Kut | Trebizond | 18 Apr 1916

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.

Kondoa

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…

Trebizond

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.

Louis Barthas

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.

Herbert Sulzbach

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

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

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

Kondoa | Bait Isa | Air doctrine | 17 Apr 1916

March to Kondoa

From Africa we have news from General van Deventer and the South African Horse. Most of it is not good. On the plus side, his advance guard is encamped six miles north of Kondoa Irangi! Let’s have the map again.

And on the minus side? As E.S. Thompson has been telling us, the rainy season is now well and truly underway. Had the 2nd Division set out even a couple of days later, the horsemen would have been marooned out in the middle of nowhere. As it is, the entire division has been rendered one long, ungainly, straggling line. And with every day that goes past, they’re struggling that bit harder to make progress through the rain and the mud. The supply implications are obvious. It’s going to take one hell of an effort for the division to not starve.

Even better, 400 men of the Schutztruppe arrived in Kondoa only yesterday from their cross-country march. Kondoa itself isn’t particularly defensible, but just to the south there is a conveniently-sited line of hills. And soon enough, those hills are going to be filling up with more and more Schutztruppe. Back at General Smuts’s headquarters, a large number of German pfennigs are just about to drop. Much more to come.

Battle of Bait Isa

And now to Mesopotamia. Time is fast running out for the attempt to relieve the Siege of Kut. It’s victory or bust as they attack the main positions at Bait Isa before dawn. The only hope for the men is in subterfuge and ballsiness, attacking before dawn, having to advance nearly a mile in the dark across flooded ground. It shouldn’t have worked, and perhaps that’s why it did. They seem to have achieved tactical surprise (probably with the “nobody would be stupid enough to…” card), and the foul conditions here are badly interfering with Ottoman communications. By the time a counter-attack arrives, the relief column is dug in well enough in the Ottoman trenches to see it off.

It’s all coming good. General Townshend has spoken first of the 21st and then the 27th as the days on which food will run out inside Kut. They’ll be cutting it fine, but there’s just enough time to spend a day reorganising. Then it needs a final push against Es Sinn, and then one last death-or-glory charge against the men who are encircling Kut. For most of the afternoon and evening, for the first time since February, it’s looking like they just might be able to pull it off.

But this reckons without the Ottomans doing anything in response. With General von der Goltz indisposed, Halil Bey is now calling the shots. And he’s calling for another counter-attack. He’s correctly reasoned that the enemy is counting on him doing nothing and allowing them time to rotate fresh troops into the fight. And just as men who have been fighting through mud and flooding as bad as anywhere in the war are starting to hand over their positions, they suddenly find themselves under attack.

For an hour or two as night falls, it seems like they might be defeated entirely. It doesn’t come to that, but the Ottomans do manage to take back most of Bait Isa long enough for their engineers to thoroughly demolish their recent water control measures. By early tomorrow morning, I suppose the battle is confirmed as a British victory, in that the Ottomans are no longer occupying Bait Isa. But by then, they won’t need to. Now the water’s doing most of their job for them.

Air doctrine

Meanwhile, over on the Western Front, the breakneck pace of development in all areas of the air war continues. There is sometimes a tendency among militaries (well, among any large group, really) to succumb to “not invented here” syndrome, and be resistant to new ideas that you didn’t think of. The Royal Flying Corps, however, is making a very decent fist of resisting it. Through their liaison officer they are adopting all kinds of innovations that the French are coming out with; and there are plenty of innovations.

The French have recently captured a number of German aircraft with machine guns intact. They’ve discovered that the Germans are using rather clever disintegrating metal links to hold their ammunition, rather than the familiar canvas belts. The belts have proved prone to freezing at high altitude, or getting tangled up with other equipment and fouling something important. Now the innovation can be copied. The French have also created dedicated photographic sections within reconnaissance escadrilles, and developed a method for observers to directly warn their infantry of threatening enemy movements.

On the other hand, foremost among the many problems on General Trenchard’s plate is manpower. His plans for expansion have perhaps been slightly too aggressive. There’s a general shortfall of about 70 pilots, and the men who are arriving at the front are all too often inadequately trained. He’s attempted to borrow forty Royal Naval Aircraft Service pilots, who have taken one look at the planes the RFC wants them to fly and gone “Not today, old bean.” It has also been suggested that perhaps the plans for expansion could be scaled down, but…

There is another rather obvious solution, and by its nature it should also be obvious why the RFC wasn’t interested in it. Some poor sod has suggested that perhaps it is not essential that pilots be commissioned officers. Indeed, many of the best French pilots hold only an NCO’s rank. But they’re French, after all. Egalite and fraternite and all that. No, by Jove. This is the British army, and aeroplanes are far too important and technical a toy to let the common soldiery play with them.

