Battle of the Somme
The weather has turned nasty over the Somme battlefields. Heavy summer rains are starting to blow in from the south, and they’re forecast to continue for a good few days. Generals Foch and Rawlinson confer and agree that they must wait for the rain to stop, and then allow the water time to drain away. “Z” Day is to be delayed once more, for a final time. After all the haggling and chopping and changing and changing back, we have now arrived once more at the men going over the top on the 1st of July 1916.
And the guns continue firing. The noise is now so loud that when the wind is right and a lot of them happen to fire in sync, the noise can be heard in England. This is causing a number of immediate practical problems, as Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler tells us.
Every order to the guns has to be written on slips of paper, it being absolutely impossible to hear the spoken word. The Hun commenced to reply, and what with frequent [premature detonations], the valley became pretty unhealthy. In the afternoon I went down to the front line in order to engage a portion of our zone which was difficult to see from our Observation Post. However, we had not been shooting long before some of our very heavy howitzers started a combined shoot on the Hun front line. However marvellous as a spectacle, this show did not conduce to accurate observation of our own small stuff.
About three o’clock the Huns started to reply in earnest and things became very sultry. We all got hit by some splinters, and Gunner Ryding had a wonderful escape, a razor-like splinter 15 inches long grazing the back of his neck. By 4pm the [telephone] wire was cut in many places, and I retired to my OP to continue the shoot from there. On arrival I found that Lowe, my OP subaltern, had gone off with four fractured ribs. A shell exploding near the OP had blown him down the 15-foot shaft, and although his fall was broken by the telephonist’s head, he managed to hurt himself pretty badly.
Here’s a problem that nobody appears to have considered beyond digging slit trenches in an attempt to protect their telephone lines. How do you keep the guns firing accurately once enemy return fire starts cutting the wire? I suppose it’s not so important right at this moment since everyone has a detailed firing plan. What happens when the guns are needed for on-call infantry support, though?
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the hill, it sucks. A lot. A whole honking lot. Here is Private Eversmann, who’s been underground near Thiepval for two days now.
They went at it left and right with heavy calibre guns and hammered us with shrapnel and light calibre pieces. Only with difficulty and distress have we obtained rations today. Two of my comrades got fatal hits while fetching dinner. The uncertainty is hard to bear. They have just found another of my comrades on his way back from ration carrying, a dear chap, three days back from leave and there he’s gone.
The German dugouts are generally equipped with at least two days of iron rations for just such an eventuality. For now, the men endure.
Battle of Verdun
The line at Verdun has almost entirely re-congealed. Here’s the map.
The attacks against Fort Souville have been suspended for the time being. Relentless artillery fire continues; it’s finally beginning to impact the concrete fort’s structural integrity. Everywhere else, there’s very little movement. The remnants of Fleury village, now reduced to a few scattered piles of shapeless rubble, are being brutally scrapped for. It’s often said that from now until mid-August, the rubble will change hands on sixteen different occasions. This is one of the purest expressions you will find of war as waste of life, senseless war, unthinking war, war for war’s sake.
Our heavy mortars bombard Thiaumont. We must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. [The army] attacks incessantly. It’s four days since we we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning, during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun. Filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing, I am unrecognisable, frighteningly dirty.
Henri Desagneaux is still alive. Therefore, he is doing well.
In command of the Ottoman Third Army, Vehip Pasha has been gathering intelligence for his next move. The staff thinks they’ve found a weak point in the Russian deployment, off to the north. There seems to be a chance of attacking towards Surmene, not far from Trebizond, and cutting the Russian main body off from the port they’ve just captured. A nasty high-altitude brawl breaks out on the Madur mountain. As planned, they seem to have caught a Turkistani battalion isolated and outnumbered, but mountain fighting is never easy and their opponents aren’t particularly minded to go anywhere. More soon.
Emilio Lussu’s adventures continue as the Italian army attempts simultaneously to harass the Austro-Hungarians in the foothills of the Dolomites while avoiding being shot for cowardice. His battalion’s machine guns have gone missing somewhere, so he goes back half a mile into the hills to find them. That’s not all he finds.
General Leone, [riding a mule alone], was climbing a rocky slope between the 2nd Battalion and our machine-gun unit. As the mule was moving along the edge of a steep drop, about 65 feet, it stumbled and the general fell off. The mule, unpeturbed, kept walking along the edge of the cliff. The general was hanging onto the reins, half his body dangling over the precipice. With each step, the mule yanked its head from side to side, trying to shake him off. There were a lot of soldiers nearby who saw him, but nobody made a move. I could see them all very clearly. Some of them winked at each other, smiling.
A soldier rushed out from the ranks of the machine-gun unit and threw himself on the ground in time to save the general. Without losing his composure, as though he had trained especially for accidents of this kind, the general re-mounted his mule, continued on his way, and disappeared. When the soldier’s comrades reached him, I witnessed a savage assault. … The soldier fell to the ground on his back. His comrades jumped on top of him. Punches and kicks slammed into the poor wretch, who was powerless to defend himself.
