Air bombing | First Doiran | 9 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

There is one area of war in which the Italians are unquestionably world leaders. This is in long-range bombing missions against the enemy’s road and rail infrastructure. Today they prove it by launching what I’m pretty sure is the largest ever single bombing raid to this point. 58 of their excellent Caproni heavy bombers take flight today, with an escort of Nieuport fighters that far outclass the Austro-Hungarian Aviatik opposition. The total payload dropped on enemy-held railway stations is some 4,000 kilograms’ worth of bombs. Some of them are even on target!

If only things were better at the front. Not only does the enemy on the Carso appear to have disappeared, there’s a distinct lack of urgency off to the north in front of Gorizia. There may be only one intact bridge and a lot of men to get across the Isonzo. However, in stories of great victories, this is where you hear about the heroic engineer unit which built six pontoon bridges in as many hours out of six rotten planks and a large roll of hairy string. Unfortunately, the Italian engineers appear to be fresh out of hairy string; there’s a distinct lack of urgency all round after a year of war.

First Battle of Doiran

So. Time to sweeten the pot by doing something at Salonika. We must do something, this is something, we must do this. General Sarrail isn’t best pleased by orders to launch a pinning attack to keep the Bulgarians from interfering with Romania’s entry into the war. Whenever that’s going to happen. (Spoilers: not in the next few days.) Sarrail’s decided that the best thing is to attack near Lake Doiran and push north from there, without much hope of achieving more than a few hundred yards’ worth of advance, useful only on a local tactical level.

I mean, I’m calling this First Doiran. That implies we’re going to have a second one. Spoilers; there’s not going to be some massive unexpected advance and subsequent dramatic reversal. By far the more interesting news is that our old friend Sergeant Flora Sandes, hero of the Serbian Army and one-woman propaganda triumph, has now almost finished sailing back to the war. We’ll be picking her story up in just a few days; her regiment is about to see some interesting times.

Battle of Verdun

A brief newsflash from the Battle of Verdun, which continues rumbling nastily with the military equivalent of indigestion. General Nivelle is displeased; he’s got standing orders to counter-attack and recover lost ground. His efforts have indeed retaken a couple of hundred metres outside Fort Souville and made the position very mildly more secure. Counter-attacks create casualties and exhaust men. Who am I supposed to attack with, he enquires of his army-group commander. General Petain immediately takes his point, and now commander-in-chief Joffre is receiving the benefit of his wisdom once more.

Sadly, General Joffre is more interested in the prospects for attacking on the Somme. Request denied. If Petain wants more men for Verdun, he’ll have to milk them from the other armies under his command.

Battle of Romani

Things are going well in the absence of the wounded Oskar Teichman. The defenders of the Suez Canal take a big risk today, with a large number of mounted troops going into action at Bir el Abd. It’s a heavy day’s fighting, and the Ottomans, aware that neither of the three enemy forces opposing them are particularly large, launch several dangerous counter-attacks that might, on a different day, have scattered or captured their opponents.

It’s rather an odd day. I’ve got two different books here. One of them describes an extremely difficult day’s fighting that nearly ended in a British disaster. The other describes a day that was all but a cakewalk for them. At any rate, both agree that by mid-afternoon the Ottomans were burning their stores to prevent capture. They’ve lost more than half their force in casualties; the defenders’ casualties are minimal. More to come in a few days.

Oskar Teichman

Speaking of whom. Oskar Teichman has now been got right out of it.

We were visited by several friends from Kantara, and heard that there had been more cases of cholera, and that the Turks had left a note in one of the Hods through which our force had passed, saying “Beware of cholera.” Some dead Turks were found in the same place who had died of the disease. The Turk was indeed a gentleman; not many enemies would have given this warning. … We were taken in motor-ambulances to Kantara West station, where we were transferred to a Red Crescent train. The latter was perfect luxury after what we had gone through. Before midnight our train arrived at Cairo and we were distributed amongst the various hospitals.

He’ll stay there for two and a half months, but he will be fit for service again at the end of his convalescence. We shan’t hear from him again until he’s discharged, and the war on the Suez Canal is politely going to wait for him to get back before developing further.

Neil Tennant

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the RFC is trying to make progress up the River Tigris to what passes for the front line these days in Mesopotamia. It’s not any easier than it was a year previously, when these boats were crewed by Royal Navy men. Oh yes, and it’s still really hot.

We grounded on a mud bank at 6am. The Arab crew and pilot were useless, but we managed to kedge her off ourselves after three hours, only to go aground again an hour later. In spite of many more arduous hours spent in the heat and wind, we failed to find a channel, merely moving from one shoal to another; but at last, after dark, another steamer came down-stream and hauled us into deeper water by a heavy wire. She had been on the mud herself for ten hours.

