Bitlis | Romani | Verdun | 5 Aug 1916

Battle of Bitlis

In the Caucasus we have rather a curate’s egg of a battle for the Ottomans. On paper, things are going quite well. They’ve retaken Bitlis and Mus unopposed. Even better, the Russians who recently gave them a bloody nose at Ognot have continued advancing and are now about to be hideously outnumbered. General Yudenich is trying to apply the brakes, but these things take time. There’s a brief window of opportunity here to counter-punch and put the Russians in this sector of the battle onto the back foot.

But it seems nobody is interested in taking advantage of the opportunity. While the Ottoman commanders dither, Russian commanders boldly push their men forward unopposed, occupying key strategic points. A regiment of Kuban Cossacks is undertaking the most ridiculous of tasks, setting out on a 170-mile march from Erzincan over trackless mountains towards Kigi. The scale of this redeployment is a truly massive feat of logistics and flexibility; it deserves far more space and attention that I’m entirely unable to give it.

Battle of Romani

Meanwhile, at the Suez Canal. Nobody’s in particularly good shape after a few days of marching and a solid day of fighting in the Egyptian summer. However, it’s the Ottomans who are suffering more; they’re the ones who have just marched across the Sinai desert for months. Smelling victory, their opponents order fresh counter-attacks today. Let’s go see what Oskar Teichman made of the day’s fighting.

It was known that the enemy had retired eastwards through Katia, where a very strong force had been left to cover the retreat of the main army. It was now the duty of all the Mounted Brigades to “make good” the country west, north-west and south-west of Katia before an attack was launched on that place.

Everywhere we came across Turkish equipment which had been thrown away during the retreat and large numbers of killed and wounded Turks. Many of the latter were lying under the little sun-shelters, which their comrades had presumably erected for them before retiring. It was a pleasing sight to see an Australian and a Turkish Field Ambulance working side by side amongst the wounded. As we advanced slowly, more cases of sunstroke developed, and these were sent into Bir Abu Hamra, where we had already collected some Turkish prisoners.

At about two o’clock the enemy opened fire on us with shrapnel and high explosive, and as we galloped forward we soon came under rifle fire. “Action dismoun” was given, and the Brigade proceeded to line a low ridge and to open fire on the enemy, who could now and then be seen in their trenches outside Katia. The ground, being uneven, afforded us a good deal of cover, as it abounded in small hummocks and ridges.

I established my dressing station, and had just attended to some casualties when a shell exploded in the middle of our little group. I was thrown to the ground after being struck by a fragment of the shell, and realized at once that my leg was broken. I was carried back a short distance, and my orderlies dressed the wound and fixed up the leg with improvised splints. It was extraordinarily lucky that the fragment did not strike my leg “full on,” otherwise the whole foot would certainly have disappeared.

Meanwhile the enemy’s big guns in Katia were very troublesome, and some Turkish infantry with machine guns and a field gun, who had moved out of Katia towards Abu Hamra, proceeded to enfilade us in a most uncomfortable manner. I was not quite aware what happened during the next two hours, as the morphia which I had taken to allay the pain had begun to make me drowsy.

Leg broken by shrapnel? Hopped up on morphine? Mustn’t grumble. Teichman is then put on his horse and sent back to the rear; no jokes about “physician, heal thyself”, please. It’s another excellent day, one of the most successful days that any British Empire force has seen since Edward Mousley and chums were pushing a different Ottoman force back towards Baghdad in late 1915. More to follow.

Battle of Verdun

Yes, this is still a going concern. General von Knobelsdorf’s push towards Fort Souville has withered on account of lack of men, but there’s still heavy scrapping going on. The front is still moving by a hundred yards here, and fifty yards there. We drop in now on the diary of one Charles Hartley, a British civilian with the Red Cross, who’s been driving the Voie Sacree for the last month. He’s now found an excuse to go into Verdun itself and play battlefield tourist, and luck has brought him there when the German gunners are all shooting at something more urgent.

