Africa | Longueval | 27 Jul 1916


The Prime Minister of South Africa, Louis Botha, has just arrived in German East Africa to find out first-hand why his crony Smuts’s grandiose predictions of victory have not, as yet, come to pass. On the face of it, there’s plenty to be optimistic about. Mind you, Botha would probably be less than totally willing to give the proper credit to the Indian Railway Battalions in theatre. However, their role is by far the most important of any military unit right now. There’s a narrow-gauge railway that’s fast approaching Kondoa Irangi. Other men are working flat out to restore the Northern Railway to working order. Let’s have a map again.

Not to any kind of scale; red and green lines denote areas now under theoretical British & Belgian control

Not to any kind of scale; red and green lines denote areas now under theoretical British & Belgian control

So, on the face of it, all’s going well. Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to it. In theory, there are four separate forces converging on the Schutztruppe (including the Rhodesians coming up from off the south-western edge of the map. In practice, there are only two who are close enough to possibly worry Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck. And they’re both operating at the end of grossly over-stretched supply lines, and facing an enemy who once more is demonstrating absolutely no willingness to stand and fight. His opposition may now be disdainfully calling him “von Lettow-Fallback”, but he’s just trying not to lose.

Once again, every battalion in service here is a battalion that can’t be used anywhere else. Right now, there are approximately 21,000 British Empire men in theatre, including sick and wounded (which is still, for most units, in the region of 50% to 70% of their strength). Many of them would have been needed to police the Empire in Africa, but they all need to eat, and they all need uniforms, and they all need ammunition, and so on. Anything short of a total defeat in this theatre is a net gain for the German Empire.

Battle of the Somme

Another day, another attack, another butcher’s bill. This time we’re at Delville Wood and Longueval, where, as we mentioned yesterday, we find the BEF’s artillery trying to turn everything into a glutinous paste, and mostly succeeding. By the time they’re done, the “wood” is a messy collection of mutilated stumps, and Longueval is a few stubborn piles of randomly-positioned bricks. There are still quite a few Germans still alive in there after they’re finished, but when the men go over the top at ten minutes past seven, almost none of them are in any position to resist.

But the bombardment has not gone unnoticed by the Germans. And here’s the problem with such gigantically overwhelming bombardments. They destroy everything. Including the enemy’s trenches. Which means that when your infantry advances, they have nowhere to hide from the enemy’s retaliatory bombardment. Neither do the men have anywhere to hide when trying to get back to the rear with messages, or forward with supplies. This is, ahem, a less than desirable state of affairs.

And so, when the inevitable counter-attacks arrive, they manage to shove back into a small part of the wrecked wood, again at horrendous loss of life, and they’re still disputing control over one of the piles of bricks that was once part of Longueval. Let’s have a word from a man described only as “Schulze”.

The shells plunged into the bodies of the British who were lying to our front. Together with the acrid fumes of the explosives, the stench formed a stinking cloud over the trenches and took your breath away.

When not under fire, the blokes take the chance to conduct an informal resupply exercise, courtesy of their dead opponents.

It was well known that the British have some pretty good kit. Also, it would have been a pity to leave their binoculars, razor blades, and other shaving gear to disappear in the mud.

Here we see further evidence of the Blockade of Germany tightening its grip. The best of everything that can be had is being strictly reserved for the use of the Army, but more and more items are becoming scarce even for them.

Oskar Teichman

At the Suez Canal, Oskar Teichman’s cavalrymen are still waiting for the order to advance, and they’re starting to get mildly peeved.

We were all now getting very impatient, as the Turks were steadily advancing and no orders were received to attack. A few weeks ago we had been told that the Katia waterbelt district must be held at any price, as it was considered a jumping-off place for the Turks before attacking the Canal; and now, directly the Turks advanced,all these places (with wells made by our engineers) were evacuated.

Intelligence. – The Turks are now at Hod Es Sagia, a point midway and well in front of the Oghratina-Mageibra lines.

Teichman is presenting anything marked “Intelligence” as an actual extract from the Comic Cuts daily intelligence briefing. Whether they’re what they claim to be, I don’t know, but the style sounds right. It’s certainly possible that he could have copied extracts, or kept the documents after the intelligence officer was finished with them.

Neil Tennant

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the RFC has now taken ship from India, alongside 1,600 sepoys, 40 British officers, and a large number of goats. He’s sailing for Basra.

We called at Muscat, a god-forsaken looking spot on the south-east coast of Arabia, and an old headquarters of piracy, slave traffic, and gun-running. It was an important Portuguese naval station early in the seventeenth century, but attained its greatest prosperity under Arab rule two hundred years later.

Abdul Rezak left on record here in 1442 that “the heat was so intense that it burned the marrow in the bones, the sword in its scabbard melted like wax, and the gems which adorned the hilt of the dagger were reduced to coal. In the plains the chase became a matter of perfect ease, for the desert was filled with roasted gazelles!” Muscat is picturesque and mediaeval, with its watch towers and large fort commanding the bay, but, as usual, no shade or vegetation to be seen anywhere.