The river was at its lowest and the channels continually altering; we were told thatit was doubtful whether we should get above Ali Gharbi. The heat during the whole of the journey up-stream had been terrific; the two batmen who had started with us were both down, one with dysentery, the other with heat
stroke. One’s apparel consisted of shorts, shirt-sleeves and a topi, without shoes or stockings. In the evening one was glad to hang over the side of the ship on a rope and be towed slowly through the water, which, though thick and nasty to taste, was at least cool.

Can’t you just imagine these idiots very solemnly climbing overboard to be towed for a few minutes of an evening? A topi in this sense is the cork pith helmet that’s also part of the stereotypical British explorer’s uniform. To kedge is to move a boat by taking a light kedge anchor on a long warp off in the desired direction of travel, letting it grip a long way from the boat, and then hauling on the rope to bring the boat to the anchor.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman appears rather taken with Captain Rowley, even if he is on a one-man quest to discover the original Mademoiselle from Armentieres.

He is just a good-natured fellow, with any amount of pluck, whose morals have been damaged by the war and its whisky. The amount of whisky he and Mallow, the bombing-officer, can drink is astonishing. Every time Mallow reaches for the bottle he repeats the parrot phrase, “This war will be won on whisky or it won’t be won at all,” apparently intending to float home on whisky himself. Mallow is a pretty coarse-fibred creature; but Rowley is of different material. There’s been tragedy in this fellow’s life and it has knocked off his rudder.

His hair is prematurely grey; his complexion ashy; and although there is still a twinkle in his eye, it is fading, and in repose his face wears the expression of an injured animal. Crossed, he shows a streak of cruelty, but at heart he is full of kindliness. He carries out his duties as a company commander with a queer mixture of punctiliousness and slackness. I wish his conversation was not quite so filthy, for temperamentally I believe we are friends.

Rowley has done time at Hooge, the nastiest spot of the Ypres salient. He could have seen any number of things there.

Maximilian Mugge

Perennial piece of military jetsam Maximilian Mugge has finally washed up on solid ground. He’s back in Blighty in response to a summons from the War Office, and…

I had to report at the Headquarters of my unit, where I stayed a couple of days. “Mum” was the word and not a soul told me what was going to happen. I was still dreaming dreams waiting for a summons from Whitehall. Revelling in anticipation I still vowed to do my utmost to help and further England’s Cause. Yesterday they sent me here. Not to Whitehall henceforth to adorn the Intelligence Department or the Interpreters’ Corps. They sent me to the 33rd Midshire Regiment, an Infantry Works Battalion.

The 33rd Midshire Regiment is, in fact, the 30th (Works) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. Known variously as “works”, “labour”, or “pioneer” battalions, units composed solely of men fit only for labour (or with specialist skills) have been around for quite a while. The 30th Middlesex are, ahem, slightly different from your usual group of pioneers, though. Of which more tomorrow.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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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

Sixth Isonzo | Bir el Abd | 6 Aug 1916

Battle of the Somme

It’s just about job done at Pozieres. All they need to do now is dig in. This morning the ANZACs finally rotated the 2nd Australian Division out, in favour of the 4th Australian Division. Lucky them. There’s no trenches as such up on the Windmill Hill, in the lee of the still-not-totally-dead windmill, just a line of conveniently-sited shell holes. Corporal Charles Smith is heading into the wasteland.

Ghastly sights were witnessed on that journey through the sap. Scores of bodies had been partially buried in the soft earth, and bloody hands and feet protruded at frequent intervals. Boxes of rations and ammunition were scattered about, telling plainer than words that the fatigue parties had come under violent artillery fire and had been annihilated. … Dead were scattered everywhere. Broken trenches, twisted barbed wire, mutilated rations and military equipment, stretchers with their once human contents, and bearers now cold and stiff, all gave mute evidence of the recent carnage.

And they thought ANZAC Cove was bad. There’s slightly less dysentery around here, that’s true, but it’s not much of a consolation.

Sixth Battle of the Isonzo

Urrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. Yes, we’ve had a spring and most of a summer’s holiday from the slaughters on the Isonzo. But all good things must come to an end, I suppose. And at least General Cadorna has learned his lesson, after having had it taught to him five times. This is a strictly limited attack. New artillery doctrine has been laid down. Italian industry has been manufacturing vast quantities of guns; more have been bought in from France, and plenty of trench mortars to go with them. On the other side of the hill, what little new artillery has been manufactured is mostly going to the Eastern Front, and then being lost again.