The town was full of soldiers and whole streets were in a complete state of ruins. The Cathedral itself was practically intact. The bridge across the Meuse, the entrance to which is through a Norman Gateway, has escaped the bombardment. This being my first visit to a town under bombardment I was greatly impressed with everything I saw around me. Partridge and I went into a number of shattered houses and shops, in which furniture and valuables were lying about in confused heaps everywhere.

Looting is of course forbidden and the French soldier, at any rate, knows what to expect if he is caught. Sympathetic soldiers passing along nodded to us and asked us if we had found any little ‘souvenir’. I managed to secure some good snapshots with my camera which I always carefully carried with me and produce guardedly on suitable occasions. If one goes about it in a right way and does not show a camera under the very nose of the military police, one can do a great deal, and I have often succeeded in getting French officers to tactfully look away when photographing something of interest.

Cameras at the front are, of course, strictly forbidden. Like diaries, this means that every tenth man is wielding one.

The Chief

General Haig attempts to praise the Australians, and just ends up with innuendo.

The Australians gained all their objectives north of Pozieres and beat off 3 counter-attacks. A fine piece of work.

Chortle chortle chortle. Haig has some very approving comments about the artillery arrangements, which have been adapting Behaviour Modification principles to great effect. His real work is yet to begin, though; tomorrrow he’s going to be deluged in dignitaries. General Joffre, President Poincare, the King, the Prime Minister, anyone who’s anyone will be visiting Haig’s HQ for a big extended social affair. Meanwhile, General Rawlinson prepares to have another crack at Guillemont so the dignitaries can have a success to admire.

E.S. Thompson

Off your arse! Time for the 7th South Africans and E.S. Thompson to get moving up to Dodoma.

Took our letters to the 9th Regiment’s orderly room and asked the Sergeant-Major to post our letters, which he did. Got back in time to get my kit ready and saddle up. Moved at 8.05am and did 7 miles having 2 surprise attacks on the way for practice. Lost our tent and very much fed up with the sergeant for not allowing us to use the water out of our red tins. Mean to have our own back one day. Very nice day for marching. Sky overcast. Kit inspection and a row made as the sergeants carry too many pots and pans on the motor.

The red tin contains what the quartermaster might call “water, cooling, Maxim guns, for the use of”. So no, you pillock, they’re not just going to let you drink it because you’re a bit thirsty. A few days’ uneventful marching follows.

Henri Desagneaux

Captain Henri Desagneaux is really not having much luck at all. Nancy is supposed to be a quiet bit of the line, but some gung-ho idiot has been stirring things up. Anyone know the French for “Am I as offensive as I might be?” Here is the result.

We relieve the “Marseilles” sector near Regneville. Heavy mortar fire. For the second time, my shelter, a fragile cellar, collapses. These mortar shells are causing huge damage, but the rats, bugs, and fleas are even more formidable. We live in filthy squalor. Every day the trenches are devastated. My command post is 10 metres below ground, with water streaming in from all sides. Every morning we have to bale out 10-15 bucketsful of water coming from a nearby cesspit. How damp and dark it is!

Yeah, mate. Water. From the cesspit. That’s what it is. Water. You tell yourselves that. The mental effort required to keep this up causes the captain’s diary to fall silent for a while.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman has been plucked out of Etaples and sent up to the 10th Green Howards. The battalion is still recovering from a nasty kicking at Fricourt. B Company returned with one officer (who has been recommended for the Victoria Cross) and 27 men, and the rest weren’t much better off. Time to get rid of some of the silly romantic ideas about the Army that even a pacifist can pick up by cultural osmosis.

I had formed a mental picture of how a subaltern joined his regiment. First he met the adjutant, who took careful particulars of training and special qualifications. Then, with due ceremony, he was taken into another room and formally introduced to the colonel, who deigned to extend his hand and wish the young man luck. Then the colonel would follow this with some details of the battalion’s immediate history, a footnote on esprit de corps and the honour of the regiment, and finally give a few words of fatherly advice. The subaltern saluted and returned to the adjutant, who now gave the junior particulars of his company, told him how he could obtain an orderly, what were the regimental messing arrangements and any other local details.

