Taking stock | 31 July 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme is one month old. It’s been a long bloody month. I think I’ve said about all that can possibly be said about July on the Somme. Let us just round it off with a couple of observations from the big bosses. Interestingly, both General Joffre and General Haig are doing the same thing; they’re hectoring a subordinate.

Joffre is primarily concerned for the prospects of future cooperation with the BEF. He’s been getting a lot of messages recently from Generals Foch and Fayolle, repeating the earlier themes of the English amateurs who simply don’t know what they’re doing. The men on the spot are both angling for an independent attack to capture Peronne and its road and rail junctions. In strict strategic terms it is probably the correct decision, but Joffre must also consider politics and the need not to offend allies who they will need next year

The fundamental intention of the Somme offensive must continue to be supporting the British attack in the north. Our offensive in the south must remain secondary or subordinate to the results obtained in the north.

It will, of course, be much easier for Joffre to organise another big push to coincide with Romania’s entry into the war and the next battle of the Isonzo (of course that’s coming) if it can be presented as “we all attack together!” rather than “you get on with it, and we’ll get on with it”. There’s a big conference being planned at a chateau near the Somme. King George V and President Poincare will be attending, and there will of course be a spectacularly gluttonous dinner, no small task when General Joffre’s appetite is in town.

Haig and Rawlinson

After a month of falling short of objectives, General Haig is writing an extensive position paper. It would probably be slightly unfair to call it an extended bollocking for General Rawlinson. That’s not all that’s there. But there is plenty of it there.

To enable us to bring the present operations (the existing phase of which may be regarded as a ‘wearing out’ battle) to a successful termination, we must practice such economy of men and material as will ensure our having the ‘last reserves’ at our disposal when the crisis of the fight is reached, which may—and probably will—not be sooner than the last half of September.

The first necessity at the moment is to help the French forward on our right flank. For this we must capture Guillemont, Falfemont Farm and Ginchy as soon as possible. These places cannot be taken, however—with due regard to economy of means available—without careful and methodical preparation. The necessary preparations must be pushed on without delay, and the attack will be launched when the responsible commanders on the spot are satisfied that everything possible has been done to ensure success.

He also includes explicit instructions not to attack anywhere else…but they are allowed to conduct prepatory works for another offensive. I smell loophole. Watch that space. We’ve also got some instructions for Reserve Army, instructing them to attack only to capture Pozieres windmill.

The operations outlined above are to be carried out with as little expenditure of fresh troops and of munitions as circumstances will admit of, but in each attack undertaken a sufficient force must be employed to make success as certain as possible, and to secure the objectives won against counter-attack. Economy of men and munitions is to be sought for, not by employing insufficient force for the objective in view, but by a careful selection of objectives.

If only winning a battle were as simple as ordering the Army commander “Don’t fuck up” and leaving him to get on with it. These are not easy orders to follow. It’s like cooking for Goldilocks. Hurry up, but not too much. Prepare properly, but don’t dawdle. General Rawlinson is left to hold a conference to make some sense of these orders. I’ll not hold my breath.

Haig’s diary, meanwhile, is fabulously dull. There’s then a little space, and then an additional note, apparently added not too long afterwards.

OBJECTIVE
The war must be continued until Germany is vanquished to such an extent as to be obliged to accept whatever terms the Allies may dictate to her.

As far as we know, this has simply occurred to the Chief in his thoughts. As far as I know, this is the first time since 1914 that anyone has considered what “victory” might mean, and what it might look like. What a way to end one of the bloodiest months of the war.

Max Plowman

The engine of war continues ticking over. Max Plowman is training in the Bull Ring at Etaples, which by law I must refer to as the “notorious” Bull Ring.

We are on our way to the Bull Ring: two hundred of us, officers who have not been to the Front and are therefore due for a course of intensive training till some battalion of our regiments shall require us. Here we are, slogging along under the command of a captain, back in the ranks again, carrying rifles. This appears to be an indignity to some of these fellows; but it does not trouble me, for I have no gift for the assertion of authority, and find it easier to obey army orders than to give them. The responsibility of command is an effort which diverts thought from what are much more natural, if useless, channels.

These huts to our right and left are hospitals. And what is that, looking like an ungrown hopfield? A British cemetery, Lord! How many have died already! The ground is smothered with wooden crosses.

We march on in the heat till we come to a great open sandy arena. Out on to this plain we file, and now we are put through physical jerks by officers who have risen from the regular ranks; and now are drilled by sergeant-majors who have been chosen for this duty presumably by virtue of the harshness of their voices and the austerity of their manners. It is hot work, and there is a fierce, vindictive atmosphere about this place which makes its name of “Bull Ring” intelligible.