The length of the preliminary bombardments have also been significantly curtailed. Most of the attacks are going ahead after only 12 hours of bombardment. In 1915 this would surely have been a death sentence. But the Italian gunners have learned a thing or two about clearing barbed wire after a year and a bit of war. And so, believe it or not, what we’ve got here on the first day of Sixth Isonzo is a considerable success. The critical northern stronghold at Mount Sabotino, north of Gorizia, falls in just 38 minutes.

A few isolated platoons and companies try to hold out inside deep dugouts. The Italians have no time for this bullshit, so they pour petrol down the stairs and then set the caverns on fire. As they do so, the entire Austro-Hungarian line is finally wobbling. By nightfall, the whole of the Podgora hill just to the west of Gorizia is under Italian control. Away to the south, there are men poised to push up and over the whole of Mount San Michele, and more occupying San Martino village to the south.

After nightfall there are counter-attacks, but not only is there hardly any general reserve left, it’s stationed four days’ march behind the front. Local reserve formations are barely worth mentioning. The Isonzo front has been heavily milked over the last few months, first for men for the Battle of Asiago, and then for men to oppose the Brusilov Offensive. In some positions they’ve even run out of artillery shells. Put all this together, and there might just be a chance for the Italians to make something big happen here. More tomorrow.

Battle of Romani

The Ottomans have completed a successful withdrawal to Bir el Abd, although they’ve taken plenty of casualties and their morale is now suffering badly. General Chauvel, commanding the Australian/New Zealand mounted division, is proposing a frankly hair-raising scheme to send his mounted troops on long rides to attack the Ottomans from three sides at once. We’ve seen schemes like this badly backfire on more than one occasion, and it’s going to be an all-or-nothing gamble. It’s either going to break the enemy for good, or else give them fresh heart to carry on.

Meanwhile, Oskar Teichman and his broken leg are waiting patiently to be taken to the rear, but he’s not going to die of it any time soon.

We were well looked after, our wounds were dressed, and we were supplied with excellent rations. On asking when we should be removed to the railhead, we were told that the line was so congested with Turkish prisoners that it would be impossible to evacuate us at once.

During the morning a Major from the Canterbury Regiment was brought into our tent, and he told us that the mounted troops and infantry had cleared Katia, and that the Turks were putting up another rear-guard action at Oghratina. He had met some of our infantry in a fearful state through lack of water, with blackened lips and swollen tongues. After all, we mounted troops did not know what it was to march through heavy sand. In the afternoon there appeared to be still no chance of moving the wounded, and the various Field Ambulances became very full.

I have to say, even the most optimistic of soldiers usually get a bit miserable after they get shot. This is by far the stiffest upper lip I’ve seen. Even the Sunny Subaltern got a bit unhappy about being unable to liberate the Ypres salient on account of his wounds.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier is still at rest, close enough behind the Somme front to hear the guns firing on Pozieres. However, he’s got enough free time to write to an American friend and offer some in-depth thoughts on the USA’s foreign policy, leavened with some casual racism.

Your war with Mexico has ended agreeably. It is a good thing. You can gain no glory fighting Greasers… . In spite of the Lusitania, Wilson may loom big yet in the history of the world. I absolutely refuse to put a small dingy political motive back of his foreign policy. It seems to me that he acted logically as representing a Nation made up largely of convinced pacifists. It is not time to talk peace now in France, but after the war it will be a shame if all the fine, and generous movements for general peace which were at the bottom of most political discussions are not taken up again and with more vigor.

After two years of this fighting business I can’t agree with those who say that there will always be war, and any man who has the generosity to fight for peace [against all odds] seems to me most respectable. It’s very easy for a Roosevelt to be popular. All one needs to do is to appeal to the cowardice of those who are afraid and to the passions of those who are, above all, proud or vain or greedy.

Romain Rolland is getting damned up and down because he keeps airing his belief that in spite of all things done, there may yet be a few good Germans in the world. He is very much more creditable to his nation than that ass of Saint-Saens, who since the Belgian and Northern atrocities, has discovered that Wagner had no musical sense at all.

Romain Rolland is a French writer and academic who has indeed stuck by his pacifist beliefs. Camille Saint-Saens is an ageing composer of classical music who is now 81. When he isn’t railing with equal ferocity against French modernists such as Claude Debussy and German Germans such as Wagner, he’s constantly touring France giving piano performances to raise money for war charities.

Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, is now starting his campaign for re-election as President, in what will turn out to be a damned close run-thing. His chief slogan is to be “He kept us out of war” (cough, cough). Meanwhile, perations in Mexico against Pancho Villa are now more-or-less over, with Villa still at large. For a while it looked as though things might escalate into all-out war with Mexican government forces, but Wilson’s pulled back from the prospect.

Oswin Creighton

British Army padre Oswin Creighton is about to move from Romsey to Witley Common near Aldershot, to join a new battalion, the 5th Lancashire Fusiliers. On his way out of the door, he has a few thoughts about the officers he’s been trying to socialise with at Romsey.

I do hope they will find someone who will be able to come here and really get on with these officers. I cannot tell you how much I blame myself. I have never really mixed at any time of my life with men of this type, and I am afraid I simply don’t understand them. I have never hunted nor been to a race-meeting. There are good fellows, I know, among them. I would give anything to know what they really think about things to be able to get near them. But after nearly five months I simply feel I am leaving a lot of strangers behind me. I feel entirely outside them. They have been preparing for weeks for a gymkhana to-morrow, and have talked of little else.

Creighton is no proletarian; he went to public school and then to Keble College, Oxford. And these chaps are too toffy even for him. “Gymkhana” is a word from the Empire; in this sense, it’s a multi-disciplinary horse-riding competition. He continues with some thoughts on the apparent lack of religious feeling among the blokes.

Two men came to the Holy Communion. This is the Sunday we are keeping as the anniversary of the war and the memorial of the fallen. The Church Parades were cancelled, as we are going to have this big voluntary service to-night. I cannot dismiss all these men and feel they have no religion. I know they have finer feelings. As far as I know only two are even coming to the service to-night. What is the National Mission going to say about a situation like this?

I must say I simply feel bewildered. It cannot be all my fault. They don’t even go to the Abbey. They do their Work splendidly and untiringly. It is difficult to see how they could do it better. The general tone is high. But they simply have no apparent feeling for religion as I have learnt it. Have I learnt it wrong, or is the way I have learnt it one and theirs another?

I don’t have the heart to poke fun at him. He sounds so very depressed, poor man.

Max Plowman

Thoroughly scandalised, 2nd Lt Max Plowman goes on parade for the first time with his new battalion.

One figure stands out. It is Company Sergeant-Major Steel. He is a tall, thin, dark man of about five-and-twenty, with a long hooked nose and a slight stoop. He wears the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but his manner is casual, and there is nothing of the parade sergeant-major about him. Indeed, I wonder at first how a man of such weedy appearance can have attained his rank. But when Captain Rowley introduces us, I see a couple of keen, intelligent eyes looking abnormally bright, like eyes that have seen too much.

As we step aside, Rowley describes him to me as the bravest man in the regiment, who obtained his distinction by bringing in fourteen prisoners, single-handed, on July 1st. In days to come I am to see much of this man. Many a dreary hour in the trenches we shall wile away together, talking of his home in the West of England where he used to be a confectioner, and where his young wife and child wait for him. There’s strange galvanism in this man, for he can pull the whole company together with a word, and yet his natural habit of mind is soft and reflective.

Already he is utterly sick of the war and many a time he is to tell me, in response to some chaff about his ribbon, how gladly he would exchange it for a week’s leave.

I am trying to work out whether or not Plowman is using the standard convention of false names; it doesn’t say so in the introduction.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has an afternoon to himself, which he spends by a railway line, watching the trains.

In one [train], there were men stretched gloriously asleep on the floor, while over them and nearly on them, stood their animals tethered and patient. Repose, certainly, in the GS wagons, which packed on the trucks, carried a gunner or two on the front seat, serene in air with cigarette and magazine. Repose too, I devoutly hope, for the animals; but eight horses to a [train truck] is a tight fit, and made no less so by the spurious label [“Sheep”] which stands on their carriage wall.

We are not at all perturbed by the delay; at least, I think not: I know one officer who (after his manner) is loving it. The rest of two Battalions are stretched before me, about four deep among the rails, and I do not think they are in undue hurry. A Royal Flying Corps car dashes up beyond the rails, and a cyclist whizzes down the road behind my head. Aeroplanes, of course, come (with their kind of coquettish curtsying, peculiar to their kind when infantry are about), to see the trains and their loads. A Red Cross car flits in and out of the station. Frenchmen wander down the line in shirt-sleeves and white trousers.

But nowhere is there much of a hurry, thank God. It is true the guns are pelting away somewhere or other, but nobody cares. The sun shines over our shoulders, and it is the infantryman’s day out. Every moment sees him, indeed, a thought more comfortable; and, as I write, he is already beginning to get his tea.