Easter Rising

A quick note from Germany; Sir Roger Casement has now left Germany aboard a submarine and is heading for Ireland. As already discussed, the Admiralty knows almost all these details, and it’s not impossible that they might just arrange a welcoming committee.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian has arrived safely at Ayran. He’s in hiding there temporarily, while his new friends arrange a job for him that will keep him safe from the government.

I shall never forget the noble and fearless hospitality that the elderly Mrs Soghomonian showed me, without even consulting her children. Upon coming home in the evening, they found themselves facing an unknown guest. I had long since ceased to have a human appearance. For months I had been choking in dirt and lice. I felt unspeakable joy when Mrs Soghomonian heated water, and bathed and cleaned me with maternal solicitude. She dressed me in her son-in-law’s clean underwear and put hot food she’d cooked herself in front of me.

The interpreter who worked for the railway company in Ayran visited me, and gave me every assurance. All I had to do was put aside my monk’s cowl and shave my beard so the police wouldn’t recognise me. Because Papazian, a well-liked and respected interpreter, was very influential, I was given a temporary job in the Baghche station, about an hour from here. I had heard that a young priest who had also been fugitive in Ayran had been caught and murdered, so I shaved quickly and became a new man.

In disguise, and in the employ of a German railway company, he will, for the time being, be as safe as any Armenian still alive in the Ottoman Empire. And this means also that the journey that we’ve been following more-or-less day-by-day since February is now over. Although this is far from the last time we’ll be hearing from Balakian. There’s plenty of war remaining.

Louis Barthas

With his unwanted rank restored to him, and with his battalion approaching Verdun, Corporal Louis Barthas is back on his best moaning form.

[All day] it kept right on raining. I read the name on the signpost at the village entrance: “Villers-le-Sec, Marne.” It should have been called “Villers-le-Mouillé”.

Do I even need to point out that “Sec” means “Dry”, and “Mouille” means “wet”?

At the corner of a little square, while walking around, I saw a crowd gathering, and ran over. At first I could see nothing very unusual: they had formed a circle around a brownish, greasy mass, containing what were clearly pieces of bone. What then was this?

Someone explained to me that in August 1914, after the terrible struggles which took place in this region, the Germans, masters of the battlefield, gathered up all the dead—their own, and ours—and made an immense funeral pyre which they doused with gasoline and lit. For several days the wind carried the hideous odour of grilled flesh for miles around. No one knew how, but this shape which I had before my eyes was a piece of what remained when the sinister bonfire burned out.

The Germans briefly occupied Villers-the-Wet for a few days in 1914, before retreating in the face of the Battle of the Marne.

Maximilian Mugge

Yesterday we got a detailed explanation of Maximilian Mugge’s heart condition. He’s been placed on light duty, pending an appearance before a medical board.

My heart is worse. Written once more to the War Office [requesting work as a German translator or interpreter].

There were seven parades yesterday. One poor chap, a clerk by profession, fainted and was brought into my hut, where I looked after him. He is now in hospital. Our discipline! The birching of the boys at the altars in Sparta was mere play. One man in my hut got two extra parades for not having put laces into his spare boots. The officer of the day noticed the important omission amongst the man’s kit. “Two little boots that saw no laces, two long hours that saw some faces.”

He then quotes a back issue of a German literary magazine from May 1915, which says (at some length) “Private soldiers must respect and fear their officers”. I, um, do hope he’s not still taking that magazine. (Almost certainly sent to him, very discreetly, via a newsagent in a neutral country.) Or at least, I hope he’s keeping it on the down-low if he is. Anyway, he attempts to continue, but is drowned out by the modern reader’s uncontrollable giggles.

That is all very well. I object to discipline that is insane. I object to the god-like distance of the officers towards the men. I acknowledge the danger of too frequent and promiscuous intercourse. But…invisible pressure and civilian criminal law are better any day as safeguards than brutal effrontery.

Tee hee, he said “promiscuous intercourse”. Between officers and men. Quite. Wouldn’t want to end up like the Sacred Band of Thebes, would we? Chortle chortle.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa
Battle of Bait Isa

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

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

Bait Isa | Luxueil | 16 Apr 1916

Battle of Bait Isa

Good news from Mesopotamia! For one thing, the rain’s stopped for the moment. And, after some very confused, very wet, very muddy fighting, General Gorringe’s relief column has captured the Twin Pimples. These, let us remind ourselves, are two small hills outside Bait Isa. Tomorrow, the men can attack Bait Isa itself. And from there, there’s only a final fallback position at Es Sinn before the column can directly attack the Ottoman forces who are besieging Kut.