But it does not happen like that.

As the draft reaches the top of the last hill, we are met by a sallow-faced cadaverous-looking young man on a horse, who in a Cockney accent shouts directions to the troops. He tells Hill and me we are for C Company and will report to Captain Rowley. We pick our way across the dungheap and enter a room that seems to be fulfilling nearly all the purposes of human habitation at once. Captain Rowley lies fully dressed on the sheets of one of the unmade beds, dozing. We tell him who we are and he replies in a mild friendly voice, but hardly takes a look at us; he is evidently very tired.

A moment later another subaltern, Mallow, the bombing-officer, comes in. He begins to hold a conversation with Rowley which is one of the frankest I have ever heard. It appears that on the previous evening they rode into a neighbouring town where they spent the night with women of easy affections, and now they proceed to recount the details of their adventures and discuss the possibilities of similar entertainment, with a coarseness which is without reserve. They drink big tots of whisky, but seem too dissipated to raise more than a mirthless laugh.

A British officer? Using the services of a prostitute??? Well, I’ll try to carry on with the blog. But I must confess, I’m shocked and appalled. Plowman excuses himself and goes for a walk with another new arrival, Lieutenant Hill. “We are neither of us prudes”, says our narrator, a claim so inaccurate it could be in the intelligence briefing.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is becoming downright fatalistic.

Since Wednesday last, when we were issued gas-helmets, a number of us have been expecting to go up into the firing line any moment. I wish they would send us on. I am sick of waiting. Apparently the Interpreters’ Corps or Intelligence Department are “off” and I may as well do what many better men had to do.

To fit up part of the “bull-ring” for some sports to be held, a large fatigue party of us proceeded this morning to that dreadful place. The “bull-ring” is a huge desert in the neighbourhood where the boys arriving from England get their final training, a kind of finishing school. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here! Here the last remnant of individuality that may have held out hitherto is bludgeoned down and the perfect war-slave is manufactured.

Whilst I was carrying planks and tables, I marvelled at a group of Jocks that were driven around the immense ring like circus horses. Trenches barring their progress had to be taken. Each trench was supposed to be full of Huns. And the boys had to lower their bayonets and then charge the next trench “at the double.” Again and again they had to repeat the turn! If they did not shout madly enough a fat blood-curdling Sergeant Major instructed them in the real blood-curdling Red Indian War-Whoop.

Well, that sounds like the exact opposite of promising. The quotation is of course from Dante’s Divine Comedy, as the inscription over the gates of Hell. Mugge quoted it in the original Italian; once again I think it has a little more punch in this form. But, not to fret! I happen to have read ahead, and these are the last thoughts he will share with us from Tatinghem. His hopes will soon be fulfilled, and he’ll be on the move again.

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

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

Verdun | Petain | Noria | 3 Mar 1916

Verdun and the noria

General Petain’s innovations and rearrangements at the Battle of Verdun continue. He’s started making a personal point of, at least once a day, going out of his headquarters and taking a personal look at the flow of traffic. This is an excellent opportunity to judge the condition of the men, particularly men coming out of the line altogether for rest. He’s been struck by how utterly exhausted and haunted the soldiers appear. It’s on a completely different level to their condition after the battles of 1915.

I singled them out for my most affectionate consideration as they moved up into the line with their units. Huddled into uncomfortable trucks, or bowed under the weight of their packs when they marched on foot, they encouraged each other with songs and banter to appear indifferent. I loved the confident glance with which they saluted me. But the discouragement with which they returned! – either singly, maimed or wounded, or in the ranks of their companies thinned by their losses.

Their eyes stared into space as if transfixed by a vision of terror. In their gait and their attitudes they betrayed utter exhaustion. Horrible memories made them quail. When I questioned them, they scarcely answered, and the jeering tones of old poilus awakened no response in them.

How much mental strength does it take to go down and do that and know that it all happened because of orders you gave? Generals are often quite weird people, but this should not be at all surprising. If you tried to make me a general in this kind of war, there’s no way I’d ever be able to face my men. Anyway.

