Action of St Eloi Craters
There’s more action brewing over in the Ypres salient, as General Plumer continues his quest to annoy the Boche by pinching the odd bit of well-sited trench from them. This time the battleground is a small section of exceptionally wet and slimy mud near St Eloi, at the very southern end of the salient. The Engineers have been driving a number of mining tunnels under the front, and once again the British 2nd Army is attempting to achieve surprise. They’re trying, among other things, to get The Mound back, which you may remember was lost during the run-up to the Battle of Verdun beginning.
Mind you, it’s no surprise at all that the BEF should be tunnelling here. This action is not called “St Eloi Craters” because of what it created, but because of what is already there. Both sides have over the past year combined to detonate some 64 mines and camouflets. The ground is already riven with sloppy, sludgy, muddy craters. There has also been no special artillery preparation at all. Instead, the hope is to send men out into No Man’s Land with wire cutters and planks to get through the German wire once the mine goes up.
It may sound stupid and naive, but there’s nothing wrong with trying these things on a small scale to see how they work. You don’t learn if you never do anything. There is another neat little touch to the attack. In an effort to disguise the blowing of the mines, an artillery barrage has been carefully planned so that a round of heavy howitzer shells will land in the German trenches right as the mines go up. In theory, this should disguise the noise of the mines, and perhaps fool the Germans into suspecting some new kind of British super-heavy trench-obliterating shell…
At 4:15am the plan explodes (ho ho ho) into action, and for the first couple of hours it seems to be going quite well. The 1st Northumberland Fusiliers have reached what’s left of the German positions and taken possession of them, and support units are moving forward to consolidate the new front line. That’s about where the good news stops, though. A while later it turns out that the 4th Royal Fusiliers have come under heavy machine-gun fire and then lost their way. The Mound itself has now been removed entirely from the map by the mines; No Man’s Land is completely unrecognisable.
The Germans have also called for supporting artillery fire, and the old No Man’s Land is being unmercifully hammered as the attackers’ support attempts to come across. The rest of the day is spent struggling to consolidate. To cap things off, not only is it raining, but the mines have completely obliterated an extensive German drainage system that had been doing sterling work for both sides’ trenches. The water level is currently at about two feet. And rising. More to come, once things shake out a little.
Battle of the Somme
There’s an Anglo-French governmental conference going on in Paris, to which Army men are not invited. General Joffre takes the opportunity to write to General Haig with an outline for the Battle of the Somme. Amusingly, he tells Haig about the excellent prospects for an offensive in which the French Army provides two-thirds of the total strength, and then immediately warns him that the demands of Verdun may mean that such an offensive is not possible. (For their part, the French government is giving only the warnings.)
Grigoris Balakian’s spirits are rising very slightly, from “completely despondent” to “a very small light at the end of a very long tunnel”. Of course, the light may yet prove itself to be an oncoming train, but for now, spring is springing and the bandits are far away.
A few days before, we had feared for our lives and were indifferent to nature. Now, seeing the beauty of Spring, we tried to put out of our minds the spectre of the blood-soaked valleys, skeletons and skulls. We thought, perhaps prematurely, that having entered the flowery domain of the Cilician Armenians, we were saved. After all, isn’t it true that there is no resurrection without death?
In the evening, we stayed in a small village at the base of [Vakha Castle]. There we were able to find food and shelter. The inhabitants of the village were Turks who apparently had not gotten the scent and taste of Armenian blood, and they treated our caravan kindly.
Vakha Castle is still there today; its town is now known as Feke. It’s well over a thousand years old, and has guarded this mountain pass since the height of the Byzantine Empire. Once it even belonged to the Armenian kings of Cilicia.
The Sunny Subaltern
Good news! I’ve been able now to identify from his sailing dates that the Sunny Subaltern is with the 58th Canadian Infantry Battalion. My suspicion that he was near St Eloi proved correct, and I now know that they’re currently in close reserve at a position known as the Railway Dugouts. This affords the Subaltern a moment to draw up a mostly funny dictionary of trench talk. I do love his definition of the two types of dugouts.
Batman: a soldier paid by you to be absent when you want him.
Beer, Belgian: a liquid resembling beer British or beer American; evidently a distant branch of the same family.
Dugout: (a) men’s, a patriotic dog kennel that enlisted; (b) officer’s, a root cellar that got into society.
Duty: anything, everything.
Heaven: (a) Leave, (b) Rum, (c) Heat.
Hell: working party.
Home: a poignant memory relegated to the limbo of things unattainable.
Jam: a sticky substance invariably made of plums, used to smear bread.
M.T. (Mechanical Transport): a Juggernautical affair demanding three-fourths of the road, and made to splash mud.
Projectile: see working party.
Rations: “Man wants but little here below.”
Rum: a warming elixir issued in toothfuls by zealous officers.
Sausages: pork, a species of animal extinct.
Sock: an ever wet, sticky article, used as a covering for foot, hand or rifle.
Working party: hell.
The common soldier, of course, has another mechanism by which his sock becomes wet and sticky. I’m sure the Sunny Subaltern is far too well brought-up to know what it is. The entry for “Rations” is a reference to the fabulously turgid poem Edwin and Angela, by Oliver Goldsmith.
Herbert Sulzbach of the German artillery is keeping busy.
We go into position in a gully near Dreslincourt, and knock down a chimney belonging to a brickworks, which an enemy Observation Post had beeen nesting in. In the course of time, our chaps have given nicknames to particular positions or ruins, and they’ve stuck fast. [There’s the] Malerschlossen, the Painter’s Castle. One hill is called “der Kapellenberg”, Chapel Hill. Sometimes they are the names of infantry COs whose units used to be stationed at the place in question.
Here we see a wonderful convergence. In the BEF they often give names to places by some kind of local feature. On Gallipoli, ANZAC Cove quickly sprouted all kinds of place-names given after various people: Johnston’s Jolly, Quinn’s Post, Plugge’s Plateau, and so forth. Just as has happened all over the German side of the line.
The day’s bulletin is that the Churches in England are praying for us. How we hope they pray hard.
There is, we understand, to be a last forward movement of all arms to the relief of Kut. The position down below seems to have developed into something like that in France, as the Turkish forces are dug deep and well flanked with impassable swamps. It is difficult to force such a position against the clock, but we easily outnumber the enemy, so it is said, and then our heavy guns may do a great deal.
The water of the floods is now all around our old first line, in fact in front of our present first line is a great lake some feet deep, and possibly eight feet above the dry base of our trench. The large bund or wall we have made is excellent. The enemy has had to withdraw still further back, and in places he is 1,500 yards off. In this way the floods have saved us. There is little chance of an attack through the water. It may be doubted whether our men could have stood the strain in their present condition if the enemy had maintained his original proximity of 50 to 150 yards.
But there is a moment for himself, too; today is not just another day.
This is my birthday. We have raised a small quantity of rum with which we three shall notch the year tonight. Why doesn’t one feel older? Life lies immediately behind us like the wake of a ship, but we don’t change. Only the distance behind us changes (and a few of us are a stone lighter!). On this, my thirtieth birthday, I never felt so restful and free from the gnawings of ambition. For better fellows have fallen, and promising careers have closed, and disastrous ones terminated before amends could be made; while I have lots of credit in hand, for I have had many lucky narrow shaves.
He’ll need all of that credit and more besides if he’s to live to the age of 31.
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