No, it doesn’t sound too promising. Still far too many conditionals. But it’s far from impossible. It has a far greater chance of success than, say, attacking Hanna did, ten days previously. And the Ottomans have just suffered a blow in the rear. Their German commander, General von der Goltz, has just fallen badly ill with typhoid fever. On top of that, defending the Bait Isa positions is also far from simple.

The positions were chosen because they straddle a large number of irrigation and transport canals. There is a lot of water about. And this works both ways. It’s very difficult to get men, supplies, and messages in and out of the defences. The Ottoman engineers have been working hard on a number of different water control efforts. Of course the works have been designed so that, if there is a retreat to Es Sinn, they can be quickly destroyed and the road to Es Sinn will disappear under the water.

However, from the Twin Pimples, a quick attack tomorrow might just be able to capture enough of the enemy positions to paralyse their command structure and capture Bait Isa before word can be passed down to flood the place. We may be in injury time, but they’re not finished yet.

Edward Mousley

Inside the siege of Kut there’s good news, but this time it doesn’t seem to be raising anyone’s spirits.

It is a beautiful summer day full of spiciness. It was impossible to lie in bed, so I got up, imagining I was leaving aches and pains in my sleeping-bag. After breakfast I crawled out with Tudway on board the Sumana, and saw the excellent repair our sappers had effected in the main stop-valve. I make myself walk. We discussed her defences and I worked out the number of gun shields that would be necessary if they were utilized to cover all her deck. The plan was partly adopted. Then we lazied an hour or two in her smashed cabin, getting a hot sniping on our return.

Afterwards, I played chess with Square-Peg and Father Tim. Parsnip came to tiffin. God has endowed him with two things: a perpetual appetite and a short memory, for he comes to tiffin very often without his bread. Moreover, on any subject under the sun Parsnip will dogmatize with all the splendid audacity of youth, with all youth’s magnificent indifference to authority. With the smallest amount of encouragement he has politically the makings of a magnificent catastrophe; otherwise he is normal.

We speculated on the treatment we should receive if captured. The Turk is said to be off the civilized map, but every one seems to think we should be done first rate, and some believe that he would be so bucked at capturing a whole army and five real live generals that we should be offered the Sultan’s Palace of Sweet Waters on the Bosphorus and a special seraglio.

An evening communiqué said that Gorringe had captured the enemy’s pickets and was ready for a further advance, the results of which are expected by the morning.

Hold that thought about the Sultan’s palace, won’t you?

Attack on Trebizond

After two days of hard pursuit, the Russians are now about eight miles from Trebizond. The men are getting tired, and more importantly, their supporting battleships are running out of shells. The fleet duly heads back to Batum to reload; it’ll be a couple of days before the infantry can hope to press on. This is all going extremely well indeed.

Lafayette Escadrille

The Lafayette Escadrille’s progress towards flying for France continues apace. Today they get their orders to go to the aerodrome at Luxueil-les-Bains to begin its flying duty. This is intended as a shakedown period only; the aerodrome is near Belfort and the Swiss border, in about the quietest part of the Western Front. Before being pitched into the Battle of Verdun, they will need time to get used to combat flying under rather less stressful conditions. Said James McConnell:

The rush was breathless! Never were flying clothes and fur coats drawn from the quartermaster, belongings packed, and red tape in the various administrative bureaux unfurled, with such headlong haste. In a few hours we were aboard the train, panting, but happy. Our party consisted of Sergeant Prince, and Rockwell, Chapman, and myself, who were only corporals at that time. We were joined at Luxeuil by Lieutenant Thaw and Sergeants Hall and Cowdin.

For the veterans our arrival at the front was devoid of excitement; for the three neophytes–Rockwell, Chapman, and myself–it was the beginning of a new existence, the entry into an unknown world. Of course Rockwell and Chapman had seen plenty of warfare on the ground, but warfare in the air was as novel to them as to me. For us all it contained unlimited possibilities for initiative and service to France, and for them it must have meant, too, the restoration of personality lost during those months in the trenches with the Foreign Legion. Rockwell summed it up characteristically.

“Well, we’re off for the races,” he remarked.

It’s all very Boy’s Own stuff. At the moment. Wonder how their tune might change when there’s work to be done.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas and friends, in transit by rail all day long, now know their destination.

At 4 in the afternoon, the train entered the station at Vitry-le-François. At this point we still didn’t know our destination, but we would soon find out. If the train took the direction of Chalons, we’d be going to Champagne, which was very calm at that moment. If we continued on toward the east, there could be no more doubt—we were going to Verdun. Alas, that’s exactly where we were headed, and at nightfall we disembarked at the station in Revigny.