Incredibly good concert in the orchard last night. One Baynes (late Cambridge University Boating Club; he rowed against me) is now our Medical Officer, and very remarkable he is: he is one of those men who sing like birds, and swim, and dive (WITH somersaults), and do a lot of shouting, and are very good, in fine. You should have heard him take 300 men clean off their feet with “Songs of Araby” last night; an old, old friend, of course, but I never saw it so effective. Nor any one so priceless as the modern Royal Flying Corps man: he is perfectly immaculate, salutes all officers, and drills like a Guardsman.

For the moment, his time in the rear continues. “I’ll sing thee songs of Araby” is by WG Wills and Frederic Clay.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Passing the buck | Fromelles | 17 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

Time to talk about the Somme again. It’s back to Delville Wood, while I sneak off to frantically google “things that drift”. This will be a summer full of drifting, and I feel like I’ll need a healthy stock of “the battle continues to drift like…” gags to, ahem, tide us over.

Anyway. The blokes in Delville Wood. On the one side, the unstoppable force, played in this performance by the Germans, whose shelling is only getting heavier. Lieutenant Owen Thomas, now commanding his company, writes a rather desperate report to brigade headquarters:

‘The enemy continued shelling the wood very heavily all last night, inflicting many casualties. The Vickers machine-gun has been put out of action and the gun withdrawn. Nothing has been heard or seen of the 3rd Division [allegedly arriving in the area as reinforcements]. I was given to understand that they were attacking at dawn. My company has been so depleted, & the remaining few are now so exhausted that I do not consider we could put up an effective resistance if the enemy were to attack.

There are a lot of similar messages flying around. General Lukin, in charge of the brigade holding the wood, is trying desperately to get permission to withdraw. But behind him is the immovable object, the divisional commander, in the person of General Furse, who isn’t interested in such fiddle-faddle. The wood is a vital tactical position and must be held at all costs. How are they ever supposed to capture Longueval if they can’t even hold on to Delville Wood?

Further orders filter down to Lt-Col Thackeray, one of the few remaining officers above the rank of Captain, to attack south-east of the wood to obtain some breathing space. As Thackeray is currently in command of about 200 men (the fit remnants of his battalion, which has taken nearly three-quarters casualties, plus a few random stragglers), his reply is not dissimilar to that given the plaintiff in the much-celebrated 1971 legal case of Arkell v Pressdram. General Haig, meanwhile, is barely interested in the passage of the buck as it whizzes merrily between divisional staff officers like a polo ball.

Saw General Rawlinson about 3pm. He is as much dissatisfied as I am with the action of the 9th Division in failing to occupy the whole of Longueval.

I also think there has been a lack of close co-operation between XIII and XV Corps. The latter occupied High Wood with cavalry [on the night of the 14th], and dug a trench from that wood towards Longueval, while infantry dug line from High Wood to Bazentin. I think the XIII Corps should have at once connected up with the XV Corps in the direction of High Wood.

Nice idea, genius. Perhaps you could appoint someone to oversee the joint operations of those corps? Call him an “army commander”, maybe? And then there might be an even more senior commander, a commander-in-chief, who could make sure the army commander is doing his job properly? Wouldn’t that be a fine thing.

Fromelles

As it turns out, Haig is not much interested in the details of Delville Wood because he also happens to be occupied with playing hot potato with an entirely different buck. The weather at Fromelles has been thoroughly vile; and now that the push through Bazentin Ridge has now thoroughly petered out, is a diversionary attack really necessary? Yesterday Haig had his deputy chief of staff, General Butler, pass on a staggeringly cowardly verbal message to General Monro of 1st Army:

[It is the opinion of GHQ that] There was now no urgent need for the XI Corps operation. Sir Douglas Haig did not wish the attack to take place at all unless the commanders on the spot were satisfied that their resources were, in every way, adequate.

Or words to that effect. I am having unpleasant flashbacks to Sir Ian Hamilton on Gallipoli, unwilling to lower himself to the indignity of giving a direct order to a subordinate. Quite what Monro made of this is unclear. If you wish to be uncharitable to him, you’d accuse him of meeting GHQ’s cowardice with cowardice of his own, kicking the buck right back to them. If you wish to be kind, you might suggest that he suspected GHQ was trying to stitch him up by inviting him to take responsibility for cancelling the attack.

At any rate, this morning his response is along the lines of “the weather still sucks, unless it clears up soon I will have no option but to postpone, do I have authority to do so?” Well, clearly he does, as the man on the spot; hold that thought a moment. GHQ’s reply:

The Commander-in-Chief wishes the special operation to be carried out as soon as possible, weather permitting, provided always that Sir Charles Monro is satisfied that the conditions are favourable and that the resources at his disposal, including ammunition, are adequate both for the preparation and execution of the enterprise.

