Eland | Florina | 19 Aug 1916

Battle of Doiran

The Serbian Army has been forced to give up the town of Florina, near Lake Ostrovo. Happily for them, there happens to be a rather large ridge between the town and Lake Ostrovo. If the Bulgarians First Army can push all the way through to the lake, they’re going to have a secure flank and will be extremely difficult to dislodge from their current position.

Africa

In the south-west of Tanzania, one Sergeant Maker of the South African Mounted Rifles has just seen something truly jaw-dropping. They’ve just seen off a small Schutztruppe detachment, and Maker is leading a patrol through the very middle of nowhere, near the banks of the River Ruhudje.

As we approached the river, just about dawn, something caused me to stop dead still, which also brought the patrol to a halt. There was no talking allowed, so everything was done by signs. Nothing happened. The signal was given to advance, and at that moment, the whole countryside appeared to move! As far as one could see, there were eland; males, females, and calves. They slowly moved off, up the river. … I often wonder, with the advance of civilization, if a sight like this will ever be seen again.

An eland is a kind of antelope. They’ve briefly slipped from Michael Redgrave narrating The Great War, and dropped into David Attenborough narrating Life on Earth.

JRR Tolkien

Tolkien’s battalion is still dodging shells in the trenches near Beaumont Hamel. The man himself has once again been excused trench duty, though. All battalion signal officers in the division have been recalled to headquarters for a week of urgent remedial training. By day he’s being bollocked by someone who ranks as high as any on the Divisional staff (please read that in the accent of Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian). By night, though, it turns out that his friend GB Smith has just moved into rest billets near him, and they’re able to spend a lot of time together.

It’s not entirely happy. They’re both struggling with the loss of Rob Gilson, rather as Evelyn Southwell and thousands of other subalterns are struggling with similar losses. More family friends have died since then, for both of them. More will die as the war continues.

Persia

General Baratov’s Russians are now installing themselves on the Sultan-bulak pass; and here the situation in Persia finally congeals for a good time to come. Ottoman commander Ihsan Pasha (not to be confused with the other Ihsan Pasha, who was captured at the Battle of Sarikamis) has never been entirely sure about Enver Pasha’s grand design of advancing clean across Persia to make trouble in Afghanistan for the British Empire. He’s at the sharp end of a 370-mile supply line and has no intention of getting his men slaughtered on the pass. Here they stop; here they will stay for the forseeable future.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is not enjoying his time at war. He’s on the Somme, currently occupying reserve positions near Montauban and Pommiers Redoubt, in what used to be the German First Line.

We seem to have been here for weeks: actually we have been here three days. It has been what is called “a soft time,” too, for the only casualties in the battalion have occurred in the company behind us, and there they have only had about half a dozen killed and wounded. We hear the batteries have suffered heavily, and small wonder, for so far the shelling has never stopped. This afternoon, frayed out with the incessant noise, I went to see Captain Rowley in his miserable little dug-out for the sole purpose of asking him whether shelling ever did stop.

He smiled and inquired what I expected, adding that it was “a bit steep,” but we ought to be thinking ourselves damned lucky we weren’t getting it. I was immensely grateful to him, for he was friendly and not in the least superior. I shall owe him something for that kindness as long as we are together.

As dark comes on we are filing out to dig a new communication-trench down in the valley between the front line and our own. Passing a dump, the men draw picks and shovels alternately. It is strange and exciting to be in the open again. The men are extended in line while the tape is being laid. They begin to chatter, too loudly it seems, for half a dozen whiz-bangs come fizzing right among us, glaring red as they burst. The men flop, and I, knowing no better, do the same. Down along the line comes Rowley cursing the men furiously. “What the hell do you think you are doing lying there?”

I get up feeling badly chagrined, and the work is begun.

And he’s not even been right up the line yet. Perhaps this is an act of common sense from the Staff to hold them back for the time being; the 10th Green Howards are still far from full strength.

Flora Sandes

Flora Sandes is acclimatising rather more speedily to life in the middle of an offensive.

In this sort of terrain the shells used to make the most appalling din, bursting on the rocks and scattering them in every direction, whilst the echoes kept up a continual reverberation among the mountains, growing fainter and fainter, but never wholly dying away before the next shell fell and echoes started anew.

For some reason prolonged shelling always made me feel sleepy. The louder the racket the more soundly I slept. One day we were waiting as reserves, while a terrific bombardment was going on just below us. The colonel, prowling round, passed me curled up under a rock fast asleep, and was much amused. “You must indeed be an old soldier if you can sleep through that, and no longer my new recruit,” he said to me afterwards. As there were no trenches, or deep dugouts, all we could do, when we got caught in a place without cover, was to lie flat on our faces, bury our heads in our arms, and grin and bear it.

Of course, nothing is so bad when there are plenty of others quite close to you, all doing the same thing, which I suppose accounts for that fatal tendency, leading men to bunch up together under shellfire, instead of scattering as they should.

A long time ago, I recall Louis Barthas commenting with surprise on his platoon snoozebag, who could sleep his way through even the heaviest shelling. Now we get the story from the snoozebag’s point of view.

Ruth Farnam

Meanwhile. Ruth Farnam is an American who’s just beginning a very similar career trajectory to our Flora; beginning as a nurse, then having to leave Serbia urgently, then returning later as a general do-gooder. She’s officially coming back to the front as a representative of the Serbian Relief Committee, a humanitarian organisation to support refugees. Her mission, which she has chosen to accept, is to visit the American consulates in Greece and smooth over some apparently strained relations.

But, like Sandes, her life is going to take one hell of a left turn at Albuquerque…

It was the third week in August when I sailed. There were no trippers, no gamblers, no “little actresses” and few New York dressmakers or milliners on board. Everyone was going on serious business, mostly connected with the war, which was nearly the sole topic of conversation. Many people then, as they are today, were perfectly certain that “Germany cannot last out another six months.” There were several alarms of submarines and one man was so depressed by the sense of danger that he jumped overboard and was lost.

On our arrival at the mouth of the Mersey, we found ourselves enveloped in a dense fog and were obliged to wait several hours before we could go up to Liverpool. Just behind us, when we at last did berth, was a large ship filled with German prisoners that had arrived that day from the Cameroons. They lined the rail and stared at us curiously, and when two other New York women and I passed near them, one of the younger ones shouted something about “Amerikanerin” and spat viciously in our direction. I saw an English sailor grab him by the collar and there was trouble for a few minutes.

It is of course relatively easy for a sergeant of the Serbian army to return to her regiment and face the enemy guns. For an American civilian, there is a far more pernicious enemy to overcome: bureaucracy. We’ll see how she goes with that.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Delville Wood | Longueval | 26 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

General Rawlinson is not particularly happy at the moment, having presided over a gigantic wet fart of an offensive on the 23rd. Something must be done, so he’s thought back to the Bazentin Ridge offensive. The Chief is still very annoyed that Delville Wood and Longueval have not been taken. It’s a very small area, barely a square mile. The successes of Bazentin Ridge came from more artillery and a narrower front. This time, he’s going to take as much artillery as was firing between Bazentin and Delville Wood last time, and turn it all on Delville Wood and Longueval for an hour tomorrow.

Between shrapnel and high explosive, over the course of that hour, there will be one shell for every 25 square yards of ground. It will be theoretically impossible to stand in the same place for that hour and not get hit by something. Of course we know it doesn’t work like that; there will be a few lucky souls who survive, because there always are. But, ye gods, a much smaller weight of shell saw the South Africans off last week. I’d say “nothing exceeds like excess”, but I rather suspect that this kind of excess is in fact the new normal.

Meanwhile, the brutal shelling continues at Pozieres. The ANZACs can’t last like this forever. They need food and water at least, to say nothing of ammunition or reinforcements. (The 2nd Australian Division is now moving forward to replace the 1st.) Sergeant Preston of the 9th Australian Battalion has volunteered to take a party back to the rear and find something, anything, to bring back to their mates.

Big shells were falling thickly. We could see them like black streaks coming down from the sky just before they hit the ground. Often times we were thrown to the ground with concussion, great clods of earth showering us and making our steel helmets ring. One member of the party, Private Fitzgerald, was partly buried, but was quickly dug out and left in the nearest trench to await the stretcher bearers. Eventually we reached Contalmaison, got some water in benzene tins, and made our way back to the front. The water, as can be imagined, had a strong benzene flavour.

