Yes, this is an unusual way to start the day, but bear with me and you’ll see where I’m going with this. German artillery NCO Herbert Sulzbach spends today inspecting some of his forward observation posts. He’s right up at the apex of the vast Noyon salient.
We went back via Mont St Simeon. Our sector here…is one of the most advanced positions held by the German army, and the positions nearest to Paris, too. If I now say that I looked through the stereotelescope and saw the Eiffel Tower, you people will perhaps, or perhaps not, be able to understand how I felt as I stared. Paris in sight! And still almost too far to reach.
News reaches us that the largest naval action ever fought between the German and British fleets has taken place on the Skagerrak. The action concluded with an unquestionable win from our fleet, which has thus been able to try conclusions with its principal adversary, for the first time since it was brought up to its present strength. Several British battleships were destroyed, and no fewer than 150 naval vessels were drawn up in battle array. Even our Zeppelins played their part.
There we go. This is of course an exceptionally gilded view of the Battle of Jutland, but it’s circulating on a far wider basis than just the German trenches. Speaking of which, Germans all up and down the Western Front are busy drawing up insulting message-boards to hang on their barbed wire, bragging about the great victory.
Lieutenant Georges Connes of the French Army, captured yesterday outside Fort Vaux (more about that in a moment), is now being hosted in rather gentlemanly fashion at a German headquarters somewhere in rear of Fort Douaumont.
They invite us in and offer us cigars and coffee, that is to say the liquid bearing that name during the war, and nobody refuses. Without bragging, the German officers show us on the map the terrain they have gained by the attack. They don’t ask us any naive questions such as “do you think we will take Verdun?” or “when do you think the war will be over?” These men seem educated, serious, and without illusions. As on our side, stupidity and bragging will increase gradually as one goes back behind the lines.
It is barely 6am and it is already known here that the yesterday in the North Sea, “the German fleet destroyed the British fleet”. We suspect that this bit of news will need some clarification.
When the morning hate ends, a couple of German soldiers escort a large, straggling body of Frenchmen further to the rear, in the vague direction of divisional headquarters.
Nothing would be easier at that moment than to escape, to hide in some hole, wait for night, and try to rejoin the French lines. Prisoners have done that sometimes, because they had the strength to do it. None of us has enough energy left. We have reached the extreme limits of exhaustion. We are starving, the sun is fierce, and there is not a scrap to eat nor a drop to drink.
In such conditions they travel about three miles to the rear before stopping in an occupied town.
Battle of Jutland
The Grand Fleet is returning to port. The Admiralty now has a rather knotty problem on its hands. They would dearly love to sit on the story of Jutland for at least a day or two, until they can riddle out a counter-narrative to the triumphal German press release. Had this been a battle anywhere else in the world, that is certainly what would have happened. But it isn’t. It’s a naval battle in the North Sea. The dockyard at Rosyth has been warned to clear the decks for serious repair work. The men will soon be coming ashore, and you can’t sit on the personal messages of a fleet’s worth of sailors and dockers. Families will also notice if their man doesn’t contact them. If there is no official news, it will look like they’re hiding something.
Which is why they asked Admiral Jellicoe yesterday for a response to the Germans. It’s 10:35am today before he sends any report, just as his flagship Iron Duke is returning to Scapa Flow. It’s a masterpiece of brevity, summarising British losses with devastating accuracy and making the most pessimistic estimation possible of German damage. It’s really all he can say until he’s returned to port and had a chance to properly confer with his subordinates and find out what the hell went on out there, since nobody could be bothered to tell him at the time. But it also seems to confirm in most respects the contents of the German press release.
The Admiralty needs time; they have no time. At 11am they authorise publication of the German statement, and by noon the newspapers are rushing out special editions. There is no comment from the Admiralty until 7pm, and even then the First Lord of the Admiralty, Arthur Balfour, is unable to do anything other than rewrite Jellicoe’s short, pessimistic message. That statement will appear in tomorrow morning’s British newspapers, by which time the narrative of a German victory will be putting down deep roots.
The actualite of the situation is, of course, rather more complicated…
Battle of Verdun
At 2:15am the Germans are surging forward again, trying to force their way into Fort Vaux under cover of darkness. The men have taken a long time to form up, having not expected to attack the fort itself for days. In the end, the attack begins on the authority of company and battalion commanders, getting bored of waiting and advancing on their own initiative. The fort’s entrances are still being guarded by heavy-duty bunkers, and it takes most of the morning to capture just two of them with the aid of flamethrowers.