So, in the space of about 16 hours, we’ve gone from “[does] not wish the attack to take place at all unless…” to “wishes the special operation to be carried out as soon as possible…”. Mixed messages much? No wonder they’ve been making such heavy weather of their success on the Somme. No wonder General Foch’s staff have been writing rude messages to each other about the English staff being amateurs playing at war. More to come tomorrow.

Suez Canal

Meanwhile, in Egypt. It seems that another long-expected offensive against the Suez Canal is at hand. Royal Flying Corps patrols have spotted at least 5,000 men, probably more, gathering at Bir el Abd, close to the west bank of the canal. These are some of the many men who have been released by the abandonment of the Gallipoli campaign; the Ottomans have sent an entire division of about 12,000 men here. It seems that Egypt’s status as a giant training camp is once again under threat. More soon.

JRR Tolkien

Having captured Ovillers, JRR Tolkien’s battalion comes out of the line to Bouzincourt once more; they arrive at 6am and immediately collapse to sleep. When they wake up, there is bad news for Tolkien in the form of a letter. Tolkien’s friend G.B. Smith is himself up the line, but just before leaving, he was able to see a newspaper with a casualty report. And in that casualty report is the name of Rob Gilson. Smith barely appears to have had words to deal with the news. “O, my dear John Ronald, whatever are we going to do?” If it were played upon the stage, I would condemn this dialogue as an inarticulate fiction.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

We now go to the Voie Sacree, and a report from the world’s most ridiculous student summer job courtesy of Briggs Kilburn Adams, who is now piloting an ambulance up and down the road as long as his nerves can stand it.

All our cars are around Verdun, and after it is dark, they begin to work. They fall in line with the ammunition and food wagons and go along in pitch darkness and no lights. The Germans know exactly where the roads are now, so they can set their guns in a certain position and know they are hitting the road. They know the ammunition and reinforcements are coming up all night, and so they fire away and get a lot of them.

The Fords drive along as tight as they can. They cannot see the holes in the road that the shells make, so if they do not avoid them by instinct, they have to get lifted out by the constantly passing stream of soldiers; that is why they use Fords. They can pick them out of holes easier. If they manage to keep out of the holes they have to dodge the big wagons going the other way; horses going at full gallop, or big trucks tearing like mad. They cannot hear them coming because the noise is too great. Then to add to the charm of driving is the constant popping of shells.

When they come back over the same road they find twenty or thirty new holes to fall into!

No wonder he’s dreaming of being a fighter pilot when he graduates from university; this nonsense makes it seem like an entirely reasonable career choice.

Thiaumont

Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, very close to where Henri Desagneaux clung on by his fingernails, it is the turn of a German called Anton Steiger to keep his head down and try not to die.

Our dugout was an old, half blown-in, French casemate about 150 yards away from Thiaumont. From our side it had looked a mere hummock of earth. The entrance was like that of a fox’s hole. At the end of a short passage some broken steps led down into the place we had occupied for four days. Dead bodies were lying under the soil, one with its legs protruding up to the knees. There were three separate chambers down there: one was full of rockets and detonators; another – as big as our kitchen at home – in which we were housed, also contained French ammunition; the third was full of French explosive.

It was pitch dark the whole time, as we had only a few candlesticks. There was a horrible smell down there too – the reek of decomposing bodies; I could hardly eat anything.

Heavy artillery fire started early in the morning and continued until 9:30pm. One opening was closed up by the bombardment. Through the other a man could just hope to squeeze without his equipment. Finally the French fired gas-shells at the mouth of the hole. The Sergeant got up, feeling ill; a few others got up and then collapsed. Then the Sergeant shouted “Get out, all those who can!” When we got up, we all fell over. Then there was a regular scrum, everybody struggling for breath, trying to get out. One man fell down and blocked the way for the rest.

He’s now heading to the rear; but his luck will not hold long. He will go to the rear for rest, and then to the Somme, and then down into a shell-hole in mid-October.

Clifford Wells

When last we heard from idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells, he was being warned to leave for France. And yet, he’s still sitting in his camp near Folkestone, about as close to Boulogne as he can possibly get without falling into the sea.

Numerous officers from other reserve battalions had been warned at the same time, but for some reason at which we can only guess our departure has been delayed, and we are still here. Last week I received another notification to hold myself in readiness, but nothing has come of it yet. Perhaps this is due to the fact that most of the Canadian Forces in France are in reserve undergoing reorganisation at present, or perhaps because the transports are being used for other purposes.