On the way we passed Fitzgerald, badly wounded, but still alive.

I do quite sincerely doubt whether anyone complained about the taste of the water.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien is back up the line. This time he’s gone to Beaumont Hamel. Which brings us, incidentally, to an important change. General Haig has finally got round to deciding what should be done about that fucker Hunter-Weston and VIII Corps. The BEF is exceedingly short on good candidates for corps command at the moment. (An uncharitable person might suggest they’re pretty short on good candidates to clean the latrines, never mind corps commanders.) Sacking Hunter-Weston is, apparently, not possible; and if he were sacked, he might very well end up in Sir John French’s gossip factory in London, making mischief.

However, what can be done is to transfer his corps to 2nd Army and send them to the Ypres salient. The implication will be quite obvious, and it will also be simple enough to keep bouncing him away from any future offensive. Hunter-Weston himself will soon be writing a letter to his wife, protesting far too much that he most certainly isn’t being confined to the kiddie pool and made to wear armbands and use floats. But I’m not buying that, and I sincerely hope that this is the last time I have to type his stupid double-barrelled name.

Anyway, so Tolkien’s corps is now in VIII Corps’s place, and his battalion is now up the line for the third time. Tolkien has been elevated from company to battalion signals officer, a role for which he’s almost completely unprepared. The new role is almost entirely managerial; deciding where things should go and who should do what duty. There’s plenty to do, and no senior officer to help. One suspects he might have spent a lot of time asking his senior sergeant “so, how would you arrange things?” and then letting him get on with it.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler is feeling rather better, and this time manages to make it all the way to an observation post, by way of a colleague’s position.

I visited Maclean and his lonely howitzer at dawn. He had been slightly wounded in the neck, but was carrying on; they all looked very red and blistered about the neck, having had their gas-masks on for seven hours during the night, besides encountering tear gas the rest of the time. The aroma round that spot is really remarkable. I counted thirty-eight men and fifteen horses lying dead between their dug-out and the gun. Being near the main road to Longueval, that spot is continually shelled, and passing units never have enough time to clear up any mess.

I heartened them with a promise to send up a sack of [chloride of] lime to sweeten the place. I spent the rest of the day in Hardecourt. The village had been taken originally by [French colonial troops] after desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Judging by the state of the dead, they are certainly rather messy fighters.

I’m pretty sure that if your hand-to-hand fighting goes off without mess, you’re probably doing it wrong. And if the people you killed two weeks ago aren’t a mess by now, they’re probably zombies and then you really do have a problem.

Oskar Teichman

The tension at the Suez Canal continues ratcheting up; but all medical officer Oskar Teichman is being bombarded with right now is paperwork.

The following mobile column order was issued:

“Attention of [Officers Commanding] is called to the following:
1. As the number of sand-carts and cacolets is limited, great care should be exercised that they are only indented for when absolutely necessary. An indent should bear the signature of a responsible or medical officer.
2. As it is probable that the troops will be fighting without their tunics, OCs will take steps to ensure that when this occurs all field dressings are extracted from the pocket of the tunic and pinned to the breeches.
3. All ranks are reminded that when dressing the wounds of a comrade the field dressing belonging to the wounded man should be used, and not that of the man who is dressing the wound.

With regard to order 2, I was very against this, and strongly advised that our men should continue to wear their tunics in order to avoid sunstroke, and also in order to make it possible to wear the cavalry equipment, which it was difficult and painful to carry without shoulder straps. Eventually this was agreed upon, and our men fought in their tunics and preferred it.

During the afternoon an “aviatik” dropped a message asking us to mark our hospital tents more clearly.

Point 3 has been an Army principle as long as anyone can remember, and still is today. You use the casualty’s stuff because you may well need yours in a few minutes’ time. A cacolet is an entirely hilarious construction, two stretchers nailed to each other and then mounted on the back of a camel or donkey.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has a defining moment of his war. He’s finished his infantry gun training and is now back in the trenches with his squad.

At daybreak the sentry who was watching the periscope, which was hidden behind a high clump of grass, signaled me frantically to come up. I looked in the mirror and was stupefied to see a German’s head reflected in it—a neck like a bull’s, a big square head, a thick red mop of hair, a bestial look—all enough to give you nightmares. This apparition was coming out of the earth, barely four or five meters from us, into our own barbed wire which surrounded our outpost, without the slightest shovelful of disturbed earth to indicate that there was any sort of trench or excavation around him.

Evidently this was not a mirage; the Germans must have dug a subterranean passage, carrying back to the rear the dirt they removed. The sentry took a grenade and was about to toss it at this intruder, looking at me for approval. I held his arm. I will always be faithful to my principles as a socialist, a humanitarian, even a true Christian, even if they cost me my life, of not firing on someone unless in legitimate self-defense.

And was it in our interest to break the neighborly relations which existed between our two adjoining outposts? “If this lascar is poking his head up only out of curiosity,” I said to my comrades in a low voice, “that’s all the same to us. If he is coming to check out our position in order to send over a couple of grenades, we’ll open our eyes so that he doesn’t show us his big square head again, or we’ll make it round for him.”

The incident goes off without violence. “Lascar” is a word that in other languages refers specifically to sailors and marines from east of the Cape of Good Hope who were hired to crew European-owned ships. In 1914 the British merchant marine alone employed over 50,000 such seamen on extremely, ahem, cost-effective terms.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has a less-than-promising report on the BEF’s morale, and the shock news that ANZAC soldiers like a drink.

The people in the villages tell me how fed up they are, and how they wish the cruel war were over. On the fields and in the farmyards the women do the work; I have not seen one able-bodied Frenchman between 16 and 60 anywhere.

The tradespeople, especially the inn-keepers, are, however, reaping a golden harvest. Anxious to be able to say later on how they have “seen life,” our wealthy Australian soldiers are consuming oceans of citron a l’eau, which the shrewd peasantry sells at six shillings a bottle, labelled “champagne!” The British Tommy does not indulge in such riotous living, but occasionally he orders and solemnly consumes a bottle of “vinn rooge,” a reddish syropywater-concoction [sic] slightly vinegared.

In the afternoon we had two parades to make up a draft for the Front. It needed three men to complete its numbers; when the Regimental Sergeant-Major asked for volunteers, one man out of about 400 stepped forward. So the missing two were picked out at random and ordered to go.

Citron a l’eau I do believe is Mugge’s Franglais for “fizzy lemonade” (the French call it, and other carbonated drinks, “limonade”, even though a lemon is a “citron”). I’m not entirely sure I buy that story, but I am reminded of the story from 1914 about the Tommies who confiscated some apparent bottles of champagne and then found they’d been hauling litres of mineral water around…

Actions in Progress

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

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

Bazentin Ridge | Mwanza | 14 Jul 1916

Mwanza

Back to Africa today, where the Force Publique gets well and truly stuck into Major Wintgens’s defensive positions outside Mwanza, on Lake Victoria. The battle goes all day and through the night; they’re trying to buy time for a promised British Empire force to do an end run around Wintgens and cut off his southern escape route down the Tabora road. On the plus side, they’re nearby with 2,000 men; on the other hand, most of the force is irregulars around a core of King’s African Rifles. Tomorrow, the result.

Battle of the Somme

So, here we go, then. Time for the attack usually known as the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. But, before we can delve into that, we’ve got to quickly duck out to Trones Wood, which at midnight is far from in BEF hands. General Rawlinson has sold this mildly crackpot scheme to his boss at least partly on the premise that Trones Wood will be in BEF hands by zero hour. And, by zero hour, due to sheer dumb luck, it indeed is. Chance placed one Lt-Col Frank Maxwell (VC) of the 12th Middlesex in Trones Wood at this time.

To talk of a ‘wood’ is to talk rot. It was the most dreadful tangle of dense trees and undergrowth imaginable, with deep yawning broken trenches criss-crossing about it. Every tree broken off at top or bottom and branches cut away, so that the floor of the wood was almost an impenetrable tangle of timber, branches, undergrowth etc. blown to pieces by British and German heavy guns for a week. Never was anything so perfectly dreadful to look at—at least I couldn’t dream of anything worse…

A naturally charismatic commander, through sheer force of personality, Maxwell gathers all the men he can find together and has them advance in line abreast, almost holding hands. German tactics for defending the wood have been entirely based on picking on small, isolated, scared, lost British platoons and squads. For nearly a week fresh men have trickled inside to be broken up and picked off one by one. Today is when Maxwell earns his brigade command by taking Trones Wood and then holding it all day.