Clearly, the existing system of leaving men to defend a sector for a month or more at a time is inadequate. The men won’t stand up to it; the line will simply collapse under the relentless pressure. So we find the common-sense system that quickly became known as the “noria”, after a water-wheel with an attached chain of buckets to draw water out of the river, empty themselves, and then return.

It’s a simple but elegant idea. Any given unit’s time in the Verdun sector will be kept as short as possible, no more than eight or ten days in the trenches if at all possible. They’ll then be withdrawn and sent somewhere else entirely. They’ll suffer, and they’ll take casualties; but they won’t break under pressure, they probably won’t be entirely destroed, and morale will be bolstered by the knowledge that they’ll only be there for a short time. The noria has only one disadvantage; they’re going to need a lot of men to make this work properly.

Happily, there are a lot of spare men knocking around the French rear at the moment, and there will be more once 10th Army has handed Vimy over to the BEF. Unhappily, these are the men that General Joffre had earmarked for his grand summer offensive and the preliminary wearing-out battles that were to precede it. And Joffre has no desire at all to abandon his grand designs. More soon.

Bitlis

Some brief notes from the Caucasus, where the Russians continue rolling forward. After 36 hours’ sharp fighting, late tonight they evict the Ottomans from Bitlis, just east of Lake Van, with obvious implications for a re-occupation of Armenia. There’s a nasty rearguard stand brewing near Bayburt; and on the Black Sea coast, General Lyakhov is planning another amphibious assault on Rize.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian has now arrived at Corum, a provincial capital. On the plus side, his friendly Jandarma’s letter should prevent them being killed. On the minus side, a provincial governor has his own men who can take over immediate responsibility for the deportees. They’re locked into a tiny room by a local Jandarma captain.

“Don’t bring bread or water to these dogs! Let them starve so they will understand what it means to rebel.”

The captain eventually proves bribable, just about, but there’s no food to buy.

Most of the villagers had been sent to the front, and the peasants left behind were without food themselves.

The exhaustion of the journey and our hunger made us think that death was better than living like this. Those whose suicide I had prevented were vexed by this suffering and asked me why I had interfered. They kept saying that it would have been better to drown in that river than to suffer like this, only to die in a cruel and ghastly way.

Yes, there’s plenty of room left for things to get worse.

Edward Mousley

Speaking of places where there’s plenty of room left for the situation to deteriorate, Edward Mousley is still at the Siege of Kut.

The cold wind, or the wet, or something, has made my back so rheumaticky that I can hardly turn round or get down to tie my bootlaces. I am very lucky to have kept as fit as I have. Dozens of men from the trenches are in hospital with muscular rheumatism from the floods—the source of many evils. The horse rations have fallen away to very little. We give them pieces of palm tree to gnaw at.

Far away on the edge of the western horizon I watched for hours, through my telescope, a convoy of camels, each with a tiny white dot of humanity aboard, striding away with delightful patience to the Turkish camp downstream. They were conveying stores from Shamrun, the enemy depot on the river above us.

And the siege goes on.

Bernard Adams

Lieutenant Bernard Adams, up the line near the Bois Francais, is trying to solve a knotty problem. It’s freezing cold. Being an officer, he gets to hide in a dugout when it’s not his turn of trench duty. Unfortunately, there’s not much point to this if there’s nothing to burn. One of the very first jokes in Blackadder Goes Forth involves the men being issued with trench ladders and immediately burning them; it’s one of those moments that’s extremely close to the mark. It’s an extensive funny story, comedy in three acts.

The great problem was fuel. There were no trees or houses anywhere near. We had burnt two solid planks during the day; these had been procured by the simple expedient of getting a lance-corporal to march four men to the Royal Engineers’ dump, select two planks, and march them back again. But by now the planks had surely been missed, and it would be extremely risky to repeat the experiment, even after dark.