Various rumours are afloat regarding the cause of the delay. The only clear fact is that we are still here, nominally still confined to barracks awaiting instructions to proceed at any moment.

The big push is really on at last. Every night when I have gone to bed, and the camp is quiet, I can hear the guns at the front 75 miles or more away. I suppose it is only the big guns that are audible, but they pound away steadily. I can hear 80 or 100 shots a minute. This will give you some idea of the expenditure of ammunition. I said that I “hear” them, but I sometimes doubt whether the perception is through the ears at all. It seems as though one feels a pulsation in the atmosphere rather than hears a sound.

This is, sadly, not unusual. Still, there seems little danger of the war ending before he can get to it.

Actions in Progress

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

Rain at Kondoa | Daily Mailed | 23 Apr 1916

Rain at Kondoa

In Africa, the penny is beginning to drop for General van Deventer quite how foolhardy he’s been in leading the march to Kondoa. His men are on starvation rations pending the arrival of some supplies. Now, they weren’t quite stupid enough as to not prepare for the difficulty of getting supplies forward to Kondoa during the rainy season. Things will be fine, although uncomfortable and spartan, as long as the rest of the 2nd Division can straggle in without dying. This is turning out to be far from easy, mind you.

In the meantime, the blokes are giving the greatest attention to finding more food. Some cattle have been appropriated from a nearby farm. The town has been thoroughly searched, but the Schutztruppe have done an excellent job of destroying most of what they couldn’t take with them. Tighten your belts, boys. Things are going to get worse before they get better.

Meanwhile, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is feeling extremely optimistic. The transfer of his own men towards the Central Railway and Kondoa is going slightly slower than he’d like, but they’re all healthy and well-supplied. The Schutztruppe also have significant experience in keeping lines of communication and supply operational during their own country’s rainy season. But the good colonel’s biggest asset is unquestionably an excellent map of the district, prepared for him at his express request by the former civilian administrator at Kondoa.

The first step in his plan will be to send men forward into the hills five miles south of Kondoa to ensure that the South Africans can’t contest control of them. As soon as that’s done, he’ll be sending two enormous naval guns forward. Keep your heads down, boys. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better!

The North Sea

Let’s pick up yesterday’s story from the North Sea. The Grand Fleet spends most of the day heading homeward with tail firmly between legs. By mid-afternoon it’s back in port and beginning the long refuelling process after the recent unsuccessful adventure in the North Sea. At which point Admiral Jellicoe is informed that the High Seas Fleet has gone out again. And the Grand Fleet is unable to respond immediately because they’re busy coaling. That’s not good. More tomorrow!

Egypt

A few days ago, we heard about an Ottoman recon-by-fire exercise in front of the Suez Canal. Today it continues, with the responsible Ottomans leading the defenders on a merry chase between Bir el Abd, Oghratina, and Qatiya, a step ahead all the way. They’ve not caused many casualties or much damage, but that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there for intelligence about the defences and how the British Empire commanders might respond, and they’ve gained intelligence in spades.

By nightfall they’re heading back to camp. The next few months here will be mostly quiet, barring some semi-frequent air duels, while General von Kressenstein plans his attack on the canal.

E.S. Thompson

More now from Private E.S. Thompson’s slapstick adventures in Tanzania with a motor car. He and his mates are now trying to make things easier for said car as possible, but it’s no good; in very short order they slide into a particularly squelchy bog and stick fast. There’s clearly no going on, and with conditions as they are it’s “every man for himself, and see you in Arusha”, so they turn back.

There was an ox convoy passing, empty and returning [from Arusha]. We asked if they would tow us out of the bad parts but they said they couldn’t so we took French leave and threw all the spare equipment on to each wagon as it passed. We then had lunch, packed up our private kit and started. The car got on fairly well, the wheels slipping round a good bit. As the car had practically nothing on she sailed through the first and third drifts and got through the second one in 2 shots. We then had an enjoyable run back to the last camp, stopping on the way for tea.

You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll go nowhere fast!

Flora Sandes

Sergeant Flora Sandes, as she is now, is today taking ship to go to Salonika with her battalion. Morale is high, but there is one minor wrench for her.

We had a very hot, dusty tramp down to the embarking stage, and I had very bad luck, as I lost my dog “Mah,” who was a most faithful little brute, though it would be hard to describe his breed. He was a stray who had attached himself to an officer and afterwards been handed over to me, and he was always at my heels, never quitting me for a moment and sleeping in my tent. Even when I was dancing the previous day he had nearly upset several people in his anxiety to keep close to me.