Revigny was a pretty little town, now half-destroyed. Three months earlier a Zeppelin had been shot down there. No doubt to stretch our legs after twenty-four hours of immobility, they sent us off to encamp twelve kilometers from Revigny. It was a moonless night, but starry, and the North Star told us that we were turning our backs on Verdun. What did that mean?

While passing through one village, a brief order ran along the column: “Attention! The general!”
In the village square, beside his automobile, General P– . watched the regiment parading by. When I passed near him, he called out as he stomped his foot, “But these men are sleeping! Will you look at that!” The general was right. All the men were dozing off. But he was wrong to reproach us, because he had traveled first class, then in an automobile, while we, jumbled together like a herd of animals, were obliged to pace off the kilometers heavily weighted down.

Barthas does not usually censor or substitute names, but he does occasionally decline to name certain people. This is one of them. I’m certain that it isn’t Petain himself, since this general has been travelling with Barthas, and Petain has been at Verdun all the while. Beyond that, I’d need a decent order of battle to identify the man, but as it is I’m not even sure which army, corps, division, or brigade the 296th Regiment is supposed to be in at the moment. Whoever they are, they get under cover in just enough time to avoid being rained on.

E.S. Thompson

With the South African Horse closing in on Kondoa, the rainy season has well and truly begun in east Africa. E.S. Thompson has been stuck with a nasty old job.

Woke up at 7 to find it damp and drizzly. Sergeant Snow of Mechanical Transport asked us to cut down a few trees and stumps so as to make a road for the cars to the workshops. Legg and I got on a Reo about 11 am and went down to the first river on Himo road to help tow some other cars out of the mud. The road was in a hopeless state, the car slipping all over the place. Mud and water lay on the road inches thick, and consequently bottom gear had to be used so that when we arrived the water in the radiator was boiling.

I took a walk down to the river to see the bridge which had been pushed into a curve by the force of the water but was still strong. Just then it began to rain, making things sloppier than ever. We got about 5 Reos out of the mud and sent them on their way, then returned to camp slipping about worse than ever. Once or twice I thought the car would turn right over but bar sticking on a hill for about 5 minutes everything went well. When we got back to camp we found that one of the Reos we had pulled out of the mud before had sunk her back wheels in the mud down to the differentials.

The Reo Motor Car Company has sold a large number of cars and trucks to Canada and South Africa in recent years. In the modern British army, any large vehicle is often called a “Bedford”, as in days gone by they were exclusively manufactured by the Bedford company. Reo trucks are similarly ubiquitous among these South Africans. And it’s far from certain, but I would like to think that E.S. Thompson was today riding in their latest model: the Reo Speedwagon. Whose name I certainly do not intend to sprinkle widely over my blog for callous SEO purposes. Perish the thought.

(By the way, when he finally gets back to camp, Sergeant Snow grabs him again and puts him on latrine-digging duty. I do hope he hasn’t done something to offend the sergeant, else this man’s story could just become a litany of all the really crappy jobs, ahahaha.)

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is out of the line at the moment, but due to go back tomorrow, and he’s writing to his friend Evelyn Southwell. Southwell has just had a book of poetry published; but not his own poetry, interestingly. The poems are from the 16-year-old boys who he used to teach at Shrewsbury School. This is the “V.B.” of which White now speaks.

I suppose you have your copy of “V.B.”? I have two copies out here, owing to a mistaken order to a bookseller. I have given it quite a vulgar puff among booksellers, and I am supposing that it occupies a large position in a Trinity Street Book Shop window at Cambridge. Have you got a Press-cutting agency to send you all notices and reviews of it? (‘ The practical man’-yes; but you ought to, really, oughtn’t you ?)

Anyone will find you a newspaper-cutting agency. I want the names of the authors of ‘The weather has thrown off its weeds’-it’s very good that, almost as French as the original-and ‘The Fairy’s Story’, please.

I came up to the trenches ten days ago, alone. We’ve had a few days in billets, and we go up again to-night. I expect I shall discover the real nature of War before long.

What, you mean he isn’t a star-spangled old wizard? Criminy.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

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

Nightmares | Balakian’s escape | 15 Apr 1916

Battle of Bait Isa

The rains rain, the men sink. There was supposed to be an all-out assault on the Twin Pimples today, in the early hours. Then an all-out thunderstorm rolled over the battlefield. Visibility remained at almost nothing until well after sunrise, and that was more than enough for men to get tangled up and lose their way. Knee-deep mud, waist-deep water; this is more than enough to require a 24-hour postponement. And we’re now at the stage at which 24 hours could be the difference between survival and starvation inside the Siege of Kut.

Inside the siege, Edward Mousley and his friend Square-Peg are trying to get some sleep. However, between the thunderstorm and the guns, it doesn’t go too well.