The subalterns have all sent various NCOs and batmen and other little elves off into the rear to try to buy, acquire or appropriate more coal; but meanwhile they’re keeping warm and destroying the evidence of their little wheeze. The song, by the way, is a Gertie Millar/Lionel Monckton number which could probably have been found playing on quite a few BEF gramophones.

Clark was singing “Now Neville was a devil” and showing his servant Brady how to “make” a hammock. Brady was a patient disciple, but his master had slept in a hammock for the first time in his life the night before and consequently was not a very clear exponent of the art.

This process involves Lieutenant Clark lying in the hammock issuing directions while Private Brady ties up this and lets out that and hammers a nail into the other. Eventually they finish; Clark goes to sleep while his batman departs for the servants’ quarters (a smaller part of the same dugout, separated by a curtain) to make an entry in this week’s “Who’s Got The Stupidest Officer?” competition.

This rather happy scene can only continue as long as there’s fuel, and men are returning empty-handed at intervals. The war-hardened Lieutenant Adams now issues another order to his own batman, Private Davies, that’s fully within the finest traditions of the old Regular Army.

“Look here. There’s a sack of coal ordered from Sergeant Johnson, but I’m none too sure it’ll come up tonight. I only ordered it yesterday. But I want you to make sure you get it if it is there. In fact, you must bring it, whether it’s there or not. See! If you don’t, you’ll be for it.”

Davies disappears and returns half an hour later with a large amount of snow and a larger sack of coal. At length, dinner is served, and the battalion’s medical officer appears, having earlier been invited by Lieutenant Dixon.

“By Jove, I’m jolly glad you asked me. There’s the devil to pay up at headquarters. The [Colonel’s] raving. Some blighter has pinched our coal, and there’s none to be got anywhere. I couldn’t stand Mess there to-night at any price. The CO’s been swearing like a trooper! He’s fair mad.”

“Never mind,” he added after a pause. “I think we’ve raised enough wood to cook the dinner. See you’ve got coal all right.”

I hoped to goodness Dixon wouldn’t put his foot in it. But he rose to the occasion and said “Oh, yes. We ordered some coal from Sergeant Johnson. Come on, let’s start.”

Later, the officer quietly suggests to Davies that he confiscate somebody else’s coal next time. Davies departs to make his own entry in the servants’ competition. Nothing of importance has occurred.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

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.)

Erzurum, Mus, Findikli | 15 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

The wind and the rain. The wind and the rain; it raineth every day. Verdun is still quiet, if rather soggy. What we do have is another intelligence summary from the desk of General Herr. More deserters and a few trench raids have paid dividends. They now know that the enemy intends only to attack east of the River Meuse, although it’s not too comforting when it appears that the Germans are unbolting the kitchen sink in preparation to throw it at them.

General Joffre, meanwhile, is making some high-minded pronouncements to Wully Robertson about the viability of attacking out of Salonika. There’s some spurious arguments about how an offensive out of Salonika will help bring Romania into the war (the additional men to be British, or possibly Italian or Serbian, of course). Robertson, meanwhile, considers that Salonika is mostly there to avoid General Sarrail becoming a problem. He can’t work under Joffre, but his political supporters would throw a major fit if there wasn’t a job for him; so, Salonika.

Erzurum Offensive

The Erzurum Offensive is widening its spread. A detachment has been sent hundreds of miles south of Erzurum to attempt to grab Mus. As it happens, the town is entirely undefended; their next destination will be Bitlis. Meanwhile, up on the Black Sea coast, there’s another heavy naval bombardment, this time against Ottoman positions at Findikli. Again the defenders are forced to retreat east, this time to Atina, where they can anchor positions on the River Buyuk. Cracking these positions will need a little more than just naval hate.

Meanwhile, Russian aerial recon has spotted the impossible-to-disguise retreat from Erzurum. By tomorrow, the men in the mountains will be in position to fall on Erzurum from the north and wreak havoc on the retreating defenders…

Elbasan

The joint Austro-Hungarian/Bulgarian invasion of Albania has now degenerated into an undignified race towards Elbasan to see who can capture this important crossroads first. As it turns out, they both get there in about the same strength at about the same time. The Bulgarians are now happy with what they’ve already got and stand aside to allow the Austro-Hungarians to chase the remaining Italians back to Durazzo.