The image of a mildly bonkers Englishwoman getting blotto and dancing Serbian dances with all her soldier comrades is arresting enough. Now you’re saying that I’ve got to add a big mongrel dog to that picture? Ye gods.

It was only about half an hour before the boat sailed that I missed him. In the immense crowd of soldiers he had lost sight of me for a moment, and then could not trace me, and someone eventually told me that they had seen him starting back along the hot, dusty road to camp looking for me, and, as I dared not miss the boat on his account, I had reluctantly to give up the search.

The boat was a fine French Transatlantic boat, but the first day out at sea was very rough, and the men, who are anything but good sailors, lay about prostrate, declaring that they would rather have ten days’ continuous battle on land than one day on board ship.

After they arrive in Salonika, Sandes will be given a long home leave in England, and only the most uncharitable of uncharitable arses will suggest that she hasn’t thoroughly earned it. We’ll pick her story back up in August, when she returns to the war.

Malcolm White

Iiiiiiiiiiiiit’s Easter! Malcolm White has just had “a week of rain and mud”, but now he’s got some very interesting insights for us. He’s been on trench duty all night, but there’s something to stay awake for.

A really beautiful Easter Day. The chaplain came round to our trenches at 6am, to hold a Communion Service in a large dug-out. This is a good man and makes me realise what good men Christians are, when they are Christians. There is a good ‘influence’ from him, of which one is conscious at his first appearance. Not many men could cry out ‘A Happy Easter to you’, with meaning and without any impediment of self-consciousness or spinality.

It makes one rather sad about the slight shyness with which we returned his greetings, the shyness of laymen towards the parson. At 6.30 this wonderful west-wind day had begun, and I went to bed, smoking a pipe and thinking of father and of many things.

The chaplain’s role in the British army has long involved far more than just giving services, and we’ll soon be getting to know another one. However, it’s here, in this war, that many selfless and like-minded souls created the image of the modern chaplain, offering counselling support and providing a few creature comforts to the men to help them endure years of war. (Of course, as Kenneth Best pointed out at Gallipoli, there were also plenty of padres whose primary concern was their own safety and the fullness of their stomachs, but for the most part I’m happy to let them fade into the obscurity that they deserve.)

Clifford Wells

Clifford Wells, the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, is also having church parade in a meadow near his camp.

It was attended by all the Protestants in the Brigade. The troops formed three sides of a hollow square, or rather parallelogram, the officers in front of their battalions. The staff officers stood in the centre of the rect angle. The pulpit, consisting of six drums piled, and covered with the Union Jack, stood at the open end of the formation. Behind the chaplain were the massed bands of the brigades.

The form of service used was that intended for open air service in the Regular Army, and was apparently an abbreviated form of the regular Episcopal service. It was followed by a short Easter sermon, the whole service lasting about three-quarters of an hour. From the rising ground on which we were standing we could see for miles over the country.

The partly ruined castle of Saltwood (where the murderers of Thomas a Becket slept the night before they killed him at Canterbury) was visible in the distance, surrounded by tall trees which may have been standing when Caesar landed a few miles away. A bluff beside us was scarred owing to having been used as a machine gun target. During the service an aeroplane flew over our heads.

These signs of warfare, however, seemed much less close to us and much less real than the quietness and peace of the service and of our natural surroundings.

He’s also finished his quarantine period.

Maximilian Mugge

If Maximilian Mugge thought anything of his Easter church parade, he didn’t publish it. He’s too busy complaining about the NCOs again.

The language of some of the NCOs in the square is abominable. For filth and vulgarity it is unequalled. They bully the boys. One of my neighbours in the ranks actually burst into tears after a storm of abuse had passed over his unfortunate head.

An interesting phenomenon offers our own Sergeant. He belongs to the same social class as most of the Privates, yet the former bricklayer is more autocratic than an iron master, more dictatorial than a schoolmaster and more conceited and cruel than Falstaff and Nero together (assuming the latter has not been bedailymailed by his friends the Christians).

Anyhow, we all in our hut now know, in case of a dispute, a complaint, a “crime,” an NCO always comes out “on top.” If he “cops” you, or wants to “cop” you, there is an end of it! The officer will believe him. Napoo!

Yes, Mugge really did write “Be-Daily Mail-ed”. Some things never change! “Napoo” (or “narpoo”) is the English mangling of the French ” il n’y a plus”; literally “there is none”. Which the first arrivals in France heard rather a lot of. Their fun new word has now leaked back to England with the wounded.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

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