Erzincan | Haig & ANZACs | 25 Jul 1916

Battle of Erzincan

Erzincan has surrendered. A second overwhelming Russian victory in 1916 is now complete. Vehip Pasha’s Third Army has, for the second time in 1916, been scattered to the four winds. They’ve lost about 30,000 casualties, and most of the rest have deserted. Last time, there were divisions coming free from Gallipoli who could be used as reinforcements. This is the kind of loss that will take the Ottoman Army years to recover from, if it ever can. The priority for General Yudenich is now obvious; consolidate as quickly as possible and prepare to deal with Izzet Pasha’s brand new Second Army, which is now at full strength and on the move. More soon!

Battle of the Somme

Pozieres. Counter-attack. Germans. ANZACs. British Territorials too. Blood and guts. Heavy losses. Sergeant Preston:

The enemy came over the ridge like swarms of ants, rushing from shell hole to shell hole. Our men, full of fight and confidence, lined the parapet and emptied magazine after magazine into them. Some of the boys, anxious to get a shot at the Germans, pulled one another down from the firestep in the midst of the fight. Under this fire and that of our machine guns and the artillery, which tore great gaps in the advancing lines, the enemy attack withered. The survivors were later seen retiring beyond the ridge, which was barraged by our artillery.

General von Falkenhayn is absolutely livid at the failure to hold Pozieres, the failure of this counter-attack in particular, and the failure of counter-attacks in general. Army group commander General von Gallwitz blames general exhaustion among the men. Always important to remember this. The Germans do not think they are doing at all well here. They can’t see all the behind-the-scenes bungling on the other side of the hill. They don’t know just how favourable the casualty ratio is to them. All they know is that they keep getting kicked, hard.

The Chief’s diary

Meanwhile, General Haig is busy being patronising.

After lunch I visited HQ Reserve Army and HQ Australian Corps. … The situation seems all very new and strange to Australian HQ. The fighting here and shell fire is much more severe than anything experienced at Gallipoli! The German too is a different enemy to the Turk! … I spoke to Birdwood about his [artillery commander], General Cunliffe Owen. The latter had served with me at beginning of war, but soon left France and so had no experience of our present artillery or the methods which had developed during the war.

I therefore wished to give [Birdwood] an up to date [artillery commander]. He thanked me, and said he would take anyone I selected. … I also saw Cunliffe Owen and explained how sorry I was to have to move him, but in the present situation I would be failing in my duty to the country if I ran the risk of the Australians meeting with a check through faulty artillery arrangements.

Oh, get tae fuck. You saw them after they arrived in France! You could have kept them at Armentieres with Mademoiselle if you thought they needed more seasoning on the Western Front! And instead, he pisses in their pockets and has the meterological officer send them a note warning of rain. Can you imagine being Birdwood and having to listen to this lecture and not being able to just haul off and deck him? Right tae fuck.


Chief of the Imperial General Staff Wully Robertson is beginning to get rather worried about a number of strategic matters. There’s a major debate in London on the question of when exactly the tanks should be used. General Haig has said more than once that he’s in favour of using them as quickly as possible to win a decisive victory on the Somme. There is a counter-argument gaining steam in London, though. Colonel Swinton has been telling anyone who’ll listten that it’s vitally important to instead hold them back until they can all be used en masse, and with fresh infantry support.

It’s got wide support in London, in the Cabinet and at the War Office. Swinton’s French counterpart Colonel Estienne has been lobbying his own and the British government to exactly the same effect. He’s dreaming of a joint attack in spring 1917, when the Schneider CA1 will be ready in large numbers. The Tank Supply Committee has just put their arguments to Robertson. With another large British construction order, there will be nearly 1,000 tanks in spring 1917, and their crews will have had six months of training.

It’s a powerful argument; we’ll be considering it, and Haig’s counter-arguments, in the days to come. Robertson writes to him today with a summary of the objections. However, he doesn’t explicitly support them, or order Haig not to use them. His final message is “In the meantime, every possible step is being taken to expedite the preparation of the tanks so that a small number may be available at the earliest possible date…” On the other hand, Lloyd George’s successor as Minister of Munitions, Edwin Montagu, is travelling to GHQ to put the arguments against using the tanks to Haig in person.