Italian Front

Speaking of whom. Recently I mentioned General Zupelli, who’s raised some common-sense objections to the conduct of the war. He happens to be the commander of the Italian 1st Army. This army has the unenviable job of holding a large and raggedy line between the Stelvio Pass in the north, on the three-way border with Austria and Switzerland, and the wide Asiago plateau to the south, which is just north of the upper Isonzo. Zupelli’s activities have been mostly limited to ineffectual poking in the mountains, and complaining about his boss.

Now he has some very worrying intelligence that General Cadorna is in no way interested in paying any attention to. Unlikely as it sounds, there appears to be an enemy build-up in his sector. And, with the Balkan campaign about to enter a holding phase after the final capture of Albania, there will be more men coming free, who might be sent to Italy…

He’s completely right. Buoyed by the winter successes in the Balkans, and not having embarrassed himself on the Eastern Front recently, Conrad von Hotzendorf is planning a major attack on the Italian Front. It’s already beginning to acquire the nickname “Strafexpedition”, which means exactly what it sounds like: “Punishment Expedition”. And, if nothing else, it’s surely the last thing that the Italians will be expecting…

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson and his entire battalion get a somewhat unfair bollocking today.

At the 9 o’clock parade today we were told that we were undisciplined and that we had to have some more training before we could advance. By that time the 3rd Brigade and General Smuts ought to be here and with him here things ought to go alright. We expect some burghers will come up with him. They would be useful. It was awfully hot and tiring work having drill in the bush and by the time we had finished I was in a dangerous mood.

Well, sure. But, ye gods, what the hell were you bunch of incompetents expecting from the South Africans? This is hardly the Brigade of Gurkhas. They’re a long way from being the Baluchis, too.

Clifford Wells

Clifford Wells, the imbecile son of a Montreal millionaire, has been given a rather odd batman.

My batman is John Ridd from Devonshire. He claims to be a descendant of John Ridd of Blackmore’s “Lorna Doone.” He says that his great-aunt was housekeeper for Blackmore, and told him the traditions about the famous Ridd which were woven into the novel. He says the descendants of the Doones occupy a small island in Bristol Channel called Lundy Island, and still have a very bad reputation for smuggling, and for plundering the numerous ships which are wrecked on the island each year. My Ridd is a very interesting fellow, and is much ashamed that he is not a giant like his ancestor.

One of the other batmen in this hut is a poet. He writes quite good verse. I shall send a sample some day, if I can obtain a copy. The last occupant of the room in which I sleep was a nephew of Rider Haggard. So you see I live in a very literary atmosphere.

I’m reliably informed that Lorna Doone is an important historical novel; and it seems certain that Private Ridd is telling furphies to his naive Canadian officer. Lundy was purchased in 1834 by one William Hudson Heaven with the money from his family’s sugar plantations, following a long line of variously dodgy owners buying the island from each other; in the 80 years since, its upkeep has wrecked the family finances, and they’ll sell up in late 1918.

Edward Mouseley

Captain Edward Mouseley is still alive, and his bout of the squitters appears to have passed.

I am feeling somewhat better, thank goodness. I hear that the garrison gunner sub that came out from India with us is in hospital with dysentery. There is quite a deal of sniping. A bullet whinged off a limber a few minutes ago. My candles are finished and I don’t like sitting alone in a dug-out on a foggy evening without any sort of light. It suggests being buried alive.

Meanwhile, those horses who haven’t yet been eaten for food are beginning to fight amongst themselves. Mouseley is more than a little worried for his own horse, brought with him from India to battle, who’s taken to eating anything he can chew, including the tails of other horses. The Siege of Kut continues.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

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.)

