Desertion | 02 Dec 1914

The lull in major events continues.  We’ll have a quick dekko at the general situation on the Eastern Front, and then go on to talk about a rather emotive subject. Unfortunately, it’s going to have to be Anglo-centric; it’s all I have access to at the moment.


The Austro-Hungarian Emperor is officially informed today that the city of Belgrade has been occupied. Plans are made for a triumphal procession through the streets. The Serbian army has successfully fallen back to Nis, and has re-armed itself with a large number of supplies brought up the railway from Salonika. The King of Serbia, Peter I, makes the shrewd move of going to the stores, insisting that they issue him with a rifle, and making plans to travel towards the front with his men.

Eastern Front

As fighting continues around Lodz, the Russians are becoming concerned about their position. They’ve successfully defended the town, but at the cost of putting themselves into a large, broad salient. This would be all right if they could then drive out of it and attack Silesia or Prussia, but the arse end of winter is not a good time to be launching major operations with any kind of force. Their men are in need of rest and re-supply. They begin to consider a strategic withdrawal, giving up Lodz, to shorten their line and better defend Warsaw.

To the south, the siege of Przemysl continues. The Russians are beginning to push into the Carpathians, despite the horrific winter weather. Crossing the mountains would open the door to an advance on Budapest, into the heart of Hungary. They also hold very favourable positions for a future attack on the Austro-Hungarian army at Krakow. However, miscommunications as they bring up fresh men have weakened the line south of Krakow, just as the Austro-Hungarians are planning an offensive to improve their position in this area…

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It’s “The Valley of Fear”, which I like probably more than it deserves.


Meanwhile, the commanders of the BEF, watching their men swimming about in the flooded trenches of Flanders, are becoming deeply concerned with a new problem. The rate of desertion is rising rapidly. The horrendous conditions and bitter fighting of the last months are beginning to take their toll now. For the officers of the time, the issue is extremely confused by the sheer numbers of missing men, most of whom are killed or prisoner. Nevertheless, in December 1914, about 2,000 men will desert from the BEF. Some will merely leave their units for a few days, or a few hours, to avoid going up the line again. More will attempt to leave permanently. (One such man, Corporal Latham of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, has been on the run since August, having escaped from custody once. He’s currently hiding in plain sight in the village of Armentieres, walking about the town in his uniform to blend in, and sleeping with a sympathetic local woman at night.)

The wheels of military justice are beginning to turn in earnest as the situation and the front lines are stabilising. It’s becoming easier to excuse officers from duty for a day or two to serve on a court-martial. The number of men brought before them is rising steadily. It’s important to note that most of those men are not being brought up on a capital charge. Also, that although 60 men have already been found guilty of a capital charge and sentenced to death, 57 of the 60 have had their sentences commuted, most often to extended periods of imprisonment, or hard labour, or Field Punishment Number One, or some combination of those things.

We’ll be coming back to desertion, crime, and military executions as the war wears on. What is clear already is that even at this early stage, the most senior BEF generals are highly concerned by the possibility of mass desertion, or some other breakdown in discipline. They are giving clear orders that courts-martial should take an extremely dim view of the offenders being brought before them. For now, the dimmest possible view has been taken of three men. Their cases all warrant a closer look, and we’ll take one later.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Kolubara

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Mass confusion on page 9! Under the official communique, the paper strenuously denies reports of any new German attack near Ypres. Across the page, William Maxwell reports on a new German attack near Ypres.

Meanwhile, thank God that cash supplies are plentiful in the money market (page 2, and I’ll never get bored of being sarcastic about those headlines), the court reports on Page 3 have the fantastic headline “Bogus Baby Case”, and Page 9 also includes an article from Mr Rudyard Kipling on the training of Kitchener’s Army. Apparently this will be a regular series.

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

Covka | Alumni | 25 Nov 1914

The Austro-Hungarians are still advancing into Serbia; the Germans complete their escape from the Lodz pocket, and inconclusive fighting continues all along the Eastern line.


The Serbians are slowly being forced back to the confluence of the Kolubara with the River Sava, one of the two rivers whose course guards Belgrade against an attack from the north-west. They simply can’t cope with the weight of artillery now being deployed against them, retiring from the towns of Covka and Vrace Brdo. After three and a half months of fighting on the campaign that started the dominoes falling, Austria-Hungary is finally in a position to strike at the Serbian capital, teasingly close to the Hungarian border all along.