While all this is going on, the haggling has begun over future tank production. The initial run of 100 machines is approaching its end; continuity of production is important so that money, materials, and skilled workers can’t be re-allocated. After a little haggling over whether the extra machines should be of a substantially different design, Robertson will soon be approving 100 more machines with only minor design changes based on issues already identified. They’ll eventually become known as the Mark II and Mark III tanks. And, at Elveden, a section of six tanks and a field workshop is already preparing to leave for France…


Negotiations with Romania are really beginning to drag now. The Romanian Prime Minister, Ion Bratianu, is still trying to nail down the details of the attack out of Salonika. Entente military leaders are quite certain that only a limited offensive will be possible to keep the Bulgarian Army from responding to the Romanian declaration of war. Bratianu wants a full-scale invasion of Bulgaria, with the eventual object of a supply line being established from the Greek coast to Bucharest. This is, ahem, a slightly optimistic aim.

He’s also concerned that the Entente might leave him twisting in the wind. He wants a specific provision in the treaty along the lines of existing Franco/Russian/British agreements to not seek a separate peace. The fear is that Austria-Hungary might collapse, sue for peace, and cut a deal to take them out of the war before the Romanian Army can conquer all the territory they’ve been promised. He’s also after a commitment that Romania will have equal representation on any general peace deal, so their interests can’t get shuffled aside. Negotiations continue…

Henri Desagneaux

Captain Henri Desagneaux, as he now is, is going back up the line, only three weeks after leaving Verdun. He’s been sent south to Pont-a-Mousson, just north of Nancy, one of the quietest sectors on the front.

Things will soon hot up. This sector was guarded for 18 months by the same troops. Reservists, they had got into bad habits, and not intending to kill themselves, they even went as far as fraternising with the Boches. They passed cigarettes to each other in the trenches. They even sang songs together. Our division has orders to stop this and to harass the Boches. Our gunners don’t have to be asked twice and pound the enemy, who are not long in replying. Attacks follow, and the sector will become harder.

There has evidently been a hardening of hearts against the enemy after surviving Verdun.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler is trying to go up to his observation post, but has to turn back. Apparently he doesn’t feel quite right after his narrow escape yesterday.

Walking over this country is not a very pleasant pastime, floundering continually up and down the sides of huge craters, and being tripped up at every step by half-hidden barbed wire. There was one exceptionally large crater which I measured; it had a circumference of 45 yards. I think that the daily dose of gas at the Trones Wood corner tends to rot one’s inside.

For a shell crater, that’s large enough to have come from a heavy howitzer. The ground here is completely dead and desolate.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has just been ordered to move. His time to join the Battle of the Somme may be at hand.

I could not possibly do anything but send [my father] a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems, called “1914 [& Other Poems]”, because there are poems about the soldier which seem to me to hit perhaps the very highest note that has ever been struck during the War. No one who has not been here knows, I think, how difficult those tremendous ideals are, but is the better, I think, out here for reading them. … I think “Safety” is the greatest thing of the War.

Things may be going to happen. There cannot be any more faltering over him. Surely, surely, if all the world is not wrong, I must think ‘All’s well with our Man’, after all. He knows too now, I most deeply believe, he has found at last his music, his art, and his loves And I think, through all my sorrows, of him reaching down to his faltering friend.

Not without many a prayer that I, too, may somehow find sight, to see which way it is written for me to go, and neither to doubt nor to complain any more at all.

Have you tried asking the Adjutant? Or the colonel? I’m sure he knows where it’s written for you to go.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley has now reached Cankiri on his latest journey, where Grigoris Balakian was interned until his deportation.

My wonder at these carts increases daily. Rattling and loosely bolted and wobbling, they appear to be on the point of breaking down every minute. Sometimes three of the tyres of our cart simultaneously were almost off, and the pole hung between the body of the cart and the tree often quite detached. If the wheel slips off they bash it on with a rock or lump of wood, and, like Turkey itself, it just goes on.

