Siege of Kut
There’s now absolutely no chance for success if the relief column tries to attack out of Bait Isa towards Es Sinn. But, with the Kut garrison on the point of starvation, they have to try anyway. The entire day is wasted in trying to reorganise and bring up reinforcements. The ground in front of Es Sinn continues quietly flooding; the guns fire anyway. General Gorringe, meanwhile is now keeping his optimism up with hopes of somehow defeating the Ottomans at Sannayiat, and then…nope, I got nothing. It’s something. They have to do something, this is something, they must do it. Still not criticising.
Because inside the siege, Edward Mousley is now almost too weak and too pained by his spine to keep writing.
A terrific bombardment continued downstream from last night until early this morning. We have since heard that the Third Lahore Division, after a magnificent struggle, has taken the lines of Bait Isa, and that Turkish hordes are counter-attacking in successive waves. Our casualties are very heavy. The large pontoons which the Turks dragged overland for a ferry downstream are now in position. Tudway was recently to have led a river attack at night in Sumana and to have pierced or blown up the bridge. The scheme, however, was cancelled.
Arabs continue to wait around the butchery for horse bladders on which to float downstream. They are shot at by the Turks, who want them to stay on here and eat our food, or else they are killed by hostile Arabs. Every night they go down, and a little later one hears their cries from the darkness.
Mousley will soon be confined to bed. There’s every chance that he may not ever leave it.
The duty of defending Kondoa Irangi now lies with Captain Langen of the Schutztruppe. He’s made some quick calculations; he has only 400 men and no guns, against what looks like a disturbing number of South African horsemen. Even worse, the artillerymen attached to the 2nd Division have succeeded in bringing up eight 18-pounder field guns, at a terrible human cost in African porters. Kondoa town is horribly exposed, out in the middle of a plateau, and no place to defend.
And so when the South Africans attack, Langen holds out only long enough to carry away what supplies can be carried away. His men then set fire to the rest, and then they scarper towards the hills that loom threateningly over Kondoa, off to the south. Soon after, General van Deventer rides into town. The great gamble, it seems to him, has paid off. It’ll take quite a while for his division to slog forward through the rains, but once they’re concentrated, he’ll be in perfect position to advance on the Central Railway.
But that’s only a surface evaluation. Let’s for a moment ignore that Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is planning a major counter-attack on Kondoa, and is redeploying most of his men for it. Let’s just consider that about 10,000 men have now been condemned to march about 150-odd miles through a swamp in the rainy season in the middle of Africa. Most of them are already down to one-quarter rations. The rains are so pervasive that nobody can light a fire at night to keep warm. Men are drowning in their sleep, or being dragged off and eaten by lions.
Speaking of the death. Not just the 2nd Division’s men, or the African porters. The horses, mules, and oxen who are supposed to haul supply carts forward are dropping dead daily. It’s going to take at least ten days for the first infantrymen to slog into town. More soon…
The final act in a four-month campaign in the Caucasus occurs today. Early this morning, General Lyakhov is met by a deputation from the Greek community in Trebizond. The theoretical defenders have, as we suspected, simply continued retreating to the south and away into the Anatolian interior. Some men are sent off to intercept them, too late. But that’s nothing. What matters is that the only major port with good access to the east of Anatolia is now in Russian hands. There will be fallout, later. More to come from this theatre of the war, but not for a little while.
Railways for the Somme
Meanwhile, the preparations for the Battle of the Somme are of truly gargantuan character. A while ago, some very clever staff officers sat down and did some sums to work out how many trains per day would need to arrive in the sector just to maintain the 4th Army. Then they did some more and worked out how many trains would be needed once the battle starts, for a total of “Holy hell that’s a ridiculous number of supply trains”. The existing railway capacity is completely inadequate, not least because one of the existing rail lines has been built to a non-standard gauge.
