Let us now return to Africa and Lake Tanganyika. It’s been a miserable, spartan Christmas for Spicer-Simson and the men of his ridiculous expedition. They’ve had absolutely nothing special for Christmas; no special issue of rum, no extra cigarettes, no mail from home, nothing for dinner but more bully beef and biscuits. On the positive side, work on their harbour is now finished, and both Mimi and Toutou have been launched successfully.
Spicer-Simson himself has spent the last couple of months mostly turning even more eccentric than he had been already. The most notable feature of this is that he’s been customising his uniform. No issue army shorts for him; instead he’s taken to wearing a khaki skirt about the camp, and everyone from the Belgians to the local Africans are now referring to him as some variant on “Mr Skirt”. All eyewitnesses are clear that it was definitely not a kilt, nor did Spicer-Simson ever claim it was supposed to be. In the hot weather this is probably a rather more practical move than it might seem (a couple of the men have brought kilts with them), but most are now firmly convinced that the man is completely round the twist.
Today we find him (and his skirt) leading a Boxing Day church parade, in the absence of a padre. Halfway through he’s interrupted by a message, but in the best tradition of Sir Francis Drake he completes the service before informing the men that a German steamer is heading right for them. They take to the boats. Time to see whether this has all been a colossal waste of nine months.
The enemy ship is the Kingani now being commanded by Lieutenant Junge in Rosenthal’s absence. He has exactly the same orders as Rosenthal; sail down to the Belgian base and try to find out what’s going on. This time there’s a surprise in store for him; Mimi and Toutou have launched, flying the British flag. It’s soon obvious that the enemy motor-boats are faster and more manoeuvreable than Kingani. However, their guns are considerably smaller than Kingani’s, salvaged from the wreck of the Konigsberg. However however, that big gun is fixed in place at the bows and can only fire forwards.
It doesn’t take long to determine which arrangement is better. Mimi and Toutou are easily able to dodge the big German gun and get themselves into firing range. Soon after that, Junge and two of his men are dead, and the chief engineer is surrendering his ship (complete with goat mascot, who has survived the encounter physically unharmed). The ship is brought back to port mostly intact, and Spicer-Simson is left to take the congratulations of his Belgian allies (and hold a proper funeral for his opponents, although he’s not beyond appropriating Junge’s signet ring as a trophy). More soon on what this means for the balance of power on the lake.
Battle of the Somme
Back on the Western Front, General Joffre is writing a very important letter to General Haig today. He’s beginning to favour the region of the River Somme for the big 1916 offensive, due in no small part (we’ll go over the reasoning in more detail later on) to it being ideally sited for a combined Franco-British offensive. Now he has to pitch the idea to Haig, during which he claims that the region has “very favourable” terrain for an offensive, and suggesting that its current status as a quiet sector (which it’s been for virtually the entire war except a week or two in September 1914) will help them achieve surprise.
Haig, with good reason, will take quite a while to consider and craft his response. There’s plenty of things on his plate, and they’re not due to attack for quite a few months yet. More soon.
Meanwhile, down at Verdun, General Dubail is reporting that work on the new defensive positions is proceeding well, with a completed second line and progress on the third line well underway. Of course, with General von Falkenhayn plotting away, it remains to be seen whether the French standards for defensive works are going to be good enough…
The retreat continues for Flora Sandes.
The next four or five days we continued steadily on our way towards Durazzo, starting about 4 a.m. and generally turning into camp between 6 and 7, long after the short winter afternoons had closed in, so that we had to find our way round our new camping ground in the dark. The weather had got considerably warmer, although the nights were still bitterly cold, and quite a scorching sun used to come out for a few hours in the middle of the day, and this took it out of the tired men a good deal.
Before, when I had been working in the hospitals, and I used to ask the men where it hurt them, I had often been rather puzzled at the general reply of the new arrivals, “Sve me boli” (” Everything hurts me”), it seemed such a vague description and such a curious malady; but in these days I learnt to understand perfectly what they meant by it, when you seem to be nothing but one pain from the crown of your aching head to the soles of your blistered feet.
I thought it was a very good thing that the next time I was working in a military hospital I should be able to enter into my patient’s feelings, and realise that all he felt he wanted was to be let alone to sleep for about a week and only rouse up for his meals.
And yet, they keep on going.
Robert Palmer has written a considerable amount that’s dated today, so we’ll spread it over the next few days. The most important points:
Orders to move have interrupted my literary activities, and I shall have to spend the few days before we start chiefly in testing the fitness of my leg for marching. I went shooting on Friday and walked about six miles quite successfully, bar a slight limp; and I mean to extend progressively up to twelve. The weather has suddenly turned wet, introducing us to a new vileness of the climate. I hope it won’t last—it means unlimited slime.
One of my draft has been killed and five wounded at Kut. Our casualties there are 21 out of 180. I shall look forward to seeing my men again: I hope about the second Sunday after Epiphany.
For those of us who are not quite as familiar with the Christian calendar as we might be, Epiphany is on the 6th of January; the second Sunday after it will be the 16th.
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