Alumni, or “What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?”

We have a day refreshingly light on military affairs to discuss. Therefore, here’s the first of an occasional series; pencil-sketches of First World War alumni who would later become major players in the Second World War. There’s quite a lot of them. Part 1 covers the major political leaders.

Chamberlain, Neville

Chamberlain’s first experience with national government came in 1916, when Lloyd-George appointed him Director of National Service, in charge of implementing the government’s new conscription policy. He soon clashed personally with Lloyd-George and resigned a year later. Before that appointment he was a local politician in Birmingham, and did not become an MP afterwards. British Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, he appears to have been the only leader during the Second World War to never have had any kind of military service or responsibility.

Churchill, Winston

Churchill began the war as First Lord of the Admiralty, then (spoilers!) ended up carrying the can for Gallipoli. He rejoined the Army at the eventual rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and at the start of 1916 he was put in command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, where he remained for about nine months. They were stationed at Plugstreet during that time, which remained a quiet sector; he was noted for spending a large amount of time as close to No Man’s Land as possible and, true to his personality, occasionally led patrols and wiring-parties. He was then transferred into the reserves, and by July 1917 he was back in government as Minister of Munitions. He was the British Prime Minister from 1940 until the end of the Second World War.

de Gaulle, Charles

de Gaulle was a subaltern in 1914 who had quickly caught the eye of his regiment’s colonel and earned himself a patron. He was wounded in the early going, and then returned to find that most of his men became casualties on the Marne. He became a captain in late 1915 and was captured at Verdun after having been bayoneted, shelled and then gassed while attempting to recapture Fort Douaumont. He made several escape attempts, but remained a prisoner for the duration. He continued in the French Army, and eventually became leader of the Free French in 1940 by sheer force of personality.

Hitler, Adolf

Hitler volunteered for the Bavarian Army in August 1914 as a private soldier, and was sent to Ypres a couple of months later. He served as a dispatch runner, achieved promotion to lance-corporal, received the Iron Cross second and first class, was present at numerous battles and was wounded twice; once when a shell dropped into his dugout on the Somme in 1916, and the second time by gas in October 1918 that saw him temporarily blinded. He became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and maintained his dictatorship of the country until 1945.

Lord Linlithgow

Linlithgow was an officer in the Royal Scots who finished with the rank of Colonel, a mention in dispatches, and a battalion command. He then went into politics, and was subsequently the Viceroy of India in 1939. He then made the dim-witted decision to declare war on Germany without asking any Indians first, which sowed the seeds of the Fuck Off Quit India movement, and then presided over the Bengal famine.

Mussolini, Benito

Mussolini’s political transformation from occurred mostly during the war. Like Hitler, he was a private soldier and then a corporal. He saw action numerous times during the many bloody battles of the Isonzo, and was then seriously wounded by a malfunctioning mortar bomb in 1917. He was deemed unfit for further service, founded a newspaper to be editor-in-chief of, and finished his transition from revolutionary socialist to nationalistic fascist. He seized power in 1922, lost it in 1943, although he survived a couple more years before his summary execution by Italian partisans.

Petain, Philippe

Petain was the colonel of de Gaulle’s regiment in 1914. He was quickly promoted to brigadier-general and commanded a division on the Marne; by 1916, it was his fate to be Second Army’s commander when the Germans attacked Verdun, where he became a national hero. He then succeeded Nivelle as Chief, remaining in post through the end of the war, although his influence was eventually supplanted by Foch’s appointment over his head as supreme Allied commander. His installation as Prime Minister of France in 1940 afforded the Vichy government at least a veneer of respectability. He held at least some measure of power until 1944.

Reynaud, Paul

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that Reynaud was in the army and decorated twice; further information about his service is hard to come by at the moment. He began the Seecond World War as Minister of Finance, and during his brief tenure as Prime Minister in 1940 he attempted to put the country’s defence in a better situation before the Germans invaded. He was then imprisoned when he refused to join the Vichy regime.