This was the day beyond which we were assured it was impossible to go. We are evidently out for records.

The thunder bellowed her despair, or rather ours, according to Kipling, and Square-Peg talked horribly in his sleep. He was putting up a masterly defence in his best English against some Arab hordes—women were in it—who had him at bay somewhere in the gardens. Having lulled them into inattention he shot clean off the bed and out of the door, when he pulled up and said something sheepishly. Of course I pretended to be asleep; and after examining my face carefully he lay down again.

Square-Peg is quite touchy about his nightmares. I heard him say “Damn” softly once or twice under his breath, and then fall asleep again. This time he was in an attack, and behaved shockingly, tossing about the bed in a most ghastly manner. Suddenly it dawned on me that he was taking cover. He knew the road to the door too well not to manage an advance or retire at the double. I think it must have been the former, because he hesitated a second this time before he moved, but I gave such a terrific roar that he immediately collapsed on the bed and swore horribly.

“Don’t do it again,” I said. “If you do, I’ll put a bucket in your way. I swear it.”
“What the devil do you mean?”
“Mean! Why, don’t go after cigarettes with such enthusiasm again, that’s all. Have one of these.” Then he called me names, at which I laughed the more. “They are nothing to what your wife will call you, Square-Peg, if you carry on in that fashion when you are married!” That set him thinking.

The only thing to be said for him is that during a nightmare, he doesn’t snore.

He’s a poor lad.

Attack on Trebizond

It’s a good day for the Russians, as they continue chasing their Ottoman opponents down the road to Trebizond. They had joy, they had fun, they had the enemy on the run. But it turns out that it won’t last, because the bastards are running too fast. This is the way to fight a war. Pursue until some rearguard unit tries to make a stand, take cover, call for artillery support from some giant battleship guns. Rinse and repeat. It’s almost American!

The Mound

Mildly bad news from the Ypres salient. The Mound, captured from the Germans after some clever planning and trickery on the part of the British 2nd Army, has now been lost again. On the other hand, it has been lowered by quite a few metres after all the ordnance that’s landed on top of it recently, so it’s now slightly less useful as an observation post. Swings and roundabouts!

Mr Haig goes to London

Yes, yes, I know he’s Sir Douglas, not “Mr Haig”. Anyway, the Chief of the BEF is still in London, and today he’s attending a meeting of the War Committee. This appears to have been more because he was in town than for any real purpose. Haig’s diary is openly disdainful towards the politicians, and I think it’s safe to say that this is not entirely without cause. Quite a few hours are taken up with squabbling over exactly how many men are being raised for the Army by the current conscription measures. They’re trying to decide whether or not to conscript married men as well as single men, which could be extremely politically damaging to the Government.

To Haig’s eye, the Committee is almost entirely “wanting in decision, and public spirit”. He fires off several more choice zingers, including a semi-famous one at Herbert Asquith, that he was “dressed for golf and clearly anxious to get away for his weekend”. (Today is Saturday.)

Grigoris Balakian

It’s now or never for Grigoris Balakian. Today his caravan goes on foot and by train to Aleppo, from there to be taken to Der Zor. Once they’re into the desert, escape will be impossible.

The train was to depart at 5:10am, when it was still dark. A torrential spring rain had been falling for fifteen hours, with only minor interruptions. The critical moment was here.

It was five o’clock. A bayonet-wielding Jandarma was posted at the door of the carriage, and I convinced him to let me leave for a few minutes to attend to an urgent matter. I took only a few dozen steps in the dark. Then I removed my clerical overcoat and put on a disguise that made me unrecognisable. I hesitated for a moment, and wondered whether I was heading towards salvation or death.

In ten minutes I was in front of our meeting placer. Barely had I called out “Hovhannes!” when my two brave, selfless, armed compatriots came out, at risk to their lives, for the sake of saving me. Our little band of three fugitives disappeared along with the dawn, into the forests facing Islahiye. The road was now clear before us. It would be eight hours before we reached Ayran.

They’re eight paranoid hours. But, for the moment, Balakian is coming to better times. The vast majority of his caravan will die in the desert before the end of 1916. He does make particular mention of one man, Setrak Shakhian, who has given Balakian most of what little money he has left. Somehow he’ll be able to escape the caravan in Aleppo and survive the genocide by selling salt.

Louis Barthas

Corporal Louis Barthas of the French Army has just been warned to move again, from his comfortable rest billets at Lamotte-Buleux, near the mouth of the River Somme. As usual, the men are not told where they’re going, although our well-informed friend quickly puts out feelers.