Here we left a de’tachment of the 108th Native Infantry, as, although nominally independent, the Sultan had appealed to the British for protection against the Turk and hostile tribes, to whom his Hinterland was exposed. There had been fighting here in 1915, the Indian garrison having defeated and driven off three thousand Arabs. Little did the British public, more immediately affected by the greater wars, realise how forgotten British officers were dying in nameless fights, or rotting with fever in distant outposts, “unknown, uncared-for, and unsung.”

Muscat has risen again in the world since 1916 and is currently the capital of Oman. The size of Oman had contracted significantly after the mid-19th century, and when Tennant arrived, the British Empire was very much calling the shots at arm’s length. It does have some oil, but their economy is much more diverse than that of other modern Arab countries. What our friend neglects to mention is that Muscat sits right at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, one of the most strategically important locations in the world. It therefore pays to be on the right side of the Sultan, regardless of how oppressive (very) his regime is.

“Abdul Rezak”, meanwhile, is almost certainly best-known in English today as Abd-al-Razzaq Samarquandi. (Transliteration is fun!) He was an ambassador for a Timurid ruler of Persia and journeyed from there to Calicut/Kozhikode in western India, via Muscat and many other places.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is away from his quiet sector and on the march, heading south, towards the Somme by way of Grand Rullecourt, where he’s been before.

We led on quickly by the north gate and out at once, so as to avoid dawn on the Open Road. But it was daylight when we got up and out, though the mist prevented any harm resulting from that. It was only about 5 miles, and as always, thank God, I recovered completely and gloriously with the dawn. So much so, that I had to embark on a needless and vehement row with K.P. over the breakfast question in the big billet. This was silly: but less so was the fact that I decided to get my own (and not make people cook) in the village.

A day of tremendous heat. It was always hot, hot; and strange thirst, for most of the men, caused a good deal of discomfort and a few fall-outs. We had a long halt for dinner somewhere near Hauteville in a field, and I dis covered again the merits of the Army stew on a hot day. But we were all very distinctly tired, I perhaps rather particularly, after pulling by his rifle an acting corporal, who had got rather done up by the heat.

And so the Big Push, as it rapidly diminishes into the Half-Arsed Push, captures him as it did his Man.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge, on permanent base duty at Balinghem, is watching a lot of men going forward. Plenty of men in 1915 and 1916 went to the front with an entire battalion, an established unit, with all their mates. Now the profile is rather different. The Army is not increasing in size half as fast as it had been through 1915. More and more new men are not being sent to France with a battalion; they’re going to the base until they’re called forward as part of a reinforcement-draft. And they could be sent to any unit in the Army. Even wounded men aren’t guaranteed a return to their old battalion.

Thousands and thousands of boys are being rushed to the Somme. Many drafts are wanted for the “Great Push.” Despite our newspapers with their paraphrase of Caesar’s “pauci de nostris cadunt,” the long grey hospital trains move silently and slowly through our station, by day and by night, yet most of the boys who leave us go as to a dance, cheering and singing. Before they are put on a draft, they are grousing like the others, and nobody wants to go.

Once they are chosen, they bow to the inevitable, whether it is their first venture into the Unknown or a return to the Hell they left but a short while ago. The fine English bull-dog spirit asserts itself and with laughter and with riotous songs they march out. We, the old crocks, the “permanent base men” who cannot go, and others who are not yet chosen, are lining the roads and shout “Good-bye!” to the clamouring throng that passes out. Everybody shakes hands; “Good-bye, Billy!” ” So long, Jimmy!” Platoon after platoon passes. Here and there a grim set face, but the overwhelming majority make merry.

Caesar was fighting a campaign in Gaul at the time; the translation is “Few of us will die”. Hardy-har-har.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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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

Walvis Bay | 11 Feb 1914

We’re still mostly in Africa today. With the Boer rebellion in South Africa now thoroughly suppressed, they’re ready to start thinking about helping the war effort.

Walvis Bay

Walvis Bay is the kind of oddity that Empire throws up. It’s a very useful port for ships making their way round the Cape of Good Hope, the only one on the Namibian coast. During the Scramble for Africa, Walvis Bay was occupied by the Cape Colony and annexed to what would become South Africa, even as the Germans moved in and turned the rest of the surrounding country into German South-West Africa.

Now, Walvis Bay is an extremely useful strategic location. On the outbreak of war it had been protected in force, and now the Prime Minister of South Africa is arriving at Walvis Bay to take personal command of the rapidly-expanding garrison.

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German South-West Africa

Louis Botha, a truly fascinating figure if you’re interested in the doings of racists and the story of how apartheid came to be a thing, had made his name in the Second Boer War. Then, he’d fought against British forces. Now, he’s firmly on the side of the Empire, and the strength with which he’s put down the latest rebellion has allayed any lingering fears about his loyalty.

He’s planning a grand pincer movement. His right-hand man General Smuts (a similarly fascinating man under those terms) will lead a force over the land border from the south, and at the same time he will break out from Walvis Bay and march up the River Swakop towards Windhoek, the capital. It’ll take another month or so to properly concentrate his forces. If he can pull it off, South Africa’s borders will be secure, and their men can be used elsewhere in the war.