Stalin, Josef

Stalin was arrested in early 1914 in St Petersburg as a Bolshevik revolutionary, and was quickly packed off to Siberia. In late 1916 some idiot had the idea of trying to conscript him into the Army, but he was eventually declared unfit for service due to a childhood arm injury, and returned to Siberia until his release after the first revolution. He then intrigued his way to control of the Soviet Union, which he maintained throughout the Second World War.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Lodz
Battle of Kolubara

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: I’m wondering, is the “Complete Failure of German Plans” headline on Page 7 so inaccurate? I’m sure you could get some reputable historians down the pub, ask them that question, and soon have them fighting like cats in a sack. Certainly, speaking in the broadest of strokes, the Schlieffen plan failed to achieve its objective, that being to eliminate France quickly so Germany could concentrate on war with Russia…

(Meanwhile, Page 9 sees the Maharajah of Idar (arriving for war service in Egypt) give an interview where he talks how grateful he is that his Indian subjects are being allowed to die for Britain, and page 12 publishes a map of Mesopotamia alongside some incredibly purple prose about Basra.)

The excellent tumblr Today in World War I talks about charitable fundraising in the USA.

Padang | Mesopotamia | 24 Nov 1914

The escaped men of the Emden have somehow managed not to sink, and today they wash up at Padang. Meanwhile, the British are considering exactly what to do about Mesopotamia, having had such an easy time of it at Basra.

Defence of Festubert

The multinational “British” troops around Festubert counter-attack in force and recover the trenches that they had lost yesterday. This is a further demonstration that, even if you possess local superiority in men, mortars, guns, and grenades, attacking prepared positions is not an easy thing to do.


The men of the Emden have been sailing across the Indian Ocean for the past two weeks. They’ve covered about 800 miles in a wooden schooner so rotten that they daren’t investigate the extent of the problem, in case they inadvertently knock a hole in the hull. Today they arrive at the Sumatran port of Padang. At the time it was one of the Dutch East Indies, and therefore neutral. They are soon seen by the Dutch, and are given 24 hours to leave Dutch waters or be interned.


The devil, it is said, makes work for idle hands. Having now occupied Basra with minimal effort, the British are trying to work out what to do next; they do, after all, have rather a lot of men there. A suggestion arises that Indian Expeditionary Force “D” can do far more work. The British Empire would greatly benefit from occupying oil-rich lands, after all. If they can present themselves as liberators of the local population from the Ottoman yoke…

But in order to do that, they need to actually do some more liberating. In any case, their primary mission still holds; they must protect the coastal oil-fields. An advance up the River Tigris to Qurna is easily justifiable on those grounds. If the Ottoman forces are allowed to re-organise themelves, they could eventually launch a counter-attack. Plans are made to send a small flotilla up the Tigris to do some scouting.


The Germans make good their escape from the Lodz pocket, and widen their route of escape with a few minor offensives. The Russians have grossly underestimated the Germans’ strength, in part due to the presence of a large number of Russian prisoners who are accidentally counted as Germans, and they will mostly allow the Germans to go. Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarians call off their attacks near Krakow, having taken heavy casualties and done very little of use.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Lodz
Battle of Kolubara

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: On Page 9, news has finally leaked out concerning the Battle of Tanga; while there’s a small amount of spin, for once something is being presented explicitly as a failure. The Belgium Fund tips past £70,000 (£7 million today), Page 7 is worried about the situation in Egypt, and Page 6 takes glee in the actions of the Gurkhas.

Over on Tumblr, Today in World War I is also looking at the German retirement from Lodz.

Festubert | 23 Nov 1914

We’ve got a relatively minor action on the Western Front; events in the East continue as they were.


The Russians attempt to complete their encirclement. It goes painfully wrong. One of the divisions takes a left turn at Albuquerque, and instead of attacking the retreating Germans it arrives among their mates’ defensive positions, causing much confusion. Another one goes the right way, but stops short of going into battle and begins to entrench itself. While the Russians are marching in circles and honking their noses and tying their shoelaces together and making pratfalls, the Germans continue escaping from the trap, and prepare an attack against Brzeziny to keep the road clear.

