Suits of armour | 22 Oct 1915

Third Isonzo

At one point when discussing some of the attacks today, the Austro-Hungarian Official History describes the Italian gains on the Carso as “meagre”. This could stand for the entire battle. The challenge for me, trying to talk about this accursed fighting, is in trying to find the new things, the interesting things, the sublime, and the ridiculous. We’ve been at this a year; “such-and-such a battalion charged 300 yards uphill and got cut down by artillery and machine-gun fire in front of uncut barbed wire” is getting less and less interesting with every repetition.

There is one thing worth mentioning. Out of sheer desperation, a few Italian units have resorted to trying to construct armour for themselves. Austro-Hungarian battle reports talk of seeing men struggle uphill toward them in what investigation of the corpses shows to be self-made suits of armour.

Some of the troops…appeared almost like foot soldiers of the Middle Ages. They wore large steel helmets that weighed 2.5 kg and heavy grey-green breast armour consisting of several interlaced plates; and more armour to protect their upper thighs.

“Investigation of the corpses” should tell you how effective the armour wasn’t. Both sides have also taken to steel helmets in general; they’re at an absolute premium on a front where artillery shells are so much more deadly than anywhere else.

By the way, there’s been more attacks against Hill 124, and again they’ve failed to achieve anything.

Western Front

General Joffre has officially informed his army-group commanders that they will be standing on the defensive for winter. Front-line garrisons are to be reduced as much as possible to give as many men as possible as much rest and training as possible.

He’s still trying to put a brave face on things. His circular spends a goodly amount of time crapping on about the important tactical results achieved, the heavy losses inflicted on the enemy, the doubtless significant effect on the enemy’s morale, and so on and so forth. It surely can’t disguise the basic fact that in the past 12 months of war, the French army has resembled nothing so much as that old Blackadder line about having advanced at the same pace as an asthmatic ant carrying some heavy shopping.

It’s now time to transition from “What just happened?” to “What do we do now?” More soon.

Verdun

Joffre has also sent fresh instructions to General Herr, commander at Verdun, for the digging of an up-to-date trench network. This initiative had originally been started back at the start of August, but it’s been significantly interfered with by the transfer of resources away to Second Champagne. Now the men and materials are being sent back, and work can restart in earnest. This one’s another “more soon”.

Machine-Gun Corps

The BEF has recently made two very important decisions. The first, a week ago, adopted the Lewis gun as the BEF’s preferred light machine-gun. The second, made official today, establishes the Machine Gun Corps as a separate element of the BEF. It will be responsible for operating the BEF’s heavy Maxim and Vickers machine-guns, but at the same time, individual battalions will not see any decrease in the firepower they can directly call on, because they will retain battalion machine-gun operators who will now use the easily-portable Lewis gun.

It’s a long-overdue innovation; the German armies had dedicated machine-gun units at the start of the war, and the French Army is in the process of reorganising its own machine-gun capability (they’re still looking for an acceptably French light machine-gun and won’t have the Chauchat on general issue until midsummer next year). The advent of the Lewis gun and the Chauchat is important for another reason, though. It’s an area where the BEF and the French Army is now moving ahead of the Germans, who won’t have a light machine-gun capability until 1917.

Slowly but surely, the balance of progress is beginning to tilt towards the Entente. In much the same way that they’re now beginning to nose ahead with their machine-gun capabilities, they’re also making important advances with trench mortars. The Stokes mortar is a design classic; the French crapouillot isn’t far behind. They’re both light enough to be man-carried, and offer spectacular accuracy and an unprecedented rate of fire. The German minenwerfers across the way are still very good weapons, but they have a lower rate of fire, lesser accuracy, and crucially, are heavy enough that they must be towed on wheels rather than carried.

Kabalo

Lieutenant-Commander Spicer-Simson’s ridiculous expedition is nearly at an end, after seventeen days on the River Lualaba. “Baked alive”, “tormented by all the flying pests of the Congo”, they’ve made it to Kabalo. They now have just one more railway journey to Lukuga, and then the battle for Lake Tanganyika can begin in earnest.

This seems like a decent moment to pause and consider an interesting little excerpt from a later magazine article about the expedition. The expedition doctor has “had a far busier time treating natives and their children than attending to members of the expedition”. This might conjure up images of a benevolent doctor going from village to village dispensing healing and wisdom, but let’s consider something else. When a white man goes anywhere in Africa he, being a lazy so-and-so, inevitably brings a train of black porters with him to carry all his shit; at least four per person, or more. Spicer-Simson’s expedition has 30 “members”, and they need rather more supplies than your average bloke. Can you see where I’m going with this? Add this to the incredibly low value placed on African life at the time, and suddenly that passage looks rather more sinister.

Gallipoli

General Monro leaves London today to take up his command on Gallipoli. Just in case you were in danger of taking the campaign seriously again, a familiar face intervenes in truly ridiculous fashion. Monro’s chief of staff, General Lynden-Bell:

Everyone felt a bit under the weather at 6am, and we were not cheered up by the appalling smell of beer exhaled by our servants who had spent the night ‘celebrating’. Just as the train was about to start Winston Churchill rushed along the platform, threw a bundle of papers into our carriage and shouted, ‘Don’t forget, if you evacuate it will be the biggest disaster since Corunna!’

Corunna was a battle that followed an epic 250-mile retreat during the Napoleonic Wars in 1809. At the time it was a watchword for “epic and drawn-out military balls-up”; it’s cast a long shadow over the last hundred years or so, although other disasters (the battle for France in 1940, for instance) have since taken its place in the popular imagination.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Third Invasion of Serbia
Morava Offensive
Ovce Pole Offensive
Third Isonzo

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow as long as y’all buy 1914!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

Leave a Reply