Once that’s done, however, they’re able to force entry from one of the bunkers into a tunnel leading back into the fort. Major Raynal sends a number of rather famous messenger pigeons back to the rear, and the French Brains Trust begins organising reinforcements. By the end of the day, reinforcements are flooding towards the fort from both sides. The Germans still have a toehold in the tunnel, but now Raynal is ordering obstacles sent down and men redeployed. More tomorrow, of course.
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Meanwhile, in the Ypres salient, the situation continues rumbling nastily. Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Fourth Army has been ordered to do something more here to disrupt whatever major offensive it is that the BEF is planning. Over the last few months, we’ve seen several very nasty attacks and counter-attacks, some of them at Hooge at the apex of the salient, and some against the BEF’s few scraps of high ground in the south of the salient. Now the Germans are attacking uphill towards the high ground in front of Zillebeke, behind a punishing hurricane bombardment. Time to go down to ground level and meet again with an old correspondent.
The Sunny Subaltern
The Sunny Subaltern has been quiet for the past few weeks, his life full of trench duty near Hooge, the nastiest place a BEF man can be. They’ve just been brought out of the line and sent back west of Ypres for some well-earned rest. There’s lots of Canadians knocking around here.
I was awakened by my man about 10am; blessed shave and wash, some more breakfast, and then we revelled in the thought of a bath. We went from hut to hut laughing and jesting, here comparing notes, there condoling with some chap who ordered us to “Get out, I didn’t get in till 7.30”, happy and free, little realizing what was going on a scant eight miles away.
Always, always, there came the dull boom of guns, perhaps more marked than usual, but we jocularly said that the “morning hate” was a little worse, rather pitying the poor devils who were getting it. We didn’t know whether it was the Huns or not, for our guns were speaking more than ordinarily. As we heard ours, up went that little wish one always had that those shells wouldn’t be duds and the hope they would knock some of our dear enemy out.
[After an hour], the word was brought to be ready to “move in an hour.” Every man must pack his kit and not move from his own hut. Gone, of course, was the bath. We rather regretted that. We felt, I think, rather upset because we had looked forward to a rest, and I remember cursing the Boche for starting his dirty work so soon.
For the rest of the day it’s hurry up and wait; but there will be more tomorrow.
Short rations issued. Germans shelled the town. Played Patience. … Some of our men sent out to capture a German spy. Brought back a native who after being questioned by the colonel was found not guilty, humbly apologized to and released. Suffered awful pain from my leg and would not get to sleep for a long time.
I’m mildly skeptical about the fate of the poor sod who got picked up and accused of being a spy. Perhaps I’m just being skeptical of all the other, undocumented times during the war when this might have happened, and how that might have ended. Anyway.
Bad news for Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien. There’s going to be no refuge in an instructors’ course for him. He’s trying desperately to hope that going to war will be the making of him and his friends. It’ll be something for them, that’s for sure. At any rate, he’s been ordered to France. Like Clifford Wells, he’s been mouldering away in a training battalion, waiting for one of its attached fighting units to need a reinforcement draft. Now the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, a Kitchener battalion, is in need of a signals officer; its current one is being promoted. He’s got a 48-hour embarkation leave, and then it’s off to France with him.
Stopped in train all night. John and Fair slept on the racks, one each side, two men on the floor with their backs against the doors, one man diagonally on the floor, three men on seats. We are convinced after the War is over we shall prefer sleeping in the fender instead of bed. Got up shortly after four o’clock, washed in a man-hole. Made our tea squatting on the flag-stones in the station yard; bully beef and biscuits as usual. Had nothing else the last three days. Everybody quite jolly; life here in the station yard recalls the wildest Wild-West dreams of camping we had in our youth.
There are no end of rumours. That nobody knew of our arrival. That somebody made a mistake by sending us here. That we shall have to stay and live and sleep on these cobbles and flag-stones for at least a week. But nobody minds.
Those rumours are not a million miles from the truth. There is a small but truculent group of absolutist objectors, who refuse all army orders, who are currently being shuttled around between various French rear-area camps and guardrooms. Ideally from a War Office perspective, nobody would know they were there…
Actions in Progress
Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!