Second Masurian Lakes

Russian headquarters have finally noticed that something big is going off in Prussia. Unfortunately, what little information they have points to the main force of the attack being against their centre, and they remain completely unaware that their right wing is gone. They have reinforcements available, in the shape of the newly-formed 12th Army. Even as the Germans are beginning to slowly wheel around to begin an encirclement, they’re making plans to counter-attack in exactly the wrong direction. 12th Army is ordered to reinforce the centre of their line.

Kenneth Best

Kenneth Best is spending most of today visiting the wounded in hospital. He has a close encounter with an Australian, which does not impress him much.

Australian half-seas over with drawn knife follows French sister into hospital. Grapples with officer just recovering from enteric. At last he is overcome and ejected. General Maxwell desires not to be left alone with Aussie troops. Source of anxiety to medics, despair to officers, and menace to Egypt. Yet papers are full of their loyalty and efficiency. Why not put them in the front line, as David did to Uriah?

The story of David and Uriah is a rather odd little tale from the second book of Samuel, which is worth recounting, since the padre brought it up. David (a King) is knocking off Uriah’s wife, and gets her pregnant. Uriah needs to be got out of the way, so David sends him to the front line of a battle in the hope that he’ll get killed.

So Uriah duly dies and David marries his widow, which offends Bonkers Old Testament God greatly. He sends a prophet to David to give him a bollocking. Apparently the appropriate punishment for someone who does this is to have his wives raped in public. And for his son by Uriah’s widow to be struck down. Why does there always have to be smiting?

Anyway, idle speculation about Best’s theology aside, this is interesting further evidence of the Australians’ ways offending the British stiff upper lips. Good thing they won’t be on the front line of any really murderous battles any time soon, huh? That would just be disgustingly ironic. (Incidentally, from what I can make out, Best died unmarried, childless, and having lost his faith.)

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of the Masurian Lakes (Second Masurian Lakes)

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day.

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

Givenchy | 12 Oct 1914

The Allies open the Battle of La Bassee at Givenchy, Sir John French moves house again, and the Boers are revolting.


The BEF is in action again, and they’re giving Jerry hell. By the end of the day they’ve advanced nearly a mile to Givenchy, and repelled a vicious German counter-attack. The weather is cool and wet, but that’s not dampening Tommy’s fighting spirit. On the other hand, to achieve the planned advance, they need to be going further and quicker. Sadly, nobody appears to have told the Germans this, and they’re making the British troops scrap, fight and claw for every slight incline, every tree and every farmhouse.


Cavalry patrols clash with each other in the vicinity of Messines; the British cavalry scatters the Uhlans.

German troops unexpectedly appear at Lille, and capture the town after a short but vigorous action. This is a major blow; as mentioned before, a major railway line runs through Lille, and it’s an important junction.

The Battle of the Vistula judders onwards. The Russians are in short supply of just about everything, and their fighting strength is significantly depleted. Many of their men are conducting informal resupply exercises in Warsaw.

Martial law is declared in South Africa. While Louis Botha and Jan Smuts both remain loyal, there’s a significant movement of disgruntled Boers who have no desire to fight for the empire that defeated them a decade ago, and who feel they should be casting their lot in with Germany instead of Britain.

A Note on Belgian Place-Names

We’re going to be spending a significant amount of time in Belgium, and in Flanders. Before we do that, a quick note for those of you who are trying to follow along at home.

As any fule kno, Belgium has one major division (and of course they hate each other); Flanders (to the north) and Wallonia (to the south). The Walloons speak French (sort of), and the Flemish speak Dutch (mostly). The story of the Belgian language wars is long and boring. The practical upshot is that in 1914 (and for many years afterwards), many Belgian place names were rendered by English sources in their French forms, even if they were in Flanders. Not all of them were; but the larger or more important a place was, the more likely it was to be referred to by a French name. This is why you’ll see in any English-language treatment of the war place-names such as Dixmude, Roulers and Ypres (all taking French forms), but also Zillebeke, Hooge and Ploegsteert, their names being as French as a faithful marriage.

This can make following the course of events on a modern map difficult, because Dutch names have asserted themselves in the meantime, and only Ypres still takes its French name on an English map (for obvious reasons). Dixmude is now Diksmuide, Roulers is now Roeselare. “Menin” tends to refer exclusively to the Menin Gate memorial; the settlement at the end of that infamous road is now Menen. Even better, some Flemish names now have different spellings. Gheluvelt is now Geluveld, and hopefully it’s still obvious where Passendale is.

Actions in Progress

Battle of the Vistula
Battle of La Bassee

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: the fall of Antwerp, the paper launches a charity appeal to benefit the Belgian people, and an eyewitness report on page 12 claims to have heard gramophones in the German trenches. Just underneath it, there’s an interesting note about frustrated units getting their engineers to go out sapping and mining. This is not the last we’ll hear of such things…

Over on Tumblr, Today in World War I features the events in South Africa.