Suez Canal | The air war | 8 Jun 1916

Suez Canal

Over the past week or so, we’ve been hearing news from correspondent Oskar Teichman about an Ottoman buildup at El Arish to oppose the British buildup that he’s part of. One aspect of the build-up that he isn’t in a position to know about, though, is the increasing number of air assets being sent to Egypt by both sides. The Royal Flying Corps in particular is increasing by orders of magnitude, and they’re not just going to the Western Front. A few squadrons have been spared to go to Africa, to Egypt, and to Mesopotamia. Their role is going to be vital in the months and years to come.

The Ottomans, not to be outdone, have established an airfield at El Arish, and they’re starting to skirmish with the local RFC squadron in an attempt to prevent the British observers doing their work. More to come!

Voie Sacree

Here’s an interesting little footnote from the Battle of Verdun. The Germans have three squadrons of what I suppose we have to call “bombers”, although they’re mostly general-purpose types which bombs are thrown out of rather than purpose-built machines. About now, they’re launching the first bombing run on Bar-le-Duc since the start of the battle. Never mind that it’s quite clearly the start of the Voie Sacree. Never mind that the road itself is more visible to German observers than a dog’s penis. Which raises an interesting question.

Through the entire battle, the Voie Sacree was almost entirely ignored by German bombers. Their efforts were confined to bombing the trenches, road and rail junctions immediately behind the trenches, and Verdun itself. It’s a small road that’s permanently on the verge of being destroyed just by natural wear and tear from the constant flow of trucks. It should have been possible to at least drop a few bombs on it over the course of nine months. And yet they barely tried. This is one of the great unanswered questions of the war. Nobody’s quite sure why they didn’t do it.

It’s sometimes pressed into service to support the theory that Verdun was only ever supposed to be an attritional battle; you can’t do attrition if fresh troops can’t be brought into the sector to be killed, after all. Perhaps there’s something to it. We do also have a highly arresting quotation from General von Hoeppner (via historian Alistair Horne), soon to become head of the German flying corps. Apparently his later verdict will be that “we did not exactly know what should be required of aviation”. This aspect of the battle will likely remain a highly curious footnote for a long time yet.

The war in the air

It’s a very air-y day, isn’t it? Seems like a perfect time to note a few other things. General Foch’s army group is now concentrating its air assets to support General Fayolle’s 6th Army. Based at Cachy, their main component will be eight dedicated fighter squadrons to maintain air superiority, with a couple of dedicated artillery spotting and observation squadrons. This will be the first Entente offensive of the war where control of the air is being taken this seriously.

On the other side of the hill, the Germans are still at a major disadvantage over most of the Western Front. That might be about to end, though. Enough recon flights have made it over the BEF’s part of the line to provide considerable intelligence of what’s about to happen. Unfortunately, it’s not just the army in the Somme sector that’s detected build-up preparations, although the Somme sector is the only one with serious railway construction going on. But on the question of aerial superiority, testing of the prototype Albatros D.I fighter is now complete.

A general production order for the planes has now been placed. Even at the Germans’ painfully slow production speeds, they could have several squadrons’ worth by August. And sure, they still might not be enough against the ever-swelling number of Bebes available to French fighter escadrilles, but against the hodge-podge machines of the Royal Flying Corps? That’d be bad news for the Battle of the Somme, assuming the BEF hasn’t broken through before then.

The French 6th Army

Speaking of Fayolle and the 6th Army, the general has just distributed a memo with his interpretation of the French Army’s new “deliberate battle” doctrine. This is the first chance they’ll have to test out the new theories, which Fayolle’s boss Foch has done so much to champion. Much as both of them are skeptical about the upcoming offensive, they’re determined not to let this sink their clever ideas. Time for a well-placed memo.

It is not a matter of rushing across enemy lines…but of a battle organised and directed from objective to objective, always with an exact and consequently effective artillery preparation. It is the commander who has the responsibility for determining the successive objectives; that is his principal task. Some officers have feared that this method will break the spirit of the infantry. In reality, that which breaks the spirit of the infantry is the presence of intact [defences] where enemy machine-guns intervene on the flanks. This is why the desired goal is to destroy the enemy’s defences before each attack.

There is a certain irony in this message being sent out by a general serving under Ferdinand Foch. It was, after all, Foch who firmly entrenched the cult of the offensive and the importance of elan into the French army in the first place. And now, here he is directly patronising an effort to throw all of that thinking out with the garbage. It’s a funny old war. But it is important to note how receptive to new ideas Foch has proved to be. Even though it was his theories that led to the debacles of 1915, he’s not put out the barricades to defend them. Instead, he’s observed and adapted to events.