Later we climb up among the sand dunes on the other side of the road, and there practise firing rifle grenades and throwing those small egg-shaped cast-iron missiles known as Mills bombs. Here too we learn more of the methods of gas attack and defence, and practise the art of shoving our heads quickly into the clammy flannel bags that are dignified by the name of PH helmets. We finish the morning’s work by running obstacle races over a prepared course back on the arena.

In other times, all signs of our activity banishe’d, these sand dunes must make a place of delightful holiday. Even to-day one’s eyes wandered instinctively toward the blue estuary that lay below us, where the tiny white sail of a yacht moved slowly up-stream.

Yes, he actually wrote “banishe’d”. It’s funny; when he’s pleasing Columbo and giving us just the facts, he’s got a real talent for this “memoir” lark. Then he starts trying to write Literature and he sounds like a massive, massive berk, and I just want to poke fun at everything he says. He is right that in peacetime, Le Toquet is a well-to-do beach resort of considerable reputation, mind.

The PH helmet, by the way, has now of course been superceded by the Respirator Small Box. However, like the steel helmet, the modern respirator is issued as trench stores only, left up the line by units who are going back to rest for the next lot who are following them. There aren’t enough spare for people to train with them.

Neil Tennant at Basra

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the Royal Flying Corps has now arrived at Basra. On the way, he’s not been surprised to see a steady stream of hospital ships sailing the reverse route to India. He starts, of course, by whinging about the heat, and quickly moves on to whinging about everything else.

The place is famous at least for its climate; the humid heat hangs heavy on the lungs, everything is saturated, ink runs on the paper, and matches will barely strike. Endure the day, but the night brings no relief. There is no freshness in a Basra summer, and the ravages of prickly heat, mosquito, and sand-fly combine ‘to shrivel all impulse and desire. The town and its surroundings are intersected by canals and lagoons, and densely sown with date palms.

I had an interview with General Sir Percy Lake, and was generally busy learning the situation. The staff at GHQ looked tired and washed out, the result of long office hours in the hot weather. The strength of the RFC at this time in Mesopotamia was one skeleton squadron at the Front, and an Aircraft Park at the base. There was also a Kite Balloon section of the Royal Naval Air Service under Commander Wrottesly.

Here such arrears of work had accumulated that it was hard to know where to begin, and the men who were left had little life in them. It was only possible to work in the hours of dawn, for by nine o’clock the sun was getting up, and any remaining energy was necessary for bare existence. A large percentage of our staff were sick, the hospitals were overflowing, and very few reinforcements arriving in the country ever reached their units, but went sick at Basra, taking up valuable room in hospital that was needed for men evacuated from the front.

Lack of labour was seriously holding up the unlading of stores urgently required by the force up river; coolies were few and difficult, and troops were not to be spared from drafts for the fighting forces, fifty per cent, of whom had gone sick. The congestion of shipping in Basra harbour, as a result of this, was serious at a time when all the Empire’s resources in tonnage were necessary to fight the submarine menace. Some ships had been lying in harbour for months, and it was said that others had returned to India, having only cleared a portion of their cargo in order not to waste time when there was any space available.

Nine new aeroplanes which had been waiting a month to be unloaded were not got ashore till several weeks later. The base at Basra seemed to be congested with stores of every description, yet owing to lack of labour and shallow draft river transport, the fighting force were hard pressed to maintain themselves.

But it seems like he’s still justified in moaning. If things are like that now, imagine what it must have been like at the height of the Siege of Kut! Ye gods.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson still has no official orders to move, so takes himself off to find some entertainment, visiting an abandoned Schuztruppe position outside Kondoa Irangi. Of course, where one finds bored soldiers, one also finds bad life decisions…

Saw the observation post and the splendid look-out it held, also the well-dug trenches. Pieces of our shells were lying all over the place and there were many big holes which they had made. Saw the first howitzer shell that was fired and didn’t burst. Picked up a good many shrapnel balls then started back for home. Took some time to pick the black-jacks out of my puttees. … Hassett got hold of some kaffir beer and, after imbibing some, got very excited so we had a sing-song in his tent. In the middle of the proceedings the tent nearly caught alight amid great excitement.

This is beer is brewed from millet, known to the South Africans as kaffir corn because it’s what the black Africans grow. Oh, those loveable cheeky self-immolating racist chappies! If only all racists could be so obliging.