Lussu can’t watch any longer, and breaks it up. The man’s lieutenant appears, and offers a few quiet words of counsel.
“You imbecile! Today you dishonoured our unit. You should have done what everybody else did. Nothing. And even that was too much. A dumbass like you, I don’t even want in our unit. I’m going to have you thrown out. What were you supposed to do? You wanted to do something? Well then, you should have taken your bayonet and cut the reins and made the general fall off the cliff.”
“What? I should have let the general die?”
“Yes, you cretin, you should have let him die. And if he wasn’t going to die…you should have helped him die. Go back to the unit. If the rest of them kill you, you’ll have got what you deserve.”
The man’s eventual fate is unknown.
Those British MPs who have been looking out for the rights of the conscientious objectors have just heard of the men who were recently sentenced to death and then reprieved. They’re not happy, and today they’ve managed to get the Prime Minister into the House of Commons so he can listen to them shouting. Mostly he just sits there and hides behind his air-raid shelter Harold Tennant. Over the next week or so, they’ll face several sessions of outraged questioning, and determinedly fail to answer the questions. The Government has a war to fight, after all.
Heard this afternoon that I was to be transferred to the 111th Royal Musketeers. I always held the Practical Joke Department was, after all, cruel to be kind; they only want to provide the scribe with a unique chance of studying all sorts and conditions of regiments. It is so much nicer to be amongst the “men,” without the incubus of shallow-brained and drawling staff-officers and the smell of petrol. Little pleasantries are unavoidable.
Only on the 24th of May my people [in England] were informed that ” Pte. Mugge has been transferred to the Non-Combatant Corps…no other transfer can be sanctioned,” and the present surprise packet states that Pte. Mugge has been irregularly transferred to the NCC, and will now be dispatched to the Musketeers; which is as much of an apology as you can expect from those high and mighty Infallibles!
That this last letter from the playful gods took a fortnight to get from Whitehall to Boulogne is in harmony with the dignity essential to all action on the part of the first cousins of the [Servants of Peace]. This War Office letter is dated the thirteenth of June, and to-day we write the twenty-sixth.
Couple of notes here. Where it says [Servants of Peace] up there, there was originally a wanky ancient Greek word. Fortunately I know someone who knows a bit of ancient Greek, and we’ve decided Mugge was probably trying to make a “Ministry of Peace”-style gag.
The “Royal Musketeers” is, again, almost certainly the Royal Fusiliers. Beyond that, I’d need to start trawling war diaries to find out who was where at the right time. British battalion numbering does not go as high as a one-hundred and eleventh battalion of anything. The 11th (Service) Battalion RF is currently preparing to attack Montauban; Mugge is not going anywhere near the Somme. The Fusiliers don’t have any Territorial battalions; there is a 1/11th London Regiment, but they’re in Egypt. Git.
Malcolm White is touring the area that he’s going to be attacking when Z Day finally comes.
The Divisional General addressed the Battalion in the morning. In the afternoon I went up to the Sucrerie to reconnoitre a communication trench for carrying parties. I had a good view of the German lines round Beaumont Hamel, and the fountains of earth and smoke and ruin which spouted there. At 10 pm we moved to a bivouac a mile to the south of Beaussart, where the ground is shaken by a 15-inch howitzer close by. I begin to have a sort of pre-Bumping-race feeling from time to time. Heavy rain poured at intervals, and the men had no cover.
White competed in intercollegiate “bumping” or “bumps” rowing races at university, and then coached them while teaching at Shrewsbury. It’s a distinctly odd form of mass racing which involves a long line of boats, all chasing each other, and physically bumping into other boats to overtake them. What White is describing here, the rest of England knows as butterflies in the stomach.
White’s friend Evelyn Southwell has finished his time at the divisional school of instruction, and now finds himself in a rather odd part of the line with the 9th Rifle Brigade. I’m trying to find out where exactly it is, but wherever it is, it appears to run directly through a ruined village.
I am in the trenches, and also in a house, very much as before as regards situation. The first floor is not, and the roof is one of the never-was-es by all appearances, and the ground. And oh, I saw the Sussex at Boulogne, with all her bones stove in, without a trace of emotion. I have seen too many ruins before now in this game, and one is very like another; a house that is no house has too often been an everyday sight.
And so, when I came here, I found this billet a shade more demolished than anything I thought possible, the whole air rather more [sad] and sinister; but that was all. I could stand all that, and even the piano (shade of Ivor Atkins!) shattered to bits, and the keys choked with brick-dust, but one thing was just a fraction too much, and when I saw it I confess I caught my breath for a moment. It was a child’s marble, chipped, and past all hope of rolling…
They are quaint places, these trenches, that wander in and out of houses, and in a way rather picturesque. Summer fights its way in even here, and you may find your face brushed with a yellow cornflower, sticking out of the side of a field as you plod along through the trench, and remember better days.
Ivor Atkins is a well-known organist of the day; SS Sussex we saw being torpedoed by UB-29 on the 24th of March this year.
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