Everyone had the sense that we were going to Verdun, where the gigantic battle continued without interruption. Therefore, you heard no singing along the ten-kilometer route which took us to Noyelles. Nevertheless, some of us clung to the vague hope that we were going to rejoin our corps in the Oise département. Others said they had tips that we would take up a sector in Champagne.

At 7 that evening, with forty piled into each of the cattle cars, and with no straw or benches, the train took us away. Even the colonel didn’t know where. Stacked one on top of another, without even being able to stretch out our legs, which accordingly cramped up, we spent a very bad night indeed.

The petty rear-area tyrannies of Captain Cros are now a long, long way from the men’s minds.

Clifford Wells

Speaking of the manpower issue. Although still in quarantine, idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells has a first-hand view on the situation in east Kent.

It is quite pathetic to walk through the country and see the farms being tilled by old men and boys. It is a rare thing to meet a young man of military age who is not in khaki, in the country. In London, they are not so rare. In spite of the indignation against young men who have taken refuge in munition factories, I am convinced that there is no country in the world where so large a proportion of the population would voluntarily enlist as did so in Great Britain.

The relatively small numbers that have been obtained under the Compulsion Act, together with the large number of exemptions granted by the tribunals, show that the great majority of those who should be in the army enlisted voluntarily under the Derby scheme, or before it came into operation.

I do wish I had the time and the energy to dig deeper into the introduction of conscription, and into investigating what our friend is telling us. But on we must go, with caution not to be too ready to take him at his word.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is not having much fun at all. He’s been ordered down to the beach on sand fatigues. The good news is that it involves buckets and spades. The bad news is that they are not doing this because their sergeant-major wants to build sandcastles.

When our bucket was full we had to carry it up a flight of thirty-two steps on to the breakwater, from where it was carted away. A hundredweight for two grown-up workers is not much if you are accustomed to lifting things, or if you handle hundredweights for a short time. But the seemingly endless hours, 9am to 4pm, with a short break for dinner, and the thirty-two steps, proved too much for my silly old heart. I enjoyed, however, the opportunity of the psychological study: How did the individual Egyptian slave feel when he climbed up the pyramid day in and day out?

For several years my pumping works have been out of order: V.D.H. the military doctors call it. True, the physician at Whitehall passed me as A-1 as a matter of course, but who will blame the Recruiting Officer if at lunch he tells the body-bungler, “My dear Fred, you did me out of ten men again this morning. Don’t you realise they are volunteers? ” To-day, however, my heart played the Dictator, and said, “Well, either you stop or I do.”

A hundredweight is an old imperial unit, in British use equal to eight stones, 112 pounds, very slightly over 50 kilograms, or “bloody heavy whichever way you look at it”. “A-1” is the fittest medical grade in the Army; everyone is graded A, B, or C, and within the letter grade from 1 to 5. Very roughly, men graded A are fit for the trenches, or at least soon will be; graded B are fit to go on active service and do a rear-area job at the front; graded C are only fit for garrison duty. And “VDH” means “Valvular Disease of the Heart”, a catch-all term for irregularities with one’s heart valves.

Mugge should not be graded A-1, or indeed A-anything, with such a heart condition. However, as he’s been able to march, drill, and shoot, there’s no medical reason why he shouldn’t go to France and do a rear-area job. Particularly as he of course is a native speaker of German…

Bernard Adams

And finally. Bernard Adams has been singing the praises of “The First Hundred Thousand”, a book and series of articles by an officer of Kitchener’s Army who won the the Military Cross at Loos. His verdict was “Good readable stuff; the sort you’d give to your people at home, but it leaves out bits.” Unfortunately, the enemy won’t allow him to sit around his dugout in the support trenches all night reading Blackwood’s Magazine. They’ve just blown a counter-mine and destroyed a British forward mining gallery.

All the night through they were rescuing fellows from our mine gallery. Seven or eight were killed, most of them “gassed”; two of “A” Company were badly gassed too while aiding in the rescue work. At any rate they were all night working to get the fellows out. One man when rescued disobeyed the doctor’s strict injunctions to lie still for half an hour before moving away from where he was put, just outside the mine shaft; and this cost him his life. He hurried down the Old Kent Road, and dropped dead with heart failure at the bottom of it.

Before dawn we stood to, and it was quite light as I inspected the last rifle of No. 6 Platoon. They were just bringing the last of the gassed miners down to the dressing-station. I stood at the comer of Park Lane, and watched. The stretcher-bearers came and looked at two forms lying on stretchers close by me. Then they asked me if I thought it would be all right to take those stretchers, and leave the dead men there another hour. I said if they wanted the stretchers, yes. So they lifted the bodies off, and went away with the stretchers. There were several men standing about, silent, as usual, in the presence of death.