Incidentally, they haven’t heard the news, but after just about riding his horses and his men into the ground, General van Deventer is now at Dodoma on the Central Railway. They’re all horribly tired and unfit, and two men and a dachshund could probably have captured the entire South African Horse. However, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s men have been forced to scatter to avoid their advance, and they’re off in the middle of nowhere trying to get themselves back into some kind of order, having just been pushed off their railway. As long as the South Africans can get some supplies forward and they don’t all starve, which is far from guaranteed, this is a major coup.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Let us now have a last horror of war to see the month of July out. It starts well enough; they’re being relieved. Unlike the life of an infantryman, full of marching up the line and back from the line and up the line again, a gunner stays in his gun-pit in the same area of country for months or more at a time. In a hot sector like the Somme, Fraser-Tytler’s men have been working hard with very little respite since the New Year. Aside from the odd week’s leave, this will be the first time since January that they’ve had any real guaranteed rest.

I lunched with Peter Fraser-Tytler at his battery, and then went to see Victor Walrond, who commands a battery in the same division.

This will be the last time our correspondent sees his brother alive. On the 3rd of August, he’ll be killed by counter-battery fire near Montauban, somewhere close to the positions that our man is just quitting. He returns to his battery, but. Weak stomachs and large animal lovers should probably look away now.

Just as I reached the road behind my position, three passing gun teams were done in by a single big shell. I finished off as many of the horses as I could with a revolver, which I took from a very erratic-shooting subaltern. … An orderly bringing a message had come up with two horses and was holding them beside one of the gun-pits. I was just thinking of sending them away, when I heard a close shell coming and jumped for safety into the mess at the bottom of the 12-inch shell-crater. As soon as the shell had burst, I looked out just in time to see a red lump rising out of a red pool.

It was the horse-holder. I pulled him into one of the dugouts and got a party to clean him and then report damages. He was practically untouched, and he told them that he lay down with reins in hand when he heard the shell. It must have burst on the back of one of the horses, as there was no crater. As soon as the shelling stopped, we began to clean up, finding one head, three legs and one hindquarters at distances up to a hundred yards. The remainder of the two horses was in small fragments over the whole position. It was indeed indescribable.

The horse holder seemed quite unshaken, and having been fitted out with clean clothes, went back on foot. The rest of the afternoon did not pass with the same good luck. Captain Stevens, Officer Commanding the next battery, got knocked over by a big shell. Although apparently untouched, he died of shock an hour later. Then a few minutes later, Gibbs, commanding the battery in front of us, was fatally wounded while trying to get his teams out of the position.

I am the only battery commander left out of the five neighbouring batteries. I remember I always used to say jokingly that crawling about with a telephone in No Man’s Land was safer than staying at the guns.

And so ended July 1916. May we never see its like again.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis

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

Flooding | Yudenich | 7 Apr 1916

Siege of Kut

Before dawn, another attack goes in against Sannaiyat. There’s not much to say about it other than it’s unsurprising that they tried, and unsurprising that it failed. The relief column is fast running out of time, options, and men. Perhaps a military genius might have thought of an alternative plan. General Gorringe is no military genius. His rear areas are once again becoming choked with casualties who have no way to get back towards the already desperately overstretched hospital at Basra, hundreds of miles away.

Meanwhile, Edward Mousley’s ordeal continues.

There is a lull in the operations downstream. How we hate lulls. A lull is a divine leg-pull. The word “lull” has an odious sound! I am remaining in my comfortable billet here unless wanted for urgent duty at the battery—pending relief. I am so weak that my legs collapsed on the ladder, and I find a long staff better than a walking-stick. We killed one of our two emergency fowls, which we boiled, and I found the broth delicious.

The river has risen seriously and is now a good three feet deep all over the plain in front of the bunds. General Gorringe has had hard work to bund the river down below and has evidently met with flood difficulties already. There is an ominous whisper about a “wireless” which is not being made known. Other and wilder rumours, obviously untrue, are in quick circulation. The men, poor fellows, are keenly on edge for news.

There are many merely remaining alive to hear that Kut is saved. They all know the end is now in sight and the coma of the past months is over.

There are yet worse places for the Siege of Kut to go.

Trebizond

General Yudenich has just arrived at Rize to oversee the upcoming Russian attack at Trebizond, and quickly finds himself having to keep his head while all about him are losing theirs. His admirals are all panicking, not entirely without cause, about German submarines, and they now refuse to play any but the most minimal part in operations against Trebizond. For his part, General Lyakhov has been telling himself lots of worrying tales about illusory German and Ottoman reinforcements.

The boss is now firefighting, trying desperately to convince everyone that to attack will not be to walk into some cunning trap. He could appeal to Stavka to issue direct orders, but it could take weeks for a message to get there, a decision to be taken, and the message to travel back. And that’s assuming he’d get favourable orders, which is not guaranteed, since Stavka couldn’t enforce its own will on a paper bag. This will be a test of personal charisma. More soon.