At 3 p.m. we reached the small town of Cankiri, the only place of any importance between Angora and Kastamuni. We were frightfully done, but luck ordained it that we were bivouacked by a stream and under some trees quite close to the town. It is a pleasant little town with ten mosques on the steep hillside, heights all round, and many green orchards all about. We got honey, apples, and apricots, fairly cheap. I saw the Angora goat at close quarters. He is a classy little fellow, small, and prettily shaped, with fine bright eyes and carrying the most spotless silken white fleece in the world.

He habitually uses the old spelling “Angora” for “Ankara”, which I usually swap out. Although maybe I shouldn’t, since the Angora goat does not grow Angora wool; it grows mohair (and looks like a curly-haired emo kid). Angora wool comes from rabbits.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still doing fatigues, as he will for the rest of the war unless something very serious happens.

If, as most of the elderly and more cynical sceptics have it, life is but a gamble, selection for a fatigue here in camp is more puzzling than the [WANKY GREEK WORD]. A certain generosity in the way of standing “pints”, etc., does, of course, enter into the transaction, but that alone explains it not. Every morning we are lined up higgledy-piggledy hundreds of us behind the dining-hall on the sandy desert of our “Square”. You choose any neighbour you like in this game of chance. Then you wait.

The Sergeant-Major counts, One, Two, Three, etc., and if you are happy enough to be number nine, you will be one of the fortunate Ten who go on ” wash-house fatigue.” If you are number eleven or twenty-two you will be on the “coal fatigue.” In the former case an elysian existence is yours for the day; twenty bowls are to be cleaned with water and sand by the ten lucky beggars, who after an hour’s pretence of work, dawdle through the morning somehow, smoking and yawning. The others, the poor coal fatigue men, have to slave all day and ” work their guts out.”

Still others get the dining-room fatigue, that smelly messy work that makes one wish to live in a period when all meals are taken as pills, or if that be impossible, when all crockery is made of papier mache, and may be burnt after having been used. Blessed are those that escape the fatigues altogether, for they are “swingin’ the bloody lead!”

Mugge’s date of death does not appear to be known by Mr Google, though he was apparently born in 1878. I would like to think he lived long enough to see the invention of disposable picnic cutlery, was duly amused by the concept, and spent the next few hours happily boring somebody about “during the war…”

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Armenian Genocide | Ostend | 25 Feb 1916

Today there were some goings-on at the Battle of Verdun. For reasons of space, they appear in a separate post over here. Meanwhile…

Grigoris Balakian in the Armenian Genocide

It’s now time to return to Cankiri, where our previously-occasional correspondent Grigoris Balakian is being arrested again. If you want to click on his name and remind yourself who he is, now would be a very good time. The police commissioner has offered him a chance to bribe his way out, but he doesn’t have nearly enough money. In fact, every Armenian in the city, whether part of its community or a deportee from Constantinople, is being arrested. A few can buy their way out again.

But, for most of the Armenians, this can only be the start of their final journey. Der Zor, in the Syrian desert, is their supposed final destination, but nobody can hope to reach it.

After deliberations, we decided that our families should remain in Cankiri, at least to be spared a trip lasting months. And we deportees would at least be spared seeing the agonising tortures and perverse deaths of our loved ones.

The exact details of the deportations were often a little capricious. In Cankiri, the local government will only force the men to leave. Women and children can go if they choose, but “protection” is promised to anyone who wants to stay. Sometimes this meant a quiet but harsh existence on the fringe of some small town. More often it meant the women and children being forcibly absorbed into local families, their Armenian identities denied; or to be caught up in the net of some later round of deportations; or worse.

Anyway, we’ll now be following Balakian day-by-day on the road to nowhere.

Sir Douglas Haig

General Haig is on his way back to London for a meeting with Lord Kitchener about this Verdun business. (His diary entry places that meeting today; for reasons of space, we’ll bump it to tomorrow.) However, on the way, he stops off at Dover for a jolly good chat with two men. One of them, Admiral Bacon, we’ve not met before except on the most extreme of tangents. He commands the Dover Patrol, which seals the Channel against U-boats and anyone else who would disrupt the BEF’s supply lines.