I looked at those two [Engineers] as they lay quite uncovered; grim their faces were, grim and severe. I told a man to get something and cover them up, until the stretcher-bearers came and removed them. And as I strode away in silence between my men, I felt that my face was grim too. I thought of Clark’s description, a few hours back, of the man sitting alone in the white chalk gallery, listening, listening, listening. And now!

Once more I thought of “blind death.” The Germans who had set light to the fuse at tea-time were doubtless sleeping the sleep of men who have worked well and earned their rest. They knew nothing of it, would never know whom they had slain. And I remembered the night Scott and I had watched our big mine go up. “Wonderful,” we had said, “magnificent.” And in the morning the R.E. officer had told us that we had smashed all their galleries up, and that they would not trouble us there for a fortnight at least.

I met Edwards by the dug-out as he returned from inspecting the Lewis guns. “Remember,” I said, “I told you the ‘First Hundred Thousand’ leaves out bits? Did you see those [Engineers] who were gassed?”
Edwards nodded.
“Well,” I added, “that’s a thing it leaves out.”

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

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

Indian engineers | HMS Campania | 12 Apr 1916

Africa

General van Deventer’s altitude is increasing as he and his horsemen ride through Tanzania. Today they’ve arrived at a boma, a fortified village with outlying farms and a stockade or fort in the middle. This boma is at Ufiome, and they’ve found it deserted. Somewhere off to the rear is the division’s infantry and its supply train, on the march to Kondoa, but this is no time to worry about practicalities. van Deventer is aiming to be at Kondoa Irangi in five days, and it’s uphill most of the way, the ground now rising thousands of miles above the Masai Steppe.

Meanwhile, off to the north-east, the Indian railway engineers have finished a staggering feat of logistics. There’s now a functioning narrow-gauge railway that connects the friendly-held parts of the Northern Railway to the Uganda Railway. It’s come not a moment too soon. E.S. Thompson is far from the only man to have spent time in hospital lately. Over 2,000 of his mates have been there at some point. They urgently need a volume of supplies that only the railway can bring them just to keep the occupying force on their feet.

And General Smuts is planning another advance down the Northern Railway towards Tanga. On paper he should have over 7,000 men for this operation. If they can stay healthy. If they can survive the rains.

E.S. Thompson

Speaking of our correspondent. His battalion has gone to Moshi, from there to move on to Arusha, and today he rejoins them. They were supposed to have left by now, but rather ominously, they’ve been unable to move on. The Germans have of course taken all the standard-gauge rolling stock down the railway with them, and the roads are far too muddy for marching. Thompson, being a vaguely invalid machine-gunner, also gets to travel in the battalion’s armoured car.

We resolved to go on to Moshi as we heard the Regiment was staying there on account of the bad state of the roads. Rum issued but spoilt by quinine. Legg got a kidney, so we had bacon, kidney and onion fried with bread for lunch.

[In the afternoon] two partridges walked across the road so Legg stopped the car and shot one. We were hoping to pot another one later but although we saw a good few more conditions were not suitable. I enjoyed the trip very much, although the roads were in a shocking state. Just before entering Moshi, I saw Nighty helping to get a motor lorry out of a mud drift.

Moshi is quite a respectably sized village with some decent houses about, but with decidedly German architecture.

Note the rather sniffy reference to the rum having been spoiled by quinine. Many of the South Africans are extremely offended by the (admittedly disgusting) bitter drug, and a sizeable proportion of them are disinclined to take it. In the middle of a malarial bush. Right as the rainy season is on the very cusp of beginning. It’s a wonder there’s any of them still walking. Bunch of twerps.

Battle of Verdun

With little to show for their recent efforts except a large heap of corpses, and possession over a full third of the Mort Homme, German infantry assaults are suspended again. A gigantic artillery duel immediately strikes up. General von Knobelsdorf immediately begins lobbying headquarters to be allowed to attack again. More on that to come.

Campania

To Scapa Flow! A spectacularly odd ship has just joined the Grand Fleet. She looks like what might have happened if Winston Churchill had been told to design a new weapon with the aid of a case of Pol Roger champagne and a Meccano set. She has a fat arse, and a big pointy nose, and Admiral Jellicoe is absolutely delighted to see her.

Navies all around the world have been trying to find a way of using air power to their advantage. HMS Campania is a creaky old North Atlantic passenger liner which had literally been pulled out of the breaker’s yard in July 1914 and requisitioned. While Campania carries a large shed at the back for launching seaplanes into the water and then retrieving them, there are plenty of odd-shaped seaplane carriers rattling around with various bits of the Navy.

