part of the Somme are like hen’s teeth. “Sufficient unto the day…” is half a King James Bible quote, again from the Sermon on the Mount. In full it’s a warning to worry about the troubles of today, instead of the troubles of tomorrow; a life lesson for the soldier at war if ever there was one.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

Briggs Kilburn Adams, a newly-minted American volunteer ambulance driver, is getting used to having a proper job after a comfortable life at Harvard University. He’s staying in a requisitioned chateau which is now serving as a dormitory for all sorts of odds and sods.

There are six of us in a room that used to be a reception room on the ground floor, but my bed is near a window, so it is not bad. There are no hooks, no closets, no chiffonier, so you cannot unpack; and you have to have, your bags either under or on your bed. But all inconveniences are passed by with a shrug of the shoulder and the remark, “C’est la guerre.”

We saw some terrible results of German warfare. I saw one man with only a slight wound, but whose nerves were so gone that he couldn’t hold himself in a chair, but would literally shake himself off. Another fellow had both legs and arms gone, and his head all bandaged. Another whose face was burned to a charcoal. Eyes, nose, all gone, but living. One expects bullet wounds, or to lose a limb or two, even a head, if necessary, but to have a blackened mis-shapen nothing for a head and still live, makes you realize that not only is this the biggest but the most horrible war of all history.

I find only thoughts bother me. Even the odors in the Ambulance trains, which are awful, do not phase me. I am getting a lot of interesting experiences and even if I cannot go out to the front, I am close enough to hear the guns at night, and get first-hand accounts. It looks as if the big drive had really started, so we will be busy here for some time. But we have plenty of hands and will work in shifts, and so get on all right.

Jeannot obtenu son fusil.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is today writing home to his parents with some important news. His number has been called.

Yesterday I was warned to be ready on Friday to proceed overseas to the 8th Battalion. This battalion…is called the Black Devils or Little Black Devils, or more often simply the LBDs. This is what the regiment was called by the Indians in the Northwest Rebellion. At least one of the Indians who fought against the regiment in the rebellion is now serving in its ranks. I am lucky to be going with three officers whom I know, to a battalion where I am already known to many of the officers and men. The officers of the 8th are an unusually kind and cordial set.

Those who came over with the First Contingent (I have been associated with many such since I got my commission) are as considerate of late arrivals, even those who came over months after I did, as of those who belonged to the original 8th. In [Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry], I found some of the few surviving officers of the “original” a little inclined to be snobbish in their attitude towards those who came overseas later.

I have two days’ leave, and have come to London for a rest, and to get a few odd articles that I still need. My course at the Canadian Military School has been rudely interrupted, after little more than two weeks. But even in two weeks one can learn a good deal, and I feel better qualified than if I had not gone to the school at all.

He’s been kicking his heels in England long enough. Off to the war. The King wants you.

Henri Desagneaux

We finish with Henri Desagneaux, survivor of Verdun. He’s only just beginning his period of post-battle rest. However, he now offers the pithiest of postscripts to two weeks of sheer unmitigated hell.

Promoted to Captain.

And then he goes silent to enjoy his rest.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

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