Battle of the Somme

The decision of the War Committee today to issue formal authority for General Haig to participate in the Battle of the Somme was barely a decision. This has all been signed, sealed, and delivered months ago. To back down now could have meant the end of the Anglo-French alliance, or a mass sacking of generals on both sides (to be replaced by…who?) Last year the War Committee accepted Wully Robertson’s thesis that the Government was bound to take his military advice or else sack him and find another adviser, after all.

They’ve seen the plans, such as they are; and General Haig’s ongoing attempts to revise them, of which more in a few days. There are some misgivings rumbling around the War Committee. Some of them have even percolated down Whitehall to Horse Guards, where one Sir John French maintains an office and a sympathetic ear.

Grigoris Balakian

Several things mature at once today. A few days ago, Grigoris Balakian sent a letter to the local German railway chief. Early in the morning, the letter draws a response in the form of two men, one a doctor, who again try to convince Balakian to leave the caravan and escape on his own. He refuses, after lengthy conversation. The caravan is about to reach Mount Keller, where there will be a large-scale escape attempt for the entire caravan. A long, hot day of walking follows, but they do meet the Turkish deserter who promised to help them escape.

His news was not discouraging. The German railway company had replied that they could not take responsibility for our escape. However, if we were to [escape by ourselves], and seek refuge, they would give us all work, and if necessary, protect us. They were not willing to take any steps to forcibly free us from the Jandarma.

This is about as much as they can hope for. Lavishly bribing their guards, they wait on Mount Keller while the deserter hurries off to arrange their escape. After much haggling and toing and froing, the local railway workers have set demolition charges by the side of the road; and as the caravan passes, they’re detonated. But the escape peters out; many are too weak to make a run for it, many more are too scared. Even the most headstrong eventually emerge from hiding, after many threats about what would happen in their absence.

And on goes the caravan to Islahiye, where there is a transit camp for those who survive the marches. (In 2016, there is another refugee camp here for survivors of the Syrian civil war.)

Those who felt they had something to lose did not yet understand that from the day they had set out on the road to Der Zor, they no longer had riches, or family, or children. Only when it was too late and they were standing at their grave in the desert sands would they grasp this bitter fact.

What now? Balakian seems to have gambled all on the hope that the whole caravan could escape at Keller.

Malcolm White

Lieutenant Malcolm White of the 1st Rifle Brigade has arrived back in France after his recent leave. His men were just about to go up the line when he left them. They’ve now been doing trench duty at Hannescamps, just north of Foncquevillers (“Funky Villas” to the men) and Gommecourt. He is worryingly close to the Somme battlefields here.

I was set down at 11pm by a motor lorry in a dark and unknown country. I walked several miles over a high, wind-swept plateau, and while I walked I discovered the War. For the ground sloped away on the left, and the sky was being always lit up by star-shells, and the machine-guns and rifles and guns went “tat tat tat” and “bang” and “boom” respectively, at two miles away. There was also the uncertainty of my finding a bed that night, but after rousing the sentries at St Amand, I woke the Transport officer, who put me to bed.

St Amand is a couple of miles behind the Hannescamps trenches. The unnamed transport officer is doing the same job as the Sunny Subaltern has away in the Ypres salient, up and down the Menin Road. Although this man is doing it under rather less fire.

Maximilian Mugge

Private Maximilian Mugge’s training continues, and he paints an interesting picture of just what a soldier in training is being taught.

We get up here at five o’clock. After we have enjoyed a basin of “gunfire” and a squarish piece of rather dry biscuit, we sweep our hut, give a last touch to our things (which are supposed to have been cleaned the night before), ensuring that boots and buttons shine, rifles and equipment are in order. One’s kit is growing every day. I have been given trench tools, water bottle, mess tin, and ammunition pouches. The rifle takes up almost an hour a day if it is to be perfectly clean so as to come up to the standard demanded by the Company Sergeant-Major.

The first parade takes place before breakfast, and lasts about 45 minutes, usually a march of a couple of miles. From eight to nine o’clock, gymnasium or Swedish drill. A short break and again parades and drills for three’ hours until half past twelve. On the Square. To be continued from 1.30 to 4 o’clock. After tea a route-march from 7 o’clock to 8 o’clock across the hills. This is intensive training with a vengeance!

We are dead-tired at the end of the day. My heart gives me a lot of trouble; but the war-machine is ruthless. And I am sure my troubles are as nothing compared with the boys’ terrible ordeal in the trenches!