What makes this ship particularly interesting is the stupid beaky nose. While being absolutely pathetic by today’s standards, Campania has something which, if you squint a bit and put your head on one side, looks like a flight deck from which a very brave pilot in a very light plane might be able to take off. Or possibly he might well just roll into the sea; it tilts downward at an alarming angle and looks as though it might snap off the ship in a stiff breeze, which are not unknown in the North Sea.

There’s a hold underneath it with four tiddly little planes, which are quite comfortable as long as nobody actually wants to use them. The flight deck itself has just been extended from 50 metres to 71 metres long, which has required a concerted bodging effort to move two of the ship’s three funnels out of the way. From such strange new experiments do entirely new ways of warfare spring…

Why is Admiral Jellicoe suffering the presence of this thing in his fleet? Zeppelins. German naval tactics are heavily based around exploiting their airships for scouting purposes. Jellicoe, not unreasonably, would like a similar capability. If you don’t have an airship, you need a big fat heavy seaplane with a big fat wireless radio set. They live at the back of the ship, and are launched and recovered by cranes. But that’s not all Jellicoe’s after. He also longs for a little miniature fighter that can be launched off the flight deck and sent off to attack the Zeppelins.

Experiments are even now being conducted into just what kind of planes can get into the air off the flight deck. (They still can’t land on it; they must deploy airbags and land in the sea, hopefully close enough to a friendly ship to be rescued before sinking.) The ship has also been equipped with an observation balloon, because why not? All in all it’s a significant box of tricks even if no planes ever take off, and will surely make itself useful if the Germans try any funny business. More to come!

Sir Roger Casement

Brief news. Not only is the German government supplying arms to the Easter Rising, they’re also supplying one Sir Roger Casement. He’s had enough of mostly-fruitless negotiations with German functionaries. Quite what he was trying to do by returning home is unclear. One of the men who sailed with him claimed he was trying to call the Rising off on the grounds that the German supplies were completely inadequate. In any case, he’s now preparing to board a submarine and head home.

Unfortunately for him, while the Admiralty’s codebreakers at Room 40 have missed the sailing of Libau, the same radio silence precautions haven’t been observed for U-19. The log shows how Room 40 knew today that she had orders to sail in the next few days to the West of Ireland on a mission of special importance.

Siege of Kut

Outside the Siege of Kut, General Gorringe’s men splash and squidge around under cover of darkness, forming up for their latest attack. There’s an outpost guarding the Ottoman flank at a location named by some imaginative cartographer (or bored Tommy) as the Twin Pimples. It needs to be taken before Bait Isa can be attacked, apparently. Conditions are ridiculously poor. In any other context they’d be written off as impassable, with waist-high floods over clinging, claggy mud. But this is not any old context.

Inside the siege, Edward Mousley is counting himself lucky. At 3pm today, the Ottoman guns begin a heavy barrage.

I had just finished the war diary, and was sitting up on my bed restlessly awake with stomach pains, and Square-Peg was fast asleep by the other wall, when a high-velocity shell crashed into the room and burst. I was completely dazed by the concussion, which drove me against the wall. In fact, I was half stunned, as I was directly in line for the back-lash of the burst. The room was so dark with dust and the dense yellow fumes that stank horribly that I couldn’t see an inch.

Square-Peg, who was groping about, assured me he wasn’t hit, and hurrahed when he heard I was alive. However, on trying to rise, I found myself partly paralysed in my back, my spine in severe pain, and I could hardly see at all. He helped me out of the yellow gases, for I couldn’t walk alone. I lay down in the mess, and after drinking some water felt better. But I am horribly shaken and suffer acute pain in whatever position I lie.

There is no luck like good luck. Tudway says it was an intended punishment for the affair of the fowl, which, nevertheless, we ate completely.

Somehow the shrapnel has missed both men. Mousley’s been hit on the spine by something solid, likely by a flying brick, and has only a spectacularly large bruise to show for it. There’s no telling how close he came to being permanently disabled. But he hasn’t been, and he now has a lot of time to fill, and he chews over the situation in great detail, much more than there’s room for here.

If it is necessary that Kut should be sacrificed to the military end, none of His Majesty’s forces could be more ready for sacrifice than the Sixth Division. But when one thinks of the past months and the neglect to face the obvious military situation after Ctesiphon, one feels that the sufferings of the troops in Kut and the heavy loss of life downstream could easily have been avoided.

General Hoghton, commanding the 17th Brigade, entered hospital yesterday suffering from acute enteritis and dysentery. Early this morning, to the universal sorrow of the garrison, he died. It is said that the wild green grass stuff was partly the cause, and also abstinence from horseflesh, which a digestion ravaged by the siege could not stand. He was a most genial and kind general, and always cheerful.

The last embers of hope are leaking away. He’s content, I suppose, with simply being able to walk around.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

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