So they’re going to build some more. By this time, work on two entirely new standard-gauge lines has been underway for months. They finish at stations placed as close to the front as possible, probably a little closer than is entirely safe. They need more of everything. More rolling stock, more locomotives, more sidings, more supply depots, more platforms, more fuel, more everything. As Africa and Mesopotamia are showing, armies can’t do much without supplies.
Railways are only part of this equation, of course. With so many resources being poured into the railways, maintaining the local roads is taking second place. A few main roads are of good quality, with a permanent hard surface. When there’s enough men spare to maintain them properly. As it is, the stress of all the carts and hoofs and hobnailed boots heading up and down them is taking a major toll on the surfaces of the roads. Many of them are beginning to break up into rubble, and there’s nobody spare to do repairs.
Away from the main roads, it’s all gravel paths and dirt tracks. The vast majority of them are already descending into mud under all the marching that’s going on. There are no local stone quarries. If they were to try to repair or improve the roads, they’d just be putting even more stress onto the railway system to haul the stone in. So everyone’s mostly just making do. That’s, um, not a good sign.
It’s raining on Louis Barthas as he leaves Villers-the-Dry. The horizon blue greatcoat may be a rather natty piece of attire, but it’s not known for being waterproof. There is an issue blue cape, but the 296th Regiment hasn’t seen many of them, and those that do exist are quickly purloined by officers. Fortunately, many of his fellows have managed to provide for themselves. Indeed, Lieutenant Cordier has used his own resources to equip all the men in his company with BEF raincoats.
And then Captain Cros-Mayrevielle intervenes.
All of a sudden I thought I heard wrong: they passed down the order to remove our raincoats, right at the moment when the rain was heaviest. This stupid order came right from the Kronprinz. He was no doubt recalling, with perfect timing, that a circular had gone around a few days ago, prohibiting the wearing of raincoats which weren’t the color blue, the only one allowed (no doubt at the instigation of a supplier). He wouldn’t have given it a second thought, without the idea of avenging himself for the affront that Lieutenant Cordier had given him in the forest of Crécy.
They were on manoeuvres when Cros accused Cordier of ignoring an order. Cordier told him he was lying; Cros took issue with this mild insubordination; Cordier threatened to punch Cros’s glasses off his face. And all this in front of the men. Now the Kronprinz is having his revenge. And do I even need to mention that he of course has acquired one of the few regulation capes to be had? After several hours, they squelch into Noyers-Auzecourt, which is just a few miles from Bar-le-Duc and the start of the Voie Sacree.
This village was filled with rear-echelon slackers who had been ensconced there for more than a year. There were hundreds of them: signalmen who were guarding a substantial amount of communications gear, destined to be installed in conquered territory. You could see stacks of telephone and telegraph poles, piles of porcelain fixtures, and rolls and rolls of enough wire to link Paris to Berlin … once we got there.
Our untimely arrival troubled the peace of these pacifistic soldiers, and we had a tough time finding something with which to shelter ourselves, so we had to wait in the rain for someone to make room for us.
The waiting continues. They’re going to be stuck at Noyers, thinking about the upcoming battle, for a week.
Well, those are the horrors of war on the French side of the hill. What about on the German side? What hardships are they enduring on the Western Front? Fortunately we have Herbert Sulzbach to tell us.
I’ve got some home leave!
Goddamnit! This guy really does get all the luck.
Getting home was more marvellous than I can say. Lt Reinhardt happened to have got leave at the same time, and I went to see him straight away. For the next few days I called on my friends, and sat about in cafes, and in the evenings one could actually go out dancing!
I received the very sad news that Berthold, who had been our faithful manservant for years, was killed in action outside Verdun. His last letter gave a completely clear impression that he did not believe he would survive.
He’ll be at home through Easter. Maybe he’ll actually shoot at something when he gets back? Interestingly, his family and friends seem very insulated from food shortages, or perhaps he just found the concept too depressing to write about.
Actions in Progress
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa
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