Let’s go to the map now to remind ourselves of the plan.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

As befits a critical day, there are all kinds of clever shenanigans going on here in support of the attack. To begin with, there will be no preliminary barrage at all, as we’ve come to understand the term. There has been some wire-cutting artillery fire over the past couple of days, but no concentrated firing for more than an hour or so at a time, what the Germans call drum-fire. Just brief blasts, then lifts, then more blasts, then a longer break, and so on. This is Behaviour Modification, as trialled over the last few months at Ypres, finally pressed into service for a major offensive. There’s another push in the wreckage of Ovillers, and a successful demonstration (without anyone leaving their trenches) at Beaumont Hamel.

The final ruse is one that relies on information gained a few days ago, that the Germans are tapping the BEF’s field-telephone system. Having already given careful verbal orders to the relevant units, shortly before zero hour 4th Army HQ telephones everyone it can think of to inform them that the attack has been postponed. (The order is of course meant for the enemy to overhear.) It’s difficult to say exactly how effective all the individual deception efforts were. All we can say is that the men sneaked out into No Man’s Land almost entirely unmolested, and when they attacked after a final bombardment of only five minutes, they achieved almost total surprise.

The whole world broke into gunfire. It was a stupendous spectacle—the darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes—the flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, followed a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps.

There’s our correspondent Fraser-Tytler; after five minutes, his guns switch to an effective and generously-timetabled creeping barrage. From Bazentin to Delville Wood the defending Germans have almost no answer. Resistance is sporadic, quickly snuffed out with bombs. At 10:30am, Fraser-Tytler is watching cavalry and arse hortillery moving past Montauban and forward towards the battle. There is, for the moment, utter confusion among German high command, caught with their trousers down, right in the middle of General von Falkenhayn’s command reorganisation, literally as the generals are formally handing things over to each other.

There is a gap in the German line, maybe a mile wide, although narrower than had been hoped for. It’s right in front of High Wood, capstone of an important intermediate trench line between the Second and Third Lines (usually referred to as a “switch line”). At 500 feet above sea level, along with Pozieres, it’s the highest point for miles around, critical for observation purposes. The defenders are mostly falling back in disarray. The BEF’s 7th Division waits for orders. Is it safe for them to push on?

On either side of the gap, the Germans are still holding on by their fingernails to the Second Line’s reserve trenches, local commanders feeding in troops via Pozieres and Combles. However, there aren’t, as yet, any orders to garrison the Third Line in strength or to attempt to occupy the switch lines between them. Opportunity is knocking. And then there was a Decision, and lo! it later became a Matter of Some Debate.

High Wood

Here is what happened. In the morning and the early afternoon, several patrols go out from the Second Line to High Wood, reporting it variously as completely empty or else garrisoned only by light enemy patrols. These reports all make it back to higher command. 4th Army then emits a number of extremely unhealthy grinding and crunching noises from under the bonnet, as several people all grab at the gear lever at once, and succeed only in ramming it firmly into neutral several times. The infantry gets orders to wait for the cavalry; advance; wait for the cavalry; do a little turn; and then sing “Knees Up Mother Brown”.

There is no advance towards High Wood until the evening, when the cavalry shows up, at which point machine-guns have appeared in the wood and the German artillery is beginning to recover after rapidly fleeing its positions behind Bazentin. Heavy fighting follows, and the attackers end the day with a solid foothold in High Wood, but when surely there had been a chance for far more. For once we cannot blame imperfect information. By First World War standards, communications with the rear were good enough. Division and corps commanders had about as good an idea of the situation as ever they could hope to have.

Several things got in the way. The first problem is the breakthrough itself. It’s relatively narrow, and the Germans are now hammering the left in particular with stiff counter-attacks from Pozieres. If their position at Bazentin gives way, anyone trying to exploit the breakthrough is in extreme danger of being cut off. So the 7th Division is kept waiting in front of High Wood, watching, cooling their heels until nightfall.

Here’s where we see through the apparent similarities between British “the man on the spot is king” principles and, say, the true freedoms given to subordinate commanders by General von Mackensen in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive. If one of Mackensen’s men had been in charge, he would surely have said “stuff the orders, I’m going to get that wood” and gone after it. A British man on the spot may be king, but he is a constitutional monarch and must first and foremost work within his orders.

This all might have been okay if three cavalry divisions had swept through the gap at, say, 2pm. But at that time, two of them are still knocking around the wrong side of Albert, by now far too far from the battle to play any part today. One division, the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, was sent forward early in the morning, but of course it’s had trouble getting forward. Not all of this is caused by trouble traversing ground broken up by artillery fire, mind you. When General Rawlinson sent it forward he attached it to XIII Corps, expecting the breakthrough to come in their portion of front. But 7th Division belongs to XV Corps, and hours are lost finding the cavalry, re-attaching them to XV Corps, and sending them forward to their new starting points.

I wish now to pause for a moment and reflect on the deep, deep irony of most of the cavalry being held too far to the rear, on Haig’s explicit orders. Commanders-in-chief have, earlier in the war, been overthrown by their senior army commanders for similar mistakes. I do wonder what Sir John French, sitting in his gossip factory on Horse Guards Parade, made of it all when someone told him what had happened.

The Charge of the Deccan Horse

So, in the early evening, we find cavalry coming into action on the Western Front for the first time in rather a while. More errors in getting orders forward sees only one cavalry brigade actually attack. But when they do, it’s a real sight to behold: they’re riding into action, ready for a charge. I’ve got two views of the attack, both from artillery spotters. The first is from Signaller Leonard Ounsworth, spotting for a heavy howitzer battery.

A Morane-Saulnier, a French aeroplane that we had at the time, kept diving down on to the corner of the field on our left front. I saw this Indian cavalry, the Deccan Horse they called them, and this plane was diving down and up again. Suddenly the officer in charge of the cavalry cottoned on. He stood up in his stirrups, waved his sword above his head and just charged across that field—like a shot out of a gun, like bats out of hell. The two outer lots split, so they made a pincer and encircled them—it was all over in a matter of seconds.

The next thing we saw was thirty-four Jerry prisoners, some with heavy machine guns. They were waiting while the Cavalry got a bit nearer—my God, they’d have slaughtered them. The plane was trying to draw their attention, just diving down on top, I suppose distracting these machine-gunners, because a plane coming down close above your head is enough to draw your attention.

And the second is from Lieutenant Beadle, spotting for the field guns. Sixteen Germans have been killed by the lance in addition to the 30 prisoners.

It was an incredible sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying. I’ve never seen anything like it! They simply galloped on through all that, and horses and men dropping on the ground. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight.

Brigadiers and division commanders are all sucked into a vortex of “wait, what do we do now?”, caught between common sense and orders. The cavalry dismounts with a foothold in High Wood and digs in. After a certain amount of shocked staring, a few individuals damn their orders and strike off in support. The approximate position at nightfall:

The switch line at High Wood is now being garrisoned, so it now appears on the map.

The switch line at High Wood is now being garrisoned, so it now appears on the map.

It’s a missed opportunity. How big, we really can’t say for sure. We can only speculate what might have happened if those three cavalry divisions had all got stuck in at once. They might have got lost, got over-enthusiastic, got massacred, got the VC, got to Bapaume, or all of the above.

Reactions

General Haig is quite clear what he thinks of the day’s events. First in his diary.

I saw General Foch at Querrieu. He is very pleased with result of our attacks. French openly said their troops could not have carried out such an attack, not even the XX Corps! [which did particularly well on 1 July]

Foch is extremely enthused by this success, on Bastille Day, no less. He’s been worrying that the perfidious English will be content with allowing the battle to bog down once they learn that the Germans are giving up on Verdun. The two men spend a lot of time today talking over the possibilities for the coming days. There are a number of nasty German strong-points east of Trones Wood; they’re creating bottlenecks for the BEF right and the French left. Joint attacks are planned to free the bottleneck, and General Fayolle will soon get orders to make another big push for Peronne.

Back to Haig, who we now find writing to his wife.

This is indeed a very great success. The best day we have had this war and I feel what a reward it is to have been spared to see our troops so succeessful! There is no doubt that the results of today will be very far reaching. Our men showed that they have the superiority to the Germans in the fighting, and the latter are very much disorganised and rattled.