The other man, sadly enough, we have met before. General Hunter-Weston has now recovered from whateveritwas that had seen him sent home from Gallipoli; sadly, he hasn’t recovered from being an incompetent twerp. Casual abuse aside, they’re meeting for an extremely interesting reason. General Haig is still offering patronage and support to the dream that the BEF has held dear since 1914; an attack out of the Ypres salient in Belgium. He may be committed to the Battle of the Somme, but here he’s still dreaming the dream of an amphibious operation to capture Ostend. (This is surely why he’s called for Hunter-Weston, the closest thing to an experienced amphibious man at Haig’s disposal.)

We agreed that it was not a feasible operation until the Enemy’s reserves had been drawn off. I had always held that view. I now directed that the whole scheme should be worked out in the most complete detail, but that the moment for execution of the scheme must depend on the military situation.

I do think this is a very interesting direction. You might expect the Chief to be concentrating all his resources and attention on the Somme, but this clearly is not the case. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing can of course be argued either way. (The British 4th Army has not yet begun its planning for the Somme; their staff won’t be ready to present a plan to Haig for some while yet, and of course they have plenty of time to do so.)

Clifford Wells

Clifford Wells, the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, has finished his bombing course. It finishes with a company-sized exercise, and Wells is playing with some very interesting toys.

The fight took the form of an infantry attack upon a redoubt defended chiefly by grenadiers. The attackers numbered about 200, the defenders about 50. As the attackers advanced in short rushes, we opened fire with our few riflemen (firing blanks of course) and then with our 3 catapults, and 2 spring guns firing bombs, which weigh 2 pounds, about 200 yards.

I had charge of a West Spring Gun. The gun crew consists of five men, three to compress the spring, one to place the bomb in position, and light the fuse, and one to fire as soon as the fuse is lighted. The bomb would burst 4 seconds later, usually just after striking the ground.

The War Office is hard at work developing a proper rifle grenade, but the technology needs much more testing before it matures. In the meantime, these kinds of catapults are spreading all over the front, often designed and hand-built by bored engineers. The exercise comes to an end, and then…

The enemy paused after reaching our trenches to get their breath, and during the pause someone threw a snowball. The next minute something like 250 snowballs were flying through the air. Officers and men acted like schoolboys, and for the next fifteen minutes one of the greatest snowball fights that ever occurred was raging.

It is my private opinion that about thirty men of the Fourth University Company who happened to be among the attackers chose me for their particular target, but I may have got this impression simply from not making good use of the available cover. Altogether, it was the most enjoyable quarter of an hour I have had for some time.

When it was all over, the men picked up their rifles, and the officers picked up their canes and their dignity, and tried to look as if they had never thrown a snowball in their lives. The whole thing was spontaneous, unpremeditated by anyone.


Malcolm White

Malcolm White’s journey to the war has hit a speed-bump.

Stayed in bed all day till tea-time. Fortunate enough to see a doctor. It is a desperate business being ill now. I am lucky to be in Reserve; otherwise I am feeling very wild about it all.

He underplays it considerably here, but he’s actually quite badly ill. He’ll spend most of the next ten days in bed, or being seen to by the medics.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley is trying to keep morale up at the Siege of Kut. This is a challenge.

The show downstream has been postponed. More reinforcements are necessary.

History repeats itself, and we are down to three slices of bread a day. It is a lovely morning. Some gunners were around to dinner last night, bringing their own bread, as is the correct order of things in Kut. We had an excellent roast of horse. For sweets we had rice and date juice, and instead of savoury, “post mortems” on [the Battle of Ctesiphon].

Tomorrow night, he’ll have an extended nightmare which involves various generals bellowing insults at each other over the desert with the aid of enormous megaphones.

Battle of Verdun

Once more, for the goings-on at a crucial day in the Battle of Verdun, see this separate post.

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.)

Akaika Channel | 29 Jun 1915

We’re back with Grigoris Balakian in Cankiri, General Joffre is planning a big party, and the latest escapade in the Akaika Channel. First, an update from the Battle of Gully Ravine; it’s just slightly shorter than yesterday’s news.