It is said in Formula One that to finish first, you must first finish. There’s no point in sending unfit men to France, who may at any moment need to perform an emergency 25-mile march to fill some gap in the line or exploit a success somewhere else. Besides, the devil makes work for idle hands.

Incidentally, there are two meanings of “gunfire” in the Army. It can mean tea with rum in it, but as they’re still in England this is unlikely. More likely it’s just tea served at an unpleasantly early hour.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is on sale now! Revised and expanded with more lovely war!

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

Marie | Nixon | 16 Jan 1916

Marie

We open today with the news that, since Moewe did such a good job slipping the Blockade of Germany, the German Navy is now going to have another go. However, this time they have a far different objective in mind than commerce raiding. They’ve packed a supply ship with goodies for Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa, to replicate the earlier success of Kronborg. Marie will attempt to slip the blockade’s patrol ships in the North Sea, then boomerang around on a large loop through the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and eventually to the East African coast (dodging another complement of Royal Navy patrol boats on arrival).

That blockade is seeming a little more porous than usual right now. It was always a distant blockade, never a traditional string-boats-along-the-sea affair (which would have been an all-you-can-sink buffet for the enemy’s submarines), with physical enforcement mainly provided by squads of small patrol boats and destroyers. On top of that, the increasing need for small craft to operate in the Mediterranean, around Gallipoli and Salonika in particular, has pulled ships away from blockade enforcement. With a little luck and a little judgement, it’s more than possible for ships to get to and from Scandinavian ports without being inspected.

So we find Marie steaming through the blockade lines and out into open ocean. Another requisitioned merchant vessel, she’s spent the war up to now serving as a Sperrbrecher. There’s no direct equivalent in other navies for this kind of ship; its main duty is to pilot friendly vessels through German minefields and sweep (or physically catch) any mines that might have drifted away from where they should be. However, they also carry enough firepower to make Royal Navy destroyers think twice before engaging, and pop up in all kinds of odd places where such firepower might be useful.

The voyage will take about two months, and crucially, Marie is under strict instructions to maintain absolute radio silence. While the Germans don’t know about its existence, this will prevent Room 40 from finding out anything about the ship. Her arrival off the African coast will therefore be completely unheralded.

Erzurum Offensive

Today will decide whether the Ottoman Third Army can escape from Koprukoy having only taken a severe kicking, or whether they’ll be subjected to a Tannenberg-scale disaster. It’s the Ottoman lines of communication versus the marching speed of men who’ve been slogging through ever-increasing amounts of snow for the last two weeks.

And the race is quite comfortably won by Third Army’s communications. Abdul Karim, in temporary command (the Army Commander is still on holiday; I’m starting to wonder if anyone’s tried to tell him) is now aware of the imminent threat to his rear. As soon as darkness falls he issues orders for an immediate retirement back to Erzurum. The blokes take up the suggestion with great energy; after all, a battle being fought as a distraction for some other happening can be just as deadly as what the brass hats consider the main show.

Mesopotamia

Where’s Jon Stewart with one of those comedy “Mess O’Potamia” banners when you need him? General Nixon is back at Basra, and he’s not in a good mood. When he’s not worrying about how very wrong this all has gone, for entertainment he has two things to watch. First, the logjam of fresh troops arriving in theatre and then being marooned for lack of transport to take them up river and supply them; it’s approaching 10,000 strong. Second, the dribble of wounded men coming back to the already overstretched “hospital” “facilities” at Basra. (Quotation marks used advisedly.) Nixon, of course, was well aware of both of these issues before he ordered the advance on Baghdad…

Now General Aylmer is writing with him with two suggestions. The first, a request for approval of Aylmer’s plan to attack at the Hanna chokepoint, is easily dealt with. The second is rather less so. Aylmer wants the poor sods at Kut-al-Amara to break out and meet him halfway. Nixon may be about to be replaced (by General Percy Lake), but he’s damned if he’s going to have his grand advance on Baghdad end this way. He vents his feelings with some high-minded fulminating about how a breakout would be a disaster not just for the men involved, but to the entire Empire.

And so Nixon disappears, rather abruptly, from our story. In three days’ time General Lake arrives to take over. Officially this is due to “illness”, but nowhere can I find specifics of his illness. Even Hunter-Weston got some flannel about neurasthenia when he was sent home from Gallipoli. It’s therefore unsurprising that quite a few people now suggest that this was to cover an unceremonious sacking. There will eventually, in 1917, be an official report into the whole shambles, and for once blame is going to rest where it belongs. Nixon’s military career is over; he just doesn’t realise it yet. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer is still miserable, wet, and taciturn. However, he does manage to come up with (considering the circumstances) an exceptionally cutting little crack.