The best day we have had this war. And the sad thing is, he’s right. Think about that for a moment, if you can.

JRR Tolkien

Today, JRR Tolkien is off up the line with his men for the first time. The battalion halts for a long wait in the shadow of Lochnagar Crater, and then moves on into the ruins of La Boisselle. By nightfall they’re waiting in close reserve, as yet another penny-packet push tries to throw the Germans out of their remaining positions at Ovillers. True to their general’s promise, they are fighting for every inch and look set to fight to the last man if required.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach, the laziest German in France, continues making friends and influencing people.

I still like it best being on observation duty with the infantry. When there isn’t actually any heavy firing, you spend rewarding hours with the company commanders and the men. With time I’ve really found my feet in the infantry world and become fairly independent as well, and I often get together with the infantry leaders to discuss the artillery preparations required for a patrol operation. And afterwards I accompany these friends of mine on their night walks through the trenches, when they are inspecting their sentries.

The way these good-hearted infantrymen, some of them ex-Landwehr, stick to their work and do their duty, is the highest personal fulfilment of one’s task in life, faith incarnate in the justice of our victorious cause! Meanwhile, the second anniversary of the outbreak of war has passed, but you don’t really think any more about our entering the third year of war, and still less about whether and when there is going to be peace again.

Ah, it seems we’ve found the limits of his optimism. The Landwehr is, like the Territorial Army, supposed to be used only for the direct defence of the homeland. Unlike the Territorials, it contains no first-line forces and in an ideal world would never have to fight. But, you know, shit happens.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

First day on the Somme | 1 July 1916

On the signal, company will advance!

First day on the Somme

In the British imagination, 1st July 1916 looms over the rest of the First World War. Ask someone about the First World War, and if they know anything at all about the war, it is extremely likely that the first day on the Somme is the first thing they think of. It is also reasonably likely that it is the only thing they think of. Or rather, it is a particular sub-section of the first day of the Somme that they think of. It is, to say the least, a very arresting image, and a very easily distilled image, and a very easily understandable image.

However, it is not the entire story. This battle defies easy characterisation when looked at in any detail. So let’s get down to the detail. Let us have, once again, the map, to remind ourselves of what is going on.

As ever, this bears only the slightest resemblance to what the front actually looks like

As ever, this bears only the slightest resemblance to what the front actually looks like

From Serre to the end of the French attack front is very approximately 23 miles. General Haig expects that by the end of the day, his men will have advanced to the pink line. This will set up an attack in a few days to break the German Second Line at Pozieres, send the BEF’s cavalry through the gap to exploit it, and capture a critical railway junction at Bapaume.

Meanwhile, the diversions will go on to the last possible moments. All along the BEF front, zero hour at 7:30am will see “demonstrations”; artillery barrages, shouting and whistle-blowing by officers, and other such excitement to simulate an attack and keep the enemy confused as long as possible. And, about five miles north of Serre, there will be a full-scale diversionary attack at Gommecourt. And that’s where we’ll start the first day on the Somme.

Gommecourt

There is a small tactical advantage to be had by eliminating the Gommecourt salient, but that’s not what the attack is about. This is about confusing German intelligence for as long as possible, disguising the main thrust of the Battle of the Somme. Even a delay of a few hours could prove important. The men here have been quite deliberately making no attempt to disguise their preparations for attack. This is, bluntly, going to suck for the people who have drawn this shortest of straws and who now are being ordered to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

One of them is Captain Arthur Agius. We’ve been following him on and off since he arrived on the Western Front in January 1915. He was in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and he’s already drawn the shortest straw once already; for the Battle of Loos, he survived being in a diversionary attack at Neuve Chapelle. This, however, is on a completely different scale.

The trouble was that Gommecourt stuck out in the middle of the line and we weren’t to attack it directly. We were supposed to encircle it and link up behind. But what we didn’t know is that the Germans had manoeuvred and organised their line that this part which we weren’t to attack was really their strong-point. They simply had a clear field of fire on either side and nothing to bother about in front. The shellfire was appalling. We just couldn’t get across. We didn’t even get as far as [the jumping-off trench]. There was no trench left.

We got orders to turn and try to make our way back to the village. One of my subalterns was newly out. [He] jumped out of the trench to try to organise the men, and he was promptly killed. Just disappeared in an explosion. So many gone, and we’d never left our own front-line trench. And then we found we couldn’t get back. We were simply treading on the dead. Eventually my Sergeant and I got out. I heard a shell coming. It burst just above my head. The Sergeant…was killed. I don’t know how I got back. It was murder.

A few brave/lucky souls have managed to make it into the German trenches, but they’ve been quickly cut off. Nobody can cross No Man’s Land to reinforce them. German artillery has cut all the BEF telephone lines, and once again the generals who are supposed to coordinate the attack have absolutely no idea what’s going on. The end of the day sees the last stragglers dragging themselves back across No Man’s Land to the BEF’s lines. Arthur Agius has somehow found his way to Battalion Headquarters, where he is now sitting quietly in a corner, sobbing uncontrollably. In good time he will be invalided out as a shell shock casualty.

Attacking battalions at Gommecourt are lucky if they’ve only lost 50% of their men killed or wounded. So this is all horrible and disgusting and bloody. But it’s the diversionary attack. Just in planning the attack they convinced the Germans to send a division away from the main battle to reinforce Gommecourt. If we can show that it came to something positive…

So this is where we are as now we turn to the main battle. I will now take it from south to north. And that means starting with the French contribution. The map’s just up there a bit; and so far it is completely unchanged. Won’t be for long, though!

The French Army on Day 1

This is because the French Army has achieved complete and total success. Taking a considerably more pessmistic view than the BEF, Generals Foch and Fayolle have planned a more cautious, step-by-step advance. The French contribution to the Somme is extremely shabbily treated in the English-language history, so about all I’m able to say is that south of the River Somme, the French are doing extremely well.

The infantry advanced hard on the heels of a well-planned rolling barrage, they walked almost right through the German First Line without much resistance, and by the end of the day they’re digging in for the next bit. The Second Line will not be attacked until everybody is ready, and it will come after another extensive prepatory bombardment, in accordance with the new French doctrine. On top of that, because of their total air superiority, enforced by plentiful Nieuport Bebe fighter planes, their pre-battle fire has paid far more attention than at any time before to counter-battery fire, the fine art of using your artillery to shoot the enemy’s artillery.

The men have consequently been able to advance almost unmolested. With the big guns destroyed by French artillery, and the machine guns suppressed by the rolling barrage, the French have done exactly what the BEF was hoping to do. They’ve just walked across No Man’s Land and taken possession, and been happy with that and not tried to accomplish too much more. North of the River Somme the story is mostly the same. Although here the counter-battery work has been less successful, the French attackers have benefited from an extensive early morning river mist. They’ve captured the First Line, and come the end of the day they’re digging in and another lot are looking forward to the hard work of marching on the Second Line.

And there’s even a nice human moment to transition into the first BEF sector. Over the last few weeks, Commandant Le Petit of the 153rd Regiment has become rather friendly with his left-hand neighbour, Lt-Col Fairfax of the 17th King’s Liverpools. Perhaps it was not an accident that brought them together in the last moments before zero hour. Arm in arm, the two men lead their battalions over the top and across No Man’s Land in perfect order at a steady walk. The men have rifles slung over their shoulders, many of them are smoking, and they cross No Man’s Land mostly without inconvenience. Johnny Crapaud’s done his bit; over to you, Tommy Atkins.

Montauban

This covers the southernmost part of the BEF’s attack, centred on Montauban, which sits between the First and Second Lines. This is the sector where Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler has been stationed. The British artillery, with considerable French assistance, has been firing a relatively advanced version of the creeping barrage to support the advance. They’re assisted by two large mines under a pair of German strong-points, and the relatively incoherent state of the German defences in many places owing to intense mining and counter-mining earlier in the year. Fraser-Tytler:

The line advanced steadily, scarcely meeting any opposition in the [German First Line]. By 8:20 the formidable Glatz Redoubt was captured. The infantry reported that the maze of strong-points, machine-gun emplacements, etc. had all been swept away, and that the trenches were crammed with dead. …[They] then continued the attack and captured the whole village of Montauban by 10am. … In the afternoon Hun shelling increased slightly, but he appeared to be completely demoralised and, for the moment, shaken out of his wits.