Battle of Gully Ravine

A few Ottoman counter-attacks go in today against the MEF’s far left, to not much effect.  This is aimed more at stabilising the situation than actually pushing the MEF back.  The Ottomans have the better part of an entire corps of reinforcements heading to Cape Helles.  They also need time to reorganise units who have lost their cohesion while falling back from the initial attacks.  More tomorrow.

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Usually I enjoy Fels-Naptha ads.  This one is just slightly patronising.

Usually I enjoy Fels-Naptha ads. This one is just slightly patronising.

Akaika Channel

The British official history records the current conditions in the Mesopotamian desert as “almost unbearable”.  Never mind half, that surely isn’t the eighth of it.  Quite aside from the heat, there’s the mud, and the insects, and the mosquitoes.  And then there’s the job of work that has to be done.

The water flow coming out of the Akaika Channel dam is still far too strong for the flotilla.  There’s only one solution; to man-haul the boats up past the dam and into calmer waters. So the blokes set to, in the middle of a desert summer, with ropes and much grumbling.  (I’ll pause for a minute before we move on so y’all can pick your jaws up off the floor.)

Grigoris Balakian

Something disrupts the arrestees’ routine in Cankiri today. It’s far from good news for Grigoris Balakian’s friends. They’re ordered to gather in front of the town hall.

The police chief…in a harsh voice, read out the new blacklist. He ordered those named to one side of the door and, in a harsh voice, read out the new blacklist. He ordered those named to one side of the door, as if he were separating the goats from the sheep. Although we knew nothing specific, we all felt horror and a deathly shiver in our bones.

There are carriages waiting for them. It’s obvious that they’re being taken somewhere else. Balakian is not among the 56, and he rushes to the chief of police to beg him to allow the men a chance to prepare for their journey. They’re given an hour.

Thanks to a few selfless party members, we were able to collect about one gold lira each for the road expenses of our friends. Luckily, some didn’t need any monetary assistance. As the carriages made ready to go, we kissed our friends for what would be the last time. Then the caravan set out, escorted by mounted police soldiers, and as thick clouds of dust rose, they gradually disappeared from view.

We were all overwrought, especially because some of the policemen had whispered in our ears that the caravan was going to Der Zor. Those who had departed were told that they were being taken to Ankara.

Der Zor is a name that resounds through the Armenian genocide as Auschwitz does through the Holocaust. There are a million variant spellings; Deir ez-Zor, Deir Ezzor, Deir Al-Zor, Dayr Al-Zawr, and more. It’s right in the middle of the Syrian desert, near the Euphrates, capital of the Zor province. In 1915, it’s barely more than an overgrown village.

And off the road outside Der Zor, concentration camps are being set up to hold the few Armenians that survive the marches. Inside the camps there will be no food, no water, no work, and eventually, no life, only death. This is not the act of a government taking a drastic but legitimate resettlement measure in the face of war. This is why people call it the Armenian genocide.

First Chantilly Conference

With the Russians still steadily retreating in the face of the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive, General Joffre is distracting himself from recent challenges to his strategy by organising a large military conference at Chantilly (which, by a staggering coincidence, is where he himself has his headquarters).  He intends to propose a large, coordinated offensive in August or September from as many different places as possible; on the Western and Italian Fronts certainly, and if possible on the Serbian front also, in a vast effort to get Germany and Austria-Hungary to transfer their forces away from the Eastern Front and give Russia some breathing room.

As we’ve seen, he’s also angling for the appointment of a generalissimo to combine all Entente efforts, but this will of course come to nothing for a good while yet.  There are also clear advantages to hosting a conference in France.  The chief of the French army is in a clear position of moral authority, considering that France is invaded and most of the army is fighting Germany, clearly recognised by most as the primary opponent.  Joffre hopes to leverage this moral position to advance his own views and get other senior officers onside with them.  (He’s already convinced Sir John French to lobby the War Office to support further attacks on the Western Front instead of, as Lord Kitchener would prefer, standing on the defensive there until next summer when Kitchener’s Army can be used in bulk.)