Morning grey and cold. Rained all the afternoon and is still at it (8pm). Padre held a celebration on one of the boats, and an open air voluntary parade service. Dug a bridge-head perimeter. We are waiting for the bridge. The gale and the river bust it.

This attempted bridge is critical to General Aylmer’s plan. The Engineers have been been trying to put it up since the last one washed away about five days ago. Unfortunately for the Army, this is one problem that can’t be solved by shouting at it.

Bernard Adams

Lucky ducky; it’s leave time for Bernard Adams.

Leave “comes through” in the following manner. The lucky man receives an envelope from the orderly room, in the comer of which is written “Leave.” Inside is an “A” Form (Army Form C 2121) with this magic inscription: “Please note you will take charge of [number] other ranks proceeding on leave to-morrow morning, 17th. They will parade outside orderly room at 7 A.M. sharp.” Then follow instructions as to where to meet the bus.

“Take charge!” If you blindfolded those fellows they would find their way somehow by the quickest route to Blighty!

The officer is then an impossible person to live with. He is continually jumping about, upsetting everybody, getting sandwiches, and discussing England, looking at the paper to see “What’s on” in town, talking, being unnecessarily bright and cheery. He is particularly offensive in the eyes of the man just come back from leave. Still, it is his day; abide with him until he clears off!

Speaking of people on leave…

Louis Barthas

Of course Louis Barthas has found something to complain about at home. If he arrived in Heaven he’d complain about being subjected to this religious claptrap with which he holds no truck at all.

As long as the days of suffering were, the days of happiness seemed just as short. These few days of home leave soon ran out, but they will stay fixed in my memory as one of the greatest and rarest pleasures of this long war.

I noticed that, in the rear, a blissful optimism reigned, an absolute confidence in a prompt and victorious end to the war. This was the nefarious work of lying newspapers; the unanimous cry was “Jusqu’au bout!” [To the end, whatever it takes!] What blindness! What folly! In vain did a few wounded men and leave takers try to combat this disconcerting enthusiasm, this stupid attitude, but nothing did any good.

Only the mothers and the wives trembled, suffered, prayed, but in silence, muffling their sobs. You couldn’t tell by the number of saddened faces and tear-reddened eyes that we were at war. These observations made the departure even more bitter. We had the sense of being sacrificed, and that our indescribable sufferings weren’t being understood and in no way troubled the soft quietude of life on the home front.

He’s still got a few good days of his leave left.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)

Gardeners of Salonika? | 12 Dec 1915

Salonika

All Entente troops who had crossed the border into Serbia are now back in Greece, which is good news for precisely nobody. It’s not good news for the blokes themselves; with the French government insistent that this wasn’t a total farce, there’s no chance of them leaving any time soon. These are the men who, as they dig themselves in and prepare for one of the longest “hurry up and wait” jobs of the entire war, will soon become known as the Gardeners of Salonika. It is widely said (though such claims are surprisingly difficult to find a source for) that in Germany, the high command began to refer to Salonika as “our biggest prison camp”.

And yet. And yet. This is not as unambiguously good for the Central Powers as it might first appear. Internal Greek politics are slowly going down the tubes as the gulf between King Constantine I’s neutralist supporters and the followers of Eleftherios Venizelos and his pro-Entente stance widens with every day that Greek neutrality is being violated. (Once again I’d just like to comment on the deep, deep irony of the British government being quite prepared to defecate all over Greek neutrality despite having allegedly entered the war to preserve Belgian neutrality.) This is good for nobody, because eventually the war will end, and deep divisions in Greece are hardly beneficial to a peaceful Balkans no matter who wins the war.

Then there’s the consideration that even a prison camp requires guards. True, the lion’s share of the work on this front will be done by the Bulgarian army. But we can only guess at what might have happened if the Entente had been entirely evicted from Greece. Maybe there could have been a wide-scale redeployment of Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian troops to other fronts, and who knows what might have happened then?

It is truly a situation that is good for nobody involved; not even the one still-neutral country that appears best-placed to take advantage of the situation settling down into stasis.

Siege of Kut

Siege of Kut. Kut, siege. Siege, Kut. (Ahem.) Indian Army reinforcements are being rushed into Mesopotamia from wherever they can be spared. Fresh generals are arriving in theatre, more men, more cavalry, more guns. They’re trying to assemble, and frankly aren’t doing a particularly good job of it. They’re strung out along the Tigris between Amarah and Ali Gharbi, struggling manfully against a severe lack of river transport. The ships formerly making up Townshend’s Regatta have been reinforced with new gunboats, but there still aren’t nearly enough of them to be in all the places they need to be at once.