After dinner I went round to “swap lies” with the Brigade Commander of the 75mm batteries behind us. He said he had been twice at Verdun, but even there he had never seen such an intense bombardment. … We were sitting, cups in hand, when we saw three French gunners trolleying down the little railway line which runs through all the positions. A stray shell landed exactly on the trolley, which simply dissolved away. Some more men of their battery then collected any scraps [of human remains] they could find, butting them into different sandbags, amidst heated arguments as to which was the proper one, etc.

This reference to confusion among the German artillery is critical. The British counter-battery fire was not nearly so accurate as the French, but the German guns are mostly without orders or observation posts. German telephone wires are not immune to being cut, after all. This is where the men threw footballs over the top and found it very useful in calming their nerves as they walked across the open ground. There is one other personal account to bring in at this point. This is from Albert Andrews of the 19th Manchesters, shortly after entering the German trenches…

[We] turned round to go along the trench, when three fine Germans came running towards us with their hands up. They would be about 20 yards away. We both fired and two fell, my mate saying as we let go, ‘That’s for my brother in the Dardanelles!’, and as he fired again and the third German fell, ‘That’s for my winter in the trenches!’ We walked up to them and one moved. My mate kicked him and pushed his bayonet into him. That finished him.

This kind of thing was going on all along the line, no Germans being spared. Wounded were killed by us all. We hadn’t exactly been told, ‘No prisoners!’ but we were given to understand that that was what was wanted.

This is, of course, a war crime. Sad to say, stories like this are pretty much ten-a-penny from both sides when there’s a major offensive on. So too are stories of other men going out of their way to take prisoners. Andrews had himself just a few minutes before spared a shell-shocked German who he could easily have shot down. The perfect Balanced Sample? After securing the trench he and some mates attempt to settle down to some light looting and are then intercepted by their captain with more orders. “You all look very nice, but get some fucking digging done.”

Wise words. Here then is the south of the Battle of the Somme at nightfall. It’s all going quite well. There’s a couple of attempted German counter-attacks, but they’re beaten off by artillery fire and a little rifle fire and there is plenty of time to get some fucking digging done. It’s not quite as good as it might have been, but it’s still a good day, and one that mostly runs completely counter to the common picture of the Somme. They’ve achieved just about everything that they were supposed to and are in a good position to push on tomorrow.

Mametz and Fricourt

Moving west. Fricourt is where Bernard Adams was stationed until he was wounded a month ago. This is a nasty little part of the line. Fricourt and Mametz themselves are now gigantic fortified super-pillboxes, with a series of inter-connected dugouts running beneath them. The German fire trenches have been carefully laid along the winding hillside to create a number of miniature salients, with barbed wire entanglements designed to direct attackers into the teeth of machine-gun nests.

Against this, we have the BEF’s jumping-off trenches. They’ve dug some of the best prepatory trenches in the battle, and almost all of them are the recommended 100 yards away from the enemy. XV Corps has also taken a lot of care over its artillery preparation, conducting several useful experiments (of which more later) with different counter-battery techniques. While not approaching French levels of success, they’ve still put a serious dent in the Germans’ artillery capabilities. They’ve also enthusiastically adopted the creeping barrage along strict French lines, and battalion commanders have been emphasising the need to stay close to it, however silly it sounds.

Things have got rather difficult here. The early going is decent enough; No Man’s Land is short, and the creeping barrage somewhat effective in suppressing German machine-guns. The trouble begins once the first wave has crossed without trouble. They’ve done a poor job of “mopping up” the trenches, the act of completing the equation of attack by killing Germans in their dugouts. Now they’re spewing grenades as they come up to make a fight of it. Men are slipping through the Tommies in their trenches and manning the machine guns to shoot down the second and third waves who are supposed to be pushing on while the first wave consolidates. Private Burke of the 20th Manchesters:

Then the hand-to-hand fighting started. It was Hell. Bombing was the star turn; many of the Devils were taken unawares and were asleep in their dugouts. We threw bombs of every description down, smoke bombs especially and as the hounds came up, crawling half dead, we stuck the blighters and put them out of time. In one dugout there were about twenty-five in there and we set the place on fire and we spared them no mercy, they don’t deserve it.

They continued sniping as we were advancing until we reached them and then they throw up their hands, ‘Merci, Kamerad!’ We gave them mercy, I don’t think! We took far too many prisoners, they numbered about 1,000 and they didn’t deserve being spared.

And all this trouble is throwing the artillery timetable out of sync. The creeping barrage is creeping off into the distance, and now the men are too busy fighting to send messages back to the rear. The Germans bring up reserves, and are sometimes able to feed them directly into the trenches. By the end of the day the attackers have captured most of the First Line, and Mametz itself. However, they’re well behind schedule; a few parties have attempted to push towards the Second Line, but have run into intermediate trenches and taken heavy casualties. Importantly, Fricourt itself and Fricourt Wood just behind are still in German hands. We’ll finish with an observation from 2nd Lt Probert, an artillery officer who spent most of the day watching the battle from an observation post.

The 2nd Gordons were deepening the communication trench … but we had to stop here some time as the sniping was continuing. One captain was sitting in the front line eating his lunch with one hand and shooting the snipers with the other as they came out to surrender. I thought that rather rough as some had their hands up, but he said that he had had several wounded Jocks shot on their stretchers.

War crimes for war crimes. Yay. This is still not the popular picture of the Somme, though. This is still success. It’s limited, hard-fought, bloody success; and they’re not at the Day 1 objective, but they are going forwards. Let’s stop and see the map again.

Pink is the Day 1 objectives

Pink is the Day 1 objectives

Ovillers and La Boisselle

Ovillers and La Boisselle guard the Albert to Bapaume road. They’ve been fortified and incorporated into the First Line. They’re supplemented by two redoubts, the Schwaben Height (not to be confused with the Schwaben Redoubt a little further north) and Sausage Redoubt (why not just call it “Huns-R-Us”, guys?) The one-size-fits-all solution to these problems appears to have been “a bloody big bang”, with vast amounts of underground explosive being brought in. This is possibly the most critical sector of all.

General Haig’s immediate objective is a breakthrough at Pozieres, a few miles up the road, and then cavalry exploitation and the capture of Bapaume. This has to be done before the Germans realise what’s going off and dispatch reinforcements to strengthen and occupy their Third Line. The attackers are on a serious timetable here; the men need to at the very least replicate the success at Montauban, if not exceed it. And now, here is where the stories start to sound depressingly familiar. Corporal James Tansley of the 9th York and Lancasters:

We had been told, ‘There’s no need for this short rushes and getting down on your stomach, go straight over as if you were on parade. That’s the orders, there’s no fear of enemy attack, that’s been silenced by the British guns’. Up we went through the lanes cut in the wire, spread out and tried to follow this instruction. Myself, I was a bit sceptical about it. I and my section made for this slight ridge marked by an old farm implement. Looked around for where the line was, they seemed to disappear. Lying about on the ground. There was a severe machine-gun fire coming from the region of Pozieres, half-left.

The machine guns cut down Tansley and a friend. The friend dies; Tansley lies in No Man’s Land for about seven hours, with his finger stuffed deep into his wounded groin to stop the bleeding. Then he crawls back into the BEF trenches and almost falls on top of a stretcher bearer. Meanwhile, Private Harry Baumber, 10th Lincolnshires, advancing on La Boisselle:

Line behind line of steadfast men walking grimly forward and wondering what was in store. We soon found out. I noticed men falling thick and fast about me and all the time the tremulous chatter of machine guns. It was akin to striding into a hailstorm and the further you went the less and less became your comrades. Jerry had not been obliterated, his wire had not been destroyed and we had been called upon to walk 800 yards across No Man’s Land into Hell. A far cry from the walkover we had been promised.

Baumber is exaggerating about the distance he had to walk, but he arrives at the German wire to find it almost completely uncut; or possibly cut and then repaired. At any rate, he and his mates soon realise that they will have to spend 12 hours or more lying in No Man’s Land until darkness, when they might be able to sneak back. Many more are spotted and shot or grenaded as they try to keep a low profile. 2nd Lt John Turnbull is trying to exert some command, but there’s a problem. Either he’s got lost, or the exact location of the Lochnagar Mine was told wrong to him.

Very puzzled with the rotten crater, which was in the wrong place. Used it to screen us from La Boisselle, got as far as the ridge, and goodness knows how many machine guns opened up on us. We all dropped, and I started to crawl to the crater to see who was there, when I got hit in the back. Corporal Turton helped me in. Unfortunately I couldn’t move about much, and felt very dazed.