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Defence of Festubert

It’s not even big enough to officially be a “battle”, but today the Germans decide to have a pop at the British line in front of Festubert. (Am I the only one who finds “Festubert” to be an inherently funny name?) Anyway, it’s a battle that shows how diverse and international the “British” Expeditionary Force really is, even at this early stage of the war. Among the units awarded the battle honour “Festubert 1914” (not to be confused with the much larger Battle of Festubert in 1915) are the Royal Leicestershire Rifles, the Cameron Highlanders (Scotland), the Connaught Rangers (Ireland), the Gurkha Rifles (Nepal), the 9th Jats (India). Logistical support is provided by the engineers of the Bengal and Bombay Sappers & Miners, and the Sikh and Bombay Pioneers.

The attack is mostly repelled; but a few units are forced to squelch back to what passes for their reserve ltrenches. I really can’t emphasise enough how foul the weather is at the moment. This is one of those times in the war when artillery shells and Minenwerfer bombs are quite capable of falling onto ground too soft to trigger their contact fuses, and sinking quietly into the mud.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Lodz
Battle of Kolubara

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: The casualty report threatens to take up two pages for the first time (14 and three-fifths of 15). “An American” writes at length of the current situation in Germany on page 10; this is one of those pieces where the subhead (“Growing Despondency”) in no way represents the actual article. Anyone ready to write about the current strength of the German army and not claim they’re out of men is fine by me! It’s a rare moment of lucidity in an ocean of blanco and bullshit. It even observes that the German army is becoming sick and tired of having to clean up after Austrian messes.

There’s also a lengthy report of an inquest into a disturbance at an internment camp (page 9) on the Isle of Man, which apparently saw the death of five of the internees. One of the books that I’m scrambling to get round to reading is about internees (both civilian and military) in Britain. Hopefully we can pick this up later.

Poland | 22 Nov 1914

Fighting continues around Lodz, at the Kolubara, and also near Krakow.  It’s an Eastern day as Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary all squabble over Poland.


North of Lodz, the Germans begin their attempt to break out and get back in contact with the rest of their line. The ground has now become hard, treacherous and icy, as the temperature continues to leave freezing far behind. The Russians attempt an attack; most of their efforts today appear to have become consumed by the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

Elsewhere in Poland, the Austro-Hungarians are getting stuck into the Russian line near Krakow, with shouts and great action. There’s been a few local successes here recently, but as usual, their attack is succeeding mainly in taking heavy casualties to no major effect.


Meanwhile, the Serbians are holding onto the line of Mount Maljen with all they’ve got. No matter how many of the enemy they shoot, more of them just keep coming. The Austrians are going all-out for Belgrade, and attacking along the rest of the line to pin it in place; and like the French in September, the Serbians are starting to run out of country.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Lodz
Battle of Kolubara

Further Reading

No Daily Telegraph on Sundays. In its place, yesterday’s issue of The Spectator. This week mostly consists of a special Literary Supplement. News of the Week is left until Page 13. There’s a highly interesting review on Page 9 of the Diplomatic History of the War.

Mr. M. P. Price’s Diplomatic History of- the War (George Allen and Unwin, 7s. 6d. net) is the kind of book which we should expect to be dated from the. Press Bureau in Berlin rather than from an English country house. The author’s anti-patriotic bias has led him into misrepresentations which are so glaring that we are tempted to call them either stupid or dishonest. For instance, be says on p. 85 that Sir Edward Grey, in his historic speech of August 3rd, described the question of Belgian neutrality as “an important point to consider “—the obvious inference being that this phrase, given as a literal quotation from Sir Edward Grey, implied that the Government had not then made up their minds whether or not to stand by their treaty obligations ; on p. 88 Mr. Price actually asserts that England bad, up to August 3rd, been in doubt whether she would fulfil these obligations.

How very dare he! Unpatriotic swine! Fulminate! Bluster! These days, of course, we generally see such assertions for what they are: truthful and fair.

Anyway, the editorial line continues to be surprisingly clear-sighted on the Eastern Front. It suggests that the Germans might soon see themselves encircled at Lodz, and that there’s no cause for concern about Krakow. It also takes a very interesting view of the situation around conscription; they’re strong supporters of National Service, but as Britain has entered the war without it, they would like to see voluntary recruitment given a fair chance before it’s abandoned.

On Tumblr, Today in World War I talks about recent developments in the Caucasus.