Indeed, it’s fast becoming apparent that the size of the relief force will have to be restricted, because there simply aren’t enough ships to keep everyone supplied if they advance as far upriver as Kut. Even the port facilities at Basra are struggling to cope with the number of men and supplies coming through. A new director-general is about to be appointed, formerly the man in charge of Rangoon, but even he can only do so much. And then there’s the organisation of the men who can go forward, or lack of it. Urgency is the keyword, and new formations are having to be worked out on the fly, staff officers re-appointed, generals given unfamiliar troops to use. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that inspires confidence.

There is now no prospect of a relief expedition until January 1916; and General Townshend’s report was that he could hold out comfortably for two months, but then things might get hairy. I hope he’s still got his shaving-razor. Meanwhile, General von der Goltz has explained certain things to his subordinate commanders, and they’re now settling in for the attacker’s half of a prolonged siege. More to come, next year.

Italian 48th Regiment

Yesterday found the Italian 48th Regiment in a bad way; were they British, they may well have called themselves by the old military phrase “fed up, fucked up, and far from home”. Despite heavy casualties over five months of almost non-stop fighting and shelling, the remnants of the regiment have had orders to reconstitute as a half-battalion and go back up the line. This did not go down well, and a full-scale mutiny broke out, with shots being fired at officers.

Within 24 hours, the Italian equivalent of a field general court-martial has been set up. They work quickly. Before the day is out, multiple convictions for mutiny have been handed out and two men have been executed. And this is far from the worst excess of Italian military discipline. The events have not escaped the notice of General Cadorna, and he has a rather knotty problem to wrestle with. Public support for the army has been bolstered by iron censorship of men’s letters and an absolute refusal to grant home leave. Now the Supreme Command is caught between a rock and a hard place. Allow home leave, and the stories go home with them men. Deny it, and there’ll surely only be more mutinies. Unfortunately, more soon.

Louis Barthas

The rain has eased off slightly at Neuville, and Louis Barthas and his chums are back in their trenches. Well, most of them are.

Meanwhile, in spite of the ferocious orders, friendly contact between Frenchmen and Germans continued, particularly at the listening posts. In the 21st Company, Private Gontran, from Caunes-Minervois, even paid a visit to the German trench. He had gotten to know the German captain, a good family man who always asked about his own children and gave him a few cigarettes. Whenever Gontran stayed too long, the captain pushed him out of the German trench, saying “Let’s go, on your way.”

Unfortunately for Gontran, one day when he was making his way back from the German trench he was spotted by an officer of his company—none other than Lieutenant Grulois, who said to him, “I’ve got you now. You’ll be shot at dawn. Arrest this man.” Nobody moved. Everybody stared stupidly. Gontran, maddened by the officer’s threat, scrambled up the side of the trench, crying out [“Come and get me!”] In a few strides he made it to the enemy trench, and he didn’t come back.

That very evening a court-martial composed of the superior officers of the regiment and presided over by the colonel met in the dugout of our commandant. In five seconds, Private Gontran was condemned to death in absentia. After an investigation, Lieutenant Grulois was put under arrest for being too zealous in frightening the guilty party and causing his desertion. Corporal Escande, from Citou, and the soldiers of his squad barely escaped court-martial for not firing on their deserting comrade as he fled across no-man’s-land.

For you, Gonti, ze var is over!

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

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.

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

Baghdad | 4 October 1915

Mesopotamia

In the wake of capturing Kut-al-Amara, General Nixon would dearly love to push on towards Baghdad as soon as possible. General Townshend has already outlined a plan. His ships are having extreme trouble navigating the River Tigris above Kut; the river has quickly turned against him, full of difficult shoals and mud-banks. They can’t simply sail on up the river, so instead Townshend proposes sailing as far as is possible (this will prove to be Aziziya, 60 miles above Kut) and then marching another 60 miles. This will bring them to the ruins of the ancient Mesopotamian city Ctesiphon, reputedly once the biggest city in the world. Captured prisoners and other intelligence have told them that this is where the Ottomans will make their major defensive stand.

Townshend will, after the war, claim that he was beginning to have second thoughts about the advisability of this latest phase of operations. It is kind of hard to have any other reaction to that than “Well, you would say that now, wouldn’t you?” But that aside, it is certainly true that there are several things that should have worried anyone with half a brain.

To begin with, let’s consider the supply line, singular. They’re now about 500 miles above Basra. There is no other way to get supplies up to them than by taking them by river, on a journey that could take weeks or months. The only medical facility worth the name in the entire theatre is a single hospital ship, which has been kept back at Basra. The Battle of Es Sinn caused less than 100 dead, but over 1,000 wounded. There simply aren’t enough boats to take them back down the river. This is, to gravely understate the situation, not good for morale.