JRR Tolkien has a friend in all this mayhem. Lieutenant Rob Gilson is attacking the Sausage Redoubt, and he dies within minutes of going over the top, hit by a shell almost immediately after taking emergency command of his company. Of the 16 officers in Gilson’s battalion, only one returns unhurt. Two thirds of the men are dead or wounded. G.B. Smith is luckier, over on the far left, and he escapes unhurt for now, with his battalion only having taken one-third casualties.

At nightfall, we have a picture of almost complete failure. Artillery fire was, apparently, inadequate. Wire was not cut. Machine-guns were not suppressed. The enemy had plenty of warning of the attack. There are a few men clinging to a few shreds of trench, and the new Lochnagar Crater is British. For whatever that’s worth. Which isn’t much at all. The line of the Albert to Bapaume Road is where the Somme that everyone knows about starts to happen.

And on we go further north.

Thiepval

This sector is dominated by Thiepval on top of its ridge, the Leipzig Ridge just to the south, and Schwaben Redoubt just to the north. Here we have a clear case of Staff Officer Optimism. The objectives are simple, in theory; capture the First Line in the morning and attack the Second Line in the afternoon. By the timetable it’s just about possible, as long as no German in the sector offers more than token resistance, but it’s going to be an enormous ask. It starts well enough; the German fire trenches are protected by up to sixteen rows of barbed wire, but a little luck and a little skill with the guns has cleared plenty of it away.

Then something odd happens. Attacking the Schwaben Redoubt is an Irish division. Benefiting from an extremely successful smoke deployment, they haul themselves and their 60 pounds of kit across No Man’s Land in double-quick time, and through the trenches before the Germans know what’s hit them. Messages for defensive artillery support go astray, and well ahead of schedule, the Irishmen are pushing the Germans out of the redoubt. An inspirational battalion commander pushes the attack home, and then, mostly on his own initiative, orders another advance up towards the top of Pozieres Ridge and the German Second Line.

Quite how they didn’t all die in the attempt, I’m not quite sure. It soon becomes obvious to the few men who made it all the way that they are utterly isolated, and need to fall back into the Redoubt. Into the afternoon and evening, there are lots of awkward looks from the Redoubt across at Thiepval. The two positions are deeply interlinked. One position can be reinforced from the other, or attacked from the other. Thiepval also holds a dominating view of the route BEF men must take to come up and reinforce the newly-won trenches.

Thiepval is now one gigantic machine-gun nest. Even with the barbed wire mostly cleared, the battalions thrown directly at Thiepval at zero hour have all but ceased to exist. To their right, the Scottish battalions attacking towards Leipzig Redoubt managed to get across No Man’s Land (including the 17th Highland Light Infantry, who also crossed while kicking footballs). Then their troubles begin. Some battalions ran into trouble, as we’ve seen, because they broke into a trench, but didn’t spend long enough “mopping up” the Germans still alive down in the dugouts, and then started getting shot in the back.

These men are now having exactly the opposite problem. They’ve done a good job of work mopping up, but it took so long that the Germans have regained local command and control. Machine-guns from Thiepval, Leipzig Redoubt, and Wundtwerk Redoubt to the rear are now firing on them from three sides as they attempt to push towards the Leipzig Redoubt, and Thiepval and Leipzig are also raking No Man’s Land at will. Private Bentley Meadows, 17th HLI:

The machine gun swept us down outside the Leipzig Redoubt. It became evident that we, who were working up between two communications trenches, after two or three rushes, that further advancing was impossible without support. We waited for our own reserve waves and the Lonsdales who should have come on behind. But no reserves reached us and we saw our only hope lay in the fact that they had rushed one of the communication trenches and might manage to bomb out the machine gun. But the bombers were checked out of the range of the gun.

I at length found myself the only living occupant of that corner. About twelve o’clock I managed to leap the parapet without being hit. I found my platoon officer, Lieutenant MacBrayne, lying shot through the head. Of the others of my platoon I could get no news, except those I saw lying dead or wounded

Another officer appears and leads a last, futile charge that ends in the order “Every man for himself”. They cling on to a few German trenches until a counter-attack at 5pm encourages them to leave. One of the men in this bit of fighting is Private Eversmann, who gave us a German perspective during the barrage. His body was never found; his diary was taken from the trenches by a Scotsman and sent back to Blighty.

The position at the end of the day; the Irish have been evicted from Schwaben Redoubt but are holding a few German front-line trenches; the Scots are still clinging on by their fingernails to half a trench on the edge of Leipzig Spur. Nobody’s anywhere near their objectives. I would describe it as complete and total failure, but there is still one more northward jump for us to make. Let’s have the small map again, though.

All Day 1 objectives that have not been reached will, going forward, be marked in pink.

All Day 1 objectives that have not been reached will, going forward, be marked in pink.

Serre and Beaumont Hamel

And so we arrive at Serre and Beaumont Hamel. This is where, almost unbelievably, it has been decided that the supporting mines will not be blown at 7:30am, precisely at zero hour, but at 7:20am, ten minutes before the infantry are due to go over the top. And, on top of that, some idiot has told the artillery that the meen will also be going over at 7:20. There will be ten minutes of unmolested silence for the Germans to leave their dugouts and prepare to be attacked, terrible rolling barrage notwithstanding. Private Pearson, 15th West Yorkshires, who is attacking Serre:

Every man climbed out of the trenches at the whistle of the officers and not a man hesitated. But I was lucky. I was in a part of the trench where the parapet had been battered down as Jerry sought for a trench mortar. When I ran up the rise out of the trench I was under the hail of bullets which were whizzing over my head. Most of our fellows were killed kneeling on the parapet. There was nobody coming forward, only one man, the reserves had been shelled in our lines and blown to smithereens.

I noticed higher up the trench one of our chaps laid there with a baulk of timber across his leg, one leg had been cut off—severed. This baulk of timber had cut across his leg and acted as a tourniquet and stopped the bleeding.

Private Glenn of the 12th York & Lancasters was supposed to be in one of the supporting waves.

The first line all lay down and I thought they’d had different orders because we’d all been told to walk. It appears they lay down because they’d been shot and either killed or wounded. They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply went forward and the same thing happened. You were just trying to find your way in amongst the shell holes. You can imagine walking through shell-pitted ground with holes all over the place, trying to walk like that. You couldn’t even see where you were walking!

When you got to the line you saw that a lot of the first line were stuck on the wire, trying to get through. We didn’t get to the German wire, I didn’t get as far as our wire. Nobody did, except just a few odd ones who got through and got as far as the German wire. The machine-gun fire was all trained on our wire. Only a few crept along. I lay down. We weren’t getting any orders at all; there was nobody to give any orders, because the officers were shot down.

It is possible that despite this utter ridiculousness, about 200 men may just have broken all the way through, taken a few lucky turns, and then blundered into Serre village itself. It would explain the messages that General Rees, he of the lack of optimism from a few days earlier, was receiving.

An aeroplane reported that my men were in Serre. The corps and the division urged me to support the attack with all the force at my disposal. I was quite sure that we had not got anyone in Serre except a few prisoners, but the 93rd Brigade on my right reported that their left had got on, whilst the 4th Division beyond them again claimed the first four lines of German trenches and were said to be bombing down our way. It was obviously necessary to attempt to get a footing in the German first trenches to assist these two attacks.

The hostile barrage had eased off by now and was no longer formidable, so I ordered two companies of the 13th York and Lancs to make the attempt. I did not know that the German barrage was an observed barrage, but as soon as this fresh attack was launched down came the barrage again.

There are no accounts of what might have happened in Serre. If anyone ever did got in, they just disappeared into the war. At Beaumont Hamel, German observation has prevented anyone digging trenches closer than about 500 yards. There is a general shortage of stories of Beaumont Hamel and the attack on Hawthorn Redoubt, for obvious reasons. The ones we do have are by this point familiar; confusion, barbed wire, shells, machine-guns, hiding in No Man’s Land for hours until darkness. Men going over the top long after it should have been obvious that the attacks should be called off. And death, death, death, death everywhere.

Malcolm White

And this is where our correspondent 2nd Lt Malcolm White is, right between the two strong-points, leading the 1st Rifle Brigade over the top like a good junior officer should. The good news is that we have an account, of sorts, of what happened next; although, as you’d expect, it is rather confused and lacking in crunchy detail.