And, with this in mind, Joffre’s staff at GQG are now busy drawing up plans for yet another major offensive.  Hmmm, I wonder what their conclusion might be?  Answers on a postcard, but no prizes for the winner, sorry.

Louis Barthas

Day breaks, and Louis Barthas and his chums look around at their new trench lodgings.  It’s not exactly the Hotel de Crillon.

We saw with horror that we were in a place completely overturned by recent bombardments.  Here and there, broken rifles, shredded knapsacks, shapeless debris, and alas, some dead bodies, all made a tableau which was hardly reassuring.

And, in good time, the Germans provide them with a welcome.

A big shell landed directly in the trench.  The ground trembled, and we saw a huge bunch of earth thrown more than four metres in the air.  We awaited the explosion that would tear us all to pieces, but all that landed on our heads was a harmless shower of pulverised earth.  The shell hadn’t exploded, which happened sometimes, and and it ploughed deep into the ground.  Half the squad, seized with fear, had fled, but they soon came back.  It was no safer anywhere else than where we were.

There but for the grace of Marx goes he.  One hopes that the dud shell has by now been safely recovered in one of the many iron harvests since then in that part of the world.

Actions in Progress

Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive
Armenian Genocide
Battle of the Isonzo (First Isonzo)
Battle of Gully Ravine

Further Reading

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.  I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

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

Shell Crisis | Rolling barrage | 17 May 1915

The ructions in the British government are coming at an absolutely terrible time. Clear oversight and direction is needed from the Army’s political masters in several different theatres, and nobody is in any position to give it. We’re also looking at recent developments in artillery, and checking in quickly with Grigoris Balakian in Cankiri.

Shell Crisis

Herbert Asquith’s government falls today.  In some ways, it’s a miracle it lasted as long as it did.  The House of Commons was thoroughly hung after the last election, the Liberals forming a government via an agreement with the Irish Party.  After the recent twin shocks of the Shell Crisis and the resignation of Jackie Fisher as First Sea Lord, the Prime Minister’s own party is beginning to turn on him.  Today he has a meeting with the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, and Arthur Balfour.

The practical upshot of this meeting is that Bonar Law and Balfour are prepared to have the Conservatives support Asquith against the rebellious elements of his own party, and the other Opposition parties.  Asquith will stay on as Prime Minister and form a grand coalition with the Conservatives.  He accepts the offer and immediately writes to his government asking them all to resign so that another one can be formed, with priority given to prosecuting the war.

And, although nobody would have known it at the time, that’s the end of the last-ever entirely Liberal government in Britain.  They’ll be in government several more times, but always as a coalition partner.  These events will lead directly to the party’s split in 1922 and their long, slow, undignified slide into irrelevance.

Our Advertising Feature

Ah, the fag end of railway mania!

Ah, the fag end of railway mania!


Having set the wheels in motion for his grand advance towards Baghdad, General Nixon is now corresponding with his bosses.  Neither of them are, as you might expect, Lord Kitchener, or anyone else we’ve been hearing plenty from lately.  Instead, this is being treated as an Indian Army operation, with oversight mostly coming from New Delhi and the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge. All that London knows about Mesopotamia is coming via Lord Crewe, the secretary of state for India.  Crewe has been prevaricating and attempting to pass the buck to Penshurst; Nixon now begins love-bombing the Viceroy with situation assessments and reports of recent actions.

Rolling barrages

We now must meet for the first time a French general who we’ll be hearing rather a lot from in the months and years to come.  His name is Robert Nivelle, and he’s an artilleryman by trade, currently in command of 61st Division.  He’s recently been doing some blue-sky thinking on how to improve the effectiveness of artillery barrages.  At the time, the standard tactic for the final bombardment before an advance came in the form of a lifting barrage.

The lifting barrage first concentrated a hefty weight of fire on the enemy’s front line, to keep the men pinned down inside their dugouts. There would also be pauses of a few minutes at a time during the barrage, to entice men to come out of their dugouts and be shelled.  This also would mean that they couldn’t come out as soon as the barrage ended; they’d have to remain down there until they could be sure it was over.  Once the barrage did lift, the guns would then be re-targeted on the enemy’s rear areas, to prevent friendly fire, to conduct counter-battery fire against enemy guns, and to interfere with their attempts to bring up reserves.