And now, a familiar problem. The Ottomans have, of course, throughout this entire campaign been falling back closer to their heartlands, their supply centres, their sources of reinforcement. They’ll soon have a new commander; the former governor of Belgium, Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, has been knocking around Constantinople for the last little while, annoying both Liman von Sanders and Enver Pasha in equal measure. Earlier in his career, von der Goltz served twelve years with the Ottoman Army, charged with reorganising and modernising it, and his name is well and fondly remembered among many officers who are now in mid-ranking or senior positions. Enver now has an excellent excuse to get rid of this pain in his arse, and has put him in command of the defence of Baghdad.

And he’s sent more than just one man. The existing commander, Nureddin, has been expecting two divisions’ worth of reinforcements for some time. (They’re still on the march from Van Province, but now only a month or so away.) He’s also used all the local Jandarma he can scrape together to raise an extra division, which has been training at Baghdad for the last few months.

The Ottomans aren’t the only ones expecting reinforcements, but all that Townshend can expect immediately is two hastily-formed brigades from India. Nixon is now raising the possibility of getting the Indian Corps out of the Western Front; once Kitchener’s Army begins arriving in greater numbers after the end of the Battle of Loos, this idea will be looked at more seriously. But the fact remains that the Ottomans are bringing far more men into the theatre than the British Empire.

This doesn’t necessarily worry General Nixon, though. After all, hasn’t the enemy fled at almost every previous turn? Why should they not do so again? There are plenty of promising signs that, with a little massaging, can form the basis of his latest round of cables to the Colonial Office and to the Viceroy. More soon.

Gallipoli

With General Bailloud and the French Empire troops now gone to Salonika, Sir Ian Hamilton might be forgiven for feeling a little lonely. He’s just received a deeply ominous telegram from Lord Kitchener. Kitchener speaks darkly of a flow of unofficial reports washing around London about the campaign. He talks in his usual roundabout way, but it comes to something very simple. The campaign’s reputation has been badly damaged. A sacrifice is required. Kitchener therefore suggests recalling General Braithwaite, Sir Ian’s chief of staff, and replacing him with Launcelot Kiggell, of whom more soon. The implication to the implication is obvious; if it’s not to be Braithwaite, there is only one other senior head to be taken off.

I am grateful to old K. He is trying to save me. He picked out Braithwaite himself. Not so long ago he cabled me in his eagerness to promote him to Major-General; he would not suggest substituting the industrious Kiggell if he didn’t fear for me and for the whole of this enterprise.

Hold that thought about Kiggell. Lord Kitchener has just effectively sent Sir Ian Hamilton a death warrant for General Braithwaite, and the Chief has responded by erasing Braithwaite’s name and inserting his own.

Western Front

Sir John French is now asking for another delay past the 6th before he’ll be ready to attack with the French. The problem is the Hohenzollern Redoubt. It must be retaken before they can do anything else; any large force moving up to the front near Hulluch can and will be easily spotted. And this, of course, will not be easy, with artillery shell stocks starting to run low (and not having been fantastically useful to begin with). They’re going to bring up more gas to support the attacks, but of course that creates further delays as the cylinders are installed and fresh gas-masks are issued…

Meanwhile, at Second Champagne, the preliminary bombardment for the last push towards Somme-Py has begun. Once again the weather has worked against the French, turning foul at the wrong time and seriously interfering with artillery spotting and aerial reconaissance.

Captain Lecluse

Our new friend, Captain Henri de Lecluse, continues describing the situation at Trou Bricot, just behind the new French front line at Second Champagne.

The German mortars tried hard to find us, but without great success. The paltry fir trees of Champagne, whose vegetation we had often mocked, were sufficient to conceal us. The only victims of our sojourn were the numerous rabbits which our men had ferreted out.

There were a series of officers’ huts luxuriously arranged. Messieurs le Boches were as skilled in creating comfortable quarters as they were in razing a village! The rooms had parquet floors, ceilings, well-appointed with perfectly made furniture, armchairs, angled sofas, or rocking-chairs. At the back of the main room, a sliding door exposed a staircase of twelve to fifteen steps leading to an underground shelter allocated to each hut. Outside, some kiosks allowed us to enjoy the cool night air.

I’m sure that Louis Barthas would want us to shake the good captain firmly by the lapels and yell “yes, but what about the poilus? In how much luxury do they live, you enormous clot?”

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Loos
Battle of Champagne (Second Champagne)
Battle of Artois (Third Artois)

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.)