The Battalion went into action in front of Mailly-Maillet. White was hit [presumably by bullet or shrapnel] in advance of his men. His servant, who had followed him in the attack, reached him, and asked if he was badly wounded. He said, “I’m all right; go on.” At that moment a shell burst near them. His servant remembers nothing more till the time when he was in hospital.

The bad news is that it is not from Malcolm White. When the 1st RB drags itself back to the rear and takes a roll call, he will be missing, and reported to his family as such. It can take a month or more for prisoners’ identities to be sent to Britain via the Red Cross, but. He will remain officially missing for about ten months. Then, after the war has finally moved away from Beaumont Hamel and Serre, there will be a pioneer battalion clearing out some disused trenches. The shell took White’s life; however, it did not take his identity disc.

So he has a grave of his own, and he does not appear among the 72,246 names on the British Memorial to the Missing, whose bodies have never been found or identified. The Memorial to the Missing, by the way, is at Thiepval. I hope now it is clear why they put it there.

The General’s view

Generally speaking, ahaha, the easier it was to advance, the easier it was to get information back to the rear (for a given value of “easy”; reports are still taking hours to reach anyone who can pass them back via field-telephone). The moment we get north of Thiepval, we find British command and control once more breaking down almost entirely. General Reed gave us a taste of the picture being painted to the rear. Sometimes there are spurious reports of men in places they never reached. More often, observers are unable to tell the difference (at several thousand feet’s remove) between men who have easily captured a trench, and men who are having a bloody difficult time of it.

And then there are the runners. Signaller Dudley Meneaud-Lissenburg has one more story for us, as he sits in his OP in the old front line in front of the Hawthorn Crater (nee Redoubt). A knot of men has reached a sunken road unhurt. They send a man back to report that it’s completely impossible.

I watched a lone figure, a runner no doubt, coming back towards our lines, dropping every now and then into shell holes for cover. On reaching our barbed wire he was about to jump into the trench when a shell burst at his feet and blew him sky high.

The picture filtering back to General Haig is extremely murky and full of half-truths and exaggerations and the odd piece of completely unrealistic bullshit. He’s got some decisions to make, though; there’s been success in the south and he does know about it. But I’ve talked far too much about this one day; time to see if it can be encouraged towards a conclusion. We’ll go into the BEF’s strategic thinking tomorrow.

In summary

There is chaos. Let us try to bring order to it. Here now is the full map at nightfall.

Even abstracting things this much makes me just go "ugh".

Even abstracting things this much makes me just go “ugh”.

Never mind the north. The north we know about. Look at the south! The south has moved! At its furthest point, this is the biggest advance for the BEF since the Battle of Loos. You’d need a tape measure to tell whether they got further than the French did in some parts of Second Champagne, or in their attack today. And this is why it is wrong and inaccurate and incomplete to speak of the Somme simply in terms of Thiepval, Ovilliers, and Serre. This is even why it is wrong just to say that the BEF has lost near as dammit 20,000 dead and 37,500 more wounded as though it speaks for itself. (The French lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, attacking with much more caution.)

Well, okay. It stands if you just want to step back and think about the July Crisis, and the insane series of diplomatic pratfalls that made this stupid war happen in the first place, and go “it’s all bonkers”. It stands if you want to think of a particularly bloody single day of war. It stands as a profoundly traumatic moment for Britain; the casualty figures exceed those sustained in the Crimean, Boer, and Korean Wars put together. More than half the men who attacked and three-quarters of all the officers are casualties.

And, of course, this was the day that the BEF used a large number of its Pals battalions all at once. Men recruited from the same village, same street, same workplace. They’ve gone over the top together and died together. In a few hours of fighting, the heart has been ripped out of entire communities at once, and they don’t even know it yet. Working-class communities sent to their deaths by, and in the company of, the upper classes. It’s huge and heartbreaking and overwhelming and yet there is more to the story than just that. However callous it may seem, there is still a war tomorrow. We can’t just write it off as senseless butchery.

The BEF has done something positive, for given values of “something” and “positive”. And it won’t be until tomorrow, as the battle begins to take shape, that we can put our fingers on why. Time to put this day in the books and move the hell on. There’s a chance here. A small chance, and one that’ll be very hard to take advantage of. But there is a chance.

I think that’s all for today.

One more thing

There is one more perspective that we now must take advantage of, a question far too often overlooked. What about the Germans? What do they think has just happened to them, in front of them, around them? Due to the way German casualties were reported it’s impossible to know how many there were on the first day. Prisoners are also not included in that total, and there’s been plenty of German prisoners taken, despite the bloodthirsty stories above. Reasonable estimates are in the region of 10,000 to 15,000.

I think the best description of German higher command in the evening is “equally confused, but in a different way to their opponents”. It’s hard to say, but from the reaction it’s very probable that General von Falkenhayn saw this as 1915 all over again; a French attack with a British supporting component, and it’s been launched far to the south of where it should have been. Hold that thought a few days for me. Why are the French attacking when they’re taking a kicking at Verdun? It makes no sense. Perhaps this is just a limited offensive and the BEF is going to do the real attack somewhere else tomorrow, or the day after.

It must have been an extremely odd picture to make sense of. In the north of what appears to be the battle front which appears to be the wrong place, you’ve shot thousands and thousands of enemy troops down in No Man’s Land. In the south, General von Below has been worried enough to commit his three reserve divisions down there, but the picture of where exactly the enemy attack is and what exactly it’s achieved is highly unclear. It’s like trying to repair a burst water main while wearing a blindfold.

Once you get to division level or lower, second and third-hand reports of what was going on seem all very panicky. No orders from on high, and they’ve been blown right out of the First Line. Of course, the Germans aren’t paralysed; officers are encouraged to use their initiative, but that’s not always a good thing. Some have used their initiative to order immediate counter-attacks. Some have used theirs to order a fall-back to the Second Line. This is not going to last for long. However, for the time being, part of von Below’s army is pulling on the same rope from opposite directions.

And that is all.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux is very relieved, thank you very much, to be out of the Battle of Verdun.

After being relieved, we are quartered in the same camp where we stopped on the way here. We arrive at 2pm, exhausted. We fall into bed and sleep like brutes.

There is always, always, always something else going on. Fleury is changing hands at Verdun once more. The Sharif of Mecca has just met up with a British artillery battery which promises to turn the tide of the Battle of Mecca. The war continues.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme

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

Somme postponed | 26 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

The weather has turned nasty over the Somme battlefields. Heavy summer rains are starting to blow in from the south, and they’re forecast to continue for a good few days. Generals Foch and Rawlinson confer and agree that they must wait for the rain to stop, and then allow the water time to drain away. “Z” Day is to be delayed once more, for a final time. After all the haggling and chopping and changing and changing back, we have now arrived once more at the men going over the top on the 1st of July 1916.

And the guns continue firing. The noise is now so loud that when the wind is right and a lot of them happen to fire in sync, the noise can be heard in England. This is causing a number of immediate practical problems, as Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler tells us.

Every order to the guns has to be written on slips of paper, it being absolutely impossible to hear the spoken word. The Hun commenced to reply, and what with frequent [premature detonations], the valley became pretty unhealthy. In the afternoon I went down to the front line in order to engage a portion of our zone which was difficult to see from our Observation Post. However, we had not been shooting long before some of our very heavy howitzers started a combined shoot on the Hun front line. However marvellous as a spectacle, this show did not conduce to accurate observation of our own small stuff.

About three o’clock the Huns started to reply in earnest and things became very sultry. We all got hit by some splinters, and Gunner Ryding had a wonderful escape, a razor-like splinter 15 inches long grazing the back of his neck. By 4pm the [telephone] wire was cut in many places, and I retired to my OP to continue the shoot from there. On arrival I found that Lowe, my OP subaltern, had gone off with four fractured ribs. A shell exploding near the OP had blown him down the 15-foot shaft, and although his fall was broken by the telephonist’s head, he managed to hurt himself pretty badly.

Here’s a problem that nobody appears to have considered beyond digging slit trenches in an attempt to protect their telephone lines. How do you keep the guns firing accurately once enemy return fire starts cutting the wire? I suppose it’s not so important right at this moment since everyone has a detailed firing plan. What happens when the guns are needed for on-call infantry support, though?