Brusilov Offensive

Lutsk is now in Russian hands once again. Their 8th Army is not content to rest on its laurels, though. And now it’s time for a very important point. They’re having to plan joint swings to the north and south. They can’t just drive west because the army to the north hasn’t attacked (for reasons which will soon become clear) and the army to the south has achieved only minor gains and is still bogged down in horrifically costly fighting, advancing a couple of hundred yards at a time.

Lutsk may have provided an unqualified success, and put the wind right up the Austro-Hungarian Brains Trust. However, that success has, for the most part, not yet been replicated by the other three armies in this battle. There have been further clear victories at Sopanow and Jazlowiec, but at a far higher price in blood. This is not, at the moment, going to lead to a Gorlice-Tarnow style complete and total dislocation of the Eastern Front. Unless something else should happen, that is…

Malcolm White

Working near Beaumont Hamel, Malcolm White is the latest victim of the Germans’ psychological sign warfare.

Again wet, but a dry night for work, and we deepened Dog Trench undisturbed, though at times I thought the enemy must see us on so clear a night. They did see a party of C Company, and shelled with about ten whizz-bangs rapid. But no casualties. We are told that the enemy have put up a notice in front of their trenches, saying, “We know you are going to attack here. But you won’t do it before Peace.”

He’s also exchanging rather disgustingly cute (but too obtuse to bother reproducing them) letters with Evelyn Southwell. They’ve both sent letters that have crossed in the post, referencing the old poem “June (was with her glancing grasses)”, by Walter Headlam. Just as they did at the same time last year, when Southwell was at a training camp near Andover and White was yet to join the Army. Everyone say “awwww”. Awwww.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge and his friends in the Non-Combatant Corps have been favoured with a visit from a churchman, usually known as F.B. Meyer. It’s important to note that Meyer is not a regular padre; nevertheless, Mugge is not best impressed by the experience.

The 3rd Company Eastern NCC was given a half-holiday, apparently due to the visit of the Reverend F. B. Meyer, the Baptist parson. He arrived about half-past twelve, accompanied by some of the local Brass Hats, Camp and Company-officers. Delivered a short address. Told the COs that he had a message of good-will and sympathy, etc., etc., from the General Public in England, especially from the late lamented Kitchener; appreciation of their willingness to do their best as far as their conscience allows them, etc.

Seemed to cheer up the COs wonderfully, and for hours afterwards they stood about discussing the great man’s words. Personally, I think the visit is due to some questions in the House a few days ago…

Mugge is not wrong to be cynical. Meyer is here, together with the Quaker Hubert Peet, at the direct request of Quaker MP Arnold Rowntree. You might recall from a few days ago that some “absolutist” conscientious objectors (including the Richmond Sixteen) were being forcibly sent to France, but got a message out. Meyer and Peet are now in France, on the pretext of visiting all the NCC companies, to find out how many absolutists have been sent to France and what’s being done with them. More on that very soon. For now, suffice it to say that they’ve arrived in the very nick of time.

I have no more patience with Christianity as a State Institution. No nobler ideal has ever been propounded than that set before Mankind by [Jesus]; no viler set of temple-servants has ever disgraced a cult than the hypocritical canting priests of Western Europe. There are a few, very few, exceptions, of course, but the overwhelming majority are political props, “pillars of society,” sellers of cheap soothing-oils. The least these priests might have done in the beginning of the War was to have revived a mediaeval practice; they should have threatened to suspend all baptisms, all marriage and burial services unless…! The fear of the metaphysical still sways the masses!

The European priesthood could have stopped the War had they chosen to do so!

But they betrayed their Founder’s Ideal. Demetrius, the international Financier and Silversmith, raised a cry against Love, and the frantic priests of Diana crucified Christ once again.

He’s referencing the book of Acts, chapter 19, and is basically accusing most of the priests of Western Europe of worshipping false gods and being bad Christians. I wonder how he’d feel if he’d stayed with the Royal Sussex and met a padre like Woodbine Willie or Kenneth Best? And the concept of priests going on strike against the war is not entirely without precedent. In days of yore the Catholic church was known to issue interdicts, a religious ruling that a person or group couldn’t participate in certain important rituals until they stopped doing something the Church didn’t like.

Some of these rulings came from the Pope, but they could also have been issued by surprisingly minor churchmen. So it’s not quite as ludicrous a suggestion as you might think. Only mostly.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Brusilov Offensive

Further Reading

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