General Nivelle has been attempting to refine these tactics, and today he writes to his corps commander with some suggestions.  In it he lays out the basic principles behind the rolling or creeping barrage.  (The two terms do refer to slightly different tactics, but the basic principle is the same.)  Instead of picking specific targets in succession, the rolling barrage is targeted on areas of ground.  It’s designed to advance by 100 yards or so every couple of minutes (artillery fire was only expected to be accurate to within 100 yards). 

This would allow the men to go over the top while the enemy’s front trenches are still under fire.  If they follow close behind the barrage, they can then enter the trenches unopposed, trap the enemy in their dugouts, and use grenades to summarily deal with anyone who’s disinclined to surrender.  It’s an excellent idea, and when the idea has been properly tested and matures, it’ll form a major component of many victories for both sides.

But this is 1915, and it’s still just a glint in a few theorists’ eyes.  Incidentally, there’s also signs of BEF original thinking from the still-raging Battle of Festubert (no, they haven’t taken Festubert yet).  Here they’ve attempted to solve the problem of attacking over areas where No Man’s Land is 200 yards or more wide.  On the first day the men went over the top while the barrage was still being fired on the front line.  They then laid down in No Man’s Land and took the best cover that they could while waiting for the barrage to lift.

Second Artois

Once again the weather intervenes.  The latest attacks are to be aimed at the base of Vimy Ridge, and have decidedly limited objectives.  Breakthrough hopes are now entirely gone.  All they’re trying to do is capture positions from which another attack can be launched, and it’s that second attack which will put them back on top of the hill.

And now it’s raining again.  With trenches once again filling full of water and No Man’s Land becoming a vast swamp, the attacks are delayed for three days to give the ground a chance of drying out slightly.

Grigoris Balakian

While we’ve got a moment, let’s also check in with Grigoris Balakian, still caught in the overture to the Armenian Genocide.  He and his comrades have now been allowed to leave the Cankiri armoury, although not to leave the town.  They quickly find house-room among the local population.  Messages flood back to Constantinople from the detainees, asking their families to send money.  A development today gives some of them hope that they might soon be allowed to return home.

Everyone expended much effort petitioning the Armenophile Talaat Pasha, demanding justice by telegram.  Some appealed to influential friends of various nationalities.  Still others secretly appealed to their families, asking for bribes.  Thanks to the American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, five exiled friends succeeded in returning to Constantinople.

This brief flash of hope will be left to flicker and fade over several months.

Actions in Progress

Defence of Van
Battle of Ypres (Second Ypres)
Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive
Battle of Artois (Second Artois)
May 14th Revolt
Shell Crisis
Battle of Festubert

Further Reading

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.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

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

GHQ Line | 01 May 1915

The BEF begins the process of retiring to the GHQ Line at Second Ypres. There’s also a major Ottoman counter-attack on Gallipoli; on the Eastern Front, the Germans begin a small offensive to relieve the pressure on the Carpathians; and Grigoris Balakian does what he can for his fellows.

GHQ Line

Here’s the map from Second Ypres as it currently stands, with the GHQ Line marked in pink.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Today Sir John French gets the word that General Joffre has vetoed any further French attacks towards Pilckem, and he gives orders to begin the retirement. It’s an extremely tricky and extended process. If the Germans get any kind of wind as to what’s going on, then despite their lack of numbers, all they have to do is charge and wreak havoc among unprepared men. The sides of the salient are to be evacuated first, and this includes many of the Canadians who bore much of the brunt of the fighting. One of them, Jack Dorgan, has seen a particular amount of suffering.

It was exactly a week after we’d landed in France. One week to the day, and the next afternoon when we assembled as a Battalion after that week in Flanders, we found ourselves with 400-odd men out of nearly 1,200 who’d landed in France. Most of my pals were gone, either killed or wounded. I don’t remember whether it was the adjutant or the Colonel who sent for me, and he says “You are now a corporal”. By then practically all the officers and NCOs were wiped out. And it was just one week since we’d come off the boat. All gone.