Caucasus | Kut | 9 Dec 1915

Siege of Kut

With the Ottoman presence around Kut steadily increasing, one of their mid-ranking officers officers has a Good Idea. In the absence of General von der Goltz, they launch a couple of highly speculative attacks against Kut. The state of the defences notwithstanding, the poorly-thought-out probes are easily repelled. Breaking the siege is going to take a little more effort than a couple of infantry assaults.

Caucasus

Yesterday we had a look at General Yudenich’s ambitious plan to assault Koprukoy and Erzurum over the mountains in mid-winter. Today, the other side of the hill. On paper the Ottoman Third Army is of comparable strength to their opponents, but they have a front to hold that runs some 300 miles from the Black Sea to Bitlis, and they have about 75,000 fighting men (and a sizeable tail of about 50,000 PONTIs) to do it with. (For comparison’s sake, the Western Front is being occupied by millions upon millions of men on each side, and it’s about 440 miles long.) The garrison also has a mild desertion problem to worry about; and some of the manpower holes are being plugged by Frontier Guards and Jandarma units instead of regular soldiers.

In addition to all that, they appear to have completely bought their opponents’ dummy. Both the commanding officer, Mahmut Kamil, and his German chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Guse, are away. Kamil Pasha is enjoying a nice holiday in Constantinople, and Guse is at home in Germany, convalescing after contracting typhus. (Eagle-eyed readers may recall how, back in February, Mahmut Kamil took command of the army after its previous boss, Hafiz Hakki, died in the early stages of Third Army’s typhus epidemic.)

The army isn’t in the best of shape. It’s spent the last few months trying to scrape itself back together after the squabbling around Lake Van and Malazgirt. Like their opponents, their front is being given the lowest priority for reinforcements and supplies. However, unlike their opponents, they can’t concentrate their strength in any one location. All they can do is quietly hope for the front to stay quiet until such time as they can expect reinforcements. And here at least there might be some hope. Enver Pasha hasn’t given up on his dreams of a Caucasus offensive, although he has lost the urge to lead it personally. Once Gallipoli is settled…

Louis Barthas

Mother Nature is certainly doing her best to reclaim Louis Barthas’s trenches at Neuville-Saint-Vaast.

Meanwhile it became more and more necessary that something be done, because the Mercier trench was disappearing into a virtual lake. In this period the situation of the front-line troops was truly lamentable. In certain places the trenches had completely disappeared under water. Almost all the dugouts had collapsed. Our section was lucky enough to have a dugout which was still intact and where, when our work was done, we could stretch out on the cold, damp ground.

But one night, when the rain came down in torrents, the tide invaded our dugout and cascaded down both sets of steps. At the height of the storm, some of the men had to devote all their efforts to building a dam, which the water then broke through at three or four places. We spent the rest of the night battling the floodwaters.

I’m struck by the irony of General Niessel recently giving orders for the construction of proper shelters for the blokes, only for the weather to reply “LOL no”.

Flora Sandes

On the retreat from Serbia, Flora Sandes is becoming well hardened to its rigours. She’s now well into Albania, and still manages to find time for the old British sport of patronising the locals.

It was bitterly cold, and every few yards we passed horrible looking corpses of bullocks, donkeys and ponies, with the hides and some of the flesh stripped from them; sometimes there were packs, ammunition and rifles thrown away by the roadside, but very, very few of the latter; a soldier is very far gone indeed before he will part with that.

Sometimes if Colonel Milic was not busy he used to show me the various positions on the map, and tell me where he was moving the men to. It was such a frightfully anxious time for him, he had to hold the threads of everything in his hands; everything depended on him, the lives and safety of all the men, and despatch riders and telephone calls gave him very little rest. … He made [the men] a long speech, cheering them up and telling them to stand fast now and not despair, as some day we would all march back into Serbia together.

The Albanian villages were a perfect picture of squalor and filth. I don’t know what the people subsist on, but they seem to live like animals. I had always pictured the Albanian peasants as a very fine picturesque race of men wearing spotless native costume, and slung about with fascinating looking daggers and curious weapons of all kinds, but the great majority of those I saw, more especially in the small towns, were a very degenerate looking race indeed.

Isn’t that nice.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

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