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the hill, it sucks. A lot. A whole honking lot. Here is Private Eversmann, who’s been underground near Thiepval for two days now.

They went at it left and right with heavy calibre guns and hammered us with shrapnel and light calibre pieces. Only with difficulty and distress have we obtained rations today. Two of my comrades got fatal hits while fetching dinner. The uncertainty is hard to bear. They have just found another of my comrades on his way back from ration carrying, a dear chap, three days back from leave and there he’s gone.

The German dugouts are generally equipped with at least two days of iron rations for just such an eventuality. For now, the men endure.

Battle of Verdun

The line at Verdun has almost entirely re-congealed. Here’s the map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

The attacks against Fort Souville have been suspended for the time being. Relentless artillery fire continues; it’s finally beginning to impact the concrete fort’s structural integrity. Everywhere else, there’s very little movement. The remnants of Fleury village, now reduced to a few scattered piles of shapeless rubble, are being brutally scrapped for. It’s often said that from now until mid-August, the rubble will change hands on sixteen different occasions. This is one of the purest expressions you will find of war as waste of life, senseless war, unthinking war, war for war’s sake.

I would say that, just to the west of Fleury, Henri Desagneaux is not doing well. Then I reconsider.

Our heavy mortars bombard Thiaumont. We must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. [The army] attacks incessantly. It’s four days since we we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning, during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun. Filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing, I am unrecognisable, frighteningly dirty.

Henri Desagneaux is still alive. Therefore, he is doing well.

Caucasus

In command of the Ottoman Third Army, Vehip Pasha has been gathering intelligence for his next move. The staff thinks they’ve found a weak point in the Russian deployment, off to the north. There seems to be a chance of attacking towards Surmene, not far from Trebizond, and cutting the Russian main body off from the port they’ve just captured. A nasty high-altitude brawl breaks out on the Madur mountain. As planned, they seem to have caught a Turkistani battalion isolated and outnumbered, but mountain fighting is never easy and their opponents aren’t particularly minded to go anywhere. More soon.

Emilio Lussu

Emilio Lussu’s adventures continue as the Italian army attempts simultaneously to harass the Austro-Hungarians in the foothills of the Dolomites while avoiding being shot for cowardice. His battalion’s machine guns have gone missing somewhere, so he goes back half a mile into the hills to find them. That’s not all he finds.

General Leone, [riding a mule alone], was climbing a rocky slope between the 2nd Battalion and our machine-gun unit. As the mule was moving along the edge of a steep drop, about 65 feet, it stumbled and the general fell off. The mule, unpeturbed, kept walking along the edge of the cliff. The general was hanging onto the reins, half his body dangling over the precipice. With each step, the mule yanked its head from side to side, trying to shake him off. There were a lot of soldiers nearby who saw him, but nobody made a move. I could see them all very clearly. Some of them winked at each other, smiling.

A soldier rushed out from the ranks of the machine-gun unit and threw himself on the ground in time to save the general. Without losing his composure, as though he had trained especially for accidents of this kind, the general re-mounted his mule, continued on his way, and disappeared. When the soldier’s comrades reached him, I witnessed a savage assault. … The soldier fell to the ground on his back. His comrades jumped on top of him. Punches and kicks slammed into the poor wretch, who was powerless to defend himself.

Lussu can’t watch any longer, and breaks it up. The man’s lieutenant appears, and offers a few quiet words of counsel.

“You imbecile! Today you dishonoured our unit. You should have done what everybody else did. Nothing. And even that was too much. A dumbass like you, I don’t even want in our unit. I’m going to have you thrown out. What were you supposed to do? You wanted to do something? Well then, you should have taken your bayonet and cut the reins and made the general fall off the cliff.”
“What? I should have let the general die?”
“Yes, you cretin, you should have let him die. And if he wasn’t going to die…you should have helped him die. Go back to the unit. If the rest of them kill you, you’ll have got what you deserve.”

The man’s eventual fate is unknown.

Conscientious objectors

Those British MPs who have been looking out for the rights of the conscientious objectors have just heard of the men who were recently sentenced to death and then reprieved. They’re not happy, and today they’ve managed to get the Prime Minister into the House of Commons so he can listen to them shouting. Mostly he just sits there and hides behind his air-raid shelter Harold Tennant. Over the next week or so, they’ll face several sessions of outraged questioning, and determinedly fail to answer the questions. The Government has a war to fight, after all.

Maximilian Mugge

Meanwhile, Maximilian Mugge has been transferred…somewhere (more on that in a moment). At any rate, it’s out of the Non-Combatant Corps and back into the mass of the Army.

Heard this afternoon that I was to be transferred to the 111th Royal Musketeers. I always held the Practical Joke Department was, after all, cruel to be kind; they only want to provide the scribe with a unique chance of studying all sorts and conditions of regiments. It is so much nicer to be amongst the “men,” without the incubus of shallow-brained and drawling staff-officers and the smell of petrol. Little pleasantries are unavoidable.

Only on the 24th of May my people [in England] were informed that ” Pte. Mugge has been transferred to the Non-Combatant Corps…no other transfer can be sanctioned,” and the present surprise packet states that Pte. Mugge has been irregularly transferred to the NCC, and will now be dispatched to the Musketeers; which is as much of an apology as you can expect from those high and mighty Infallibles!

That this last letter from the playful gods took a fortnight to get from Whitehall to Boulogne is in harmony with the dignity essential to all action on the part of the first cousins of the [Servants of Peace]. This War Office letter is dated the thirteenth of June, and to-day we write the twenty-sixth.

Couple of notes here. Where it says [Servants of Peace] up there, there was originally a wanky ancient Greek word. Fortunately I know someone who knows a bit of ancient Greek, and we’ve decided Mugge was probably trying to make a “Ministry of Peace”-style gag.

The “Royal Musketeers” is, again, almost certainly the Royal Fusiliers. Beyond that, I’d need to start trawling war diaries to find out who was where at the right time. British battalion numbering does not go as high as a one-hundred and eleventh battalion of anything. The 11th (Service) Battalion RF is currently preparing to attack Montauban; Mugge is not going anywhere near the Somme. The Fusiliers don’t have any Territorial battalions; there is a 1/11th London Regiment, but they’re in Egypt. Git.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is touring the area that he’s going to be attacking when Z Day finally comes.

The Divisional General addressed the Battalion in the morning. In the afternoon I went up to the Sucrerie to reconnoitre a communication trench for carrying parties. I had a good view of the German lines round Beaumont Hamel, and the fountains of earth and smoke and ruin which spouted there. At 10 pm we moved to a bivouac a mile to the south of Beaussart, where the ground is shaken by a 15-inch howitzer close by. I begin to have a sort of pre-Bumping-race feeling from time to time. Heavy rain poured at intervals, and the men had no cover.

White competed in intercollegiate “bumping” or “bumps” rowing races at university, and then coached them while teaching at Shrewsbury. It’s a distinctly odd form of mass racing which involves a long line of boats, all chasing each other, and physically bumping into other boats to overtake them. What White is describing here, the rest of England knows as butterflies in the stomach.

Evelyn Southwell

White’s friend Evelyn Southwell has finished his time at the divisional school of instruction, and now finds himself in a rather odd part of the line with the 9th Rifle Brigade. I’m trying to find out where exactly it is, but wherever it is, it appears to run directly through a ruined village.

I am in the trenches, and also in a house, very much as before as regards situation. The first floor is not, and the roof is one of the never-was-es by all appearances, and the ground. And oh, I saw the Sussex at Boulogne, with all her bones stove in, without a trace of emotion. I have seen too many ruins before now in this game, and one is very like another; a house that is no house has too often been an everyday sight.

And so, when I came here, I found this billet a shade more demolished than anything I thought possible, the whole air rather more [sad] and sinister; but that was all. I could stand all that, and even the piano (shade of Ivor Atkins!) shattered to bits, and the keys choked with brick-dust, but one thing was just a fraction too much, and when I saw it I confess I caught my breath for a moment. It was a child’s marble, chipped, and past all hope of rolling…

They are quaint places, these trenches, that wander in and out of houses, and in a way rather picturesque. Summer fights its way in even here, and you may find your face brushed with a yellow cornflower, sticking out of the side of a field as you plod along through the trench, and remember better days.

Ivor Atkins is a well-known organist of the day; SS Sussex we saw being torpedoed by UB-29 on the 24th of March this year.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina

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