In terms of his withdrawal, he’s one of the lucky ones. There are men at Broodseinde and Polygon Wood who will have to stay in the line another four days. They’ve already been up the line twelve days without relief. Simple fatigue is beginning to take its toll on the readiness of the men.

Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

All this is supposed to be is a short, sharp shock in the vicinity of the River Vistula to give the Russians something other than their Carpathian campaign to think about. In command of the offensive, General Mackensen is planning to experiment with new tactics. His preliminary bombardment will be closer to hurricane tactics than the overwhelming concepts now being drawn up by the French. However, it will be laid down almost entirely by the heaviest guns at his disposal. For four hours the guns pound the Russian positions between Tarnow and Grybow. The Russians take what cover they can, and prepare to meet the German advance.

It doesn’t happen. Afternoon stretches to night, and the Germans don’t come on, yet.


There’s fighting all day on Gallipoli, as the Ottomans make a heavy push to throw the invaders back into the sea. The primary action occurs at ANZAC Cove, where Mustafa Kemal orders repeated attacks based on reports that the ANZACs are tired and their morale is faltering. Unfortunately for him, this almost entirely fails to make up for his shortage of artillery shells and the 220-yard distance between the trenches.

Although the ANZACs’ supporting fire from offshore is mostly ineffective, their rifles and machine-guns more than make up for it. Most of the attackers are cut down in No Man’s Land. A few isolated parties reach the ANZAC lines and are then cut down with the bayonet. Further attacks are ordered at 10:30am and 4:30pm, with similar results. The tide is, however, washing further and further up the beach each time, and by nightfall some of the Ottoman trenches are less than ten yards away from their opponents’.

Kemal doubles down, ordering a night assault, with attacks at midnight and then 2am. The defenders may be tired and annoyed, but they’re still capable of looking to their fronts, and they see their opponents off once more. As silence settles over the battlefield, the Ottomans have lost between 6,000 and 10,000 casualties.

Cape Helles

Meanwhile, at Cape Helles, there’s a night attack at the same time as at ANZAC Cove. This one has no prepatory bombardment by design; they’re looking for surprise, and by attacking only at night they hope to neutralise the invaders’ artillery support, both from French soixante-quinzes and the fleet lying offshore at anchor. It’s mostly ineffectual, and not helped by a lack of staff officers and the frequent failure of their field-telephone network. Another attack at Helles is planned for tomorrow.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach has been sent on a day trip to Rethel to buy odds and sodds. He manages to return as far as Vouzieres, but he can’t get a lift any further back as night falls. So he decides to walk instead.

A brilliant starlit May night, the meadows and ploughed fields fragrant with spring smells. The nightingales were singing away, and I could have walked on for ever, only hoping that a night like this would never end. Didn’t meet a soul. It really did look as though there wasn’t a war on, it was like a fairytale tramping through the little French villages, all sound asleep. The moon rose at midnight and lit up this lovely district, it was almost bright as daylight. I got to Les Petites Armoises at three in the morning.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian is well known to the Armenians of Cankiri, having been their prelate some years ago, and he’s able to acquire a Bible and a prayer book so he can say vespers for the detainees. Through them, he’s also able to make contact with the Armenian community back in Constantinople, who take up a collection to send them some money.

Now we assembled, irrespective of political party, class, piety or skepticism, to hold evening service at dusk by dim candlelight. When Archimandrite Komitas began his melancholy and heart-wrenching Der Voghormia, the sobbing was impossible to contain. We all cried like boys over our loved ones left behind, over our fate, over the bloody days just passed, even without knowing we were on the brink. Perhaps Komitas had never in his life sung it with such emotion. Normally he would sing it ex officio, as solace for the pain, grief and mourning of others. This time he sang out of his own grief and emotional turmoil, asking the eternal God for comfort and solace.

God, however, remained silent.

An Archimandrite, by the way, is a senior priest in the Armenian church, senior to Balakian himself, immediately below the rank of bishop.

Actions in Progress

Defence of Van
Battle of Ypres (Second Ypres)

Further Reading

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.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

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