Decimation | Cadorna | Asiago | 26 May 1916

Battle of Asiago

Let us begin with an update from the actual fighting at the Battle of Asiago. It’s still pretty much unmitigated bad news for Italy. The Austro-Hungarians are still advancing with only isolated areas of resistance. They’re starting to attack positions around Arsiero, and the fall of Asiago itself won’t be slow to follow. The Asiago plateau is still wide open. Nevertheless, I’ve had plenty of surprisingly good things to say about General Cadorna thus far. He’s been taking a number of extremely prudent damage limitation measures. From his record so far in the war of bull-headed idiocy, I absolutely did not see that coming.

And then. And then. Having put the strategic situation in hand, Cadorna has turned his attention back to a nasty little problem. A major factor in the Austro-Hungarian advances has been the poor morale of the 1st Army, whose men have been quick to surrender. Even when they’ve not put up their hands, they have been very easy to push out of their positions, retreating without orders and in bad order. Now we must rewind to the start of the year, when we found Cadorna writing to the Prime Minister, bleating that he’s not allowed by military law to shoot his own men out of hand.

Cadorna’s very first order to the army in 1915, nearly a year ago to the day, dealt solely with discipline. It was an iron first to end all iron fists. That September, he outright called for summary execution for men who fail at “taking the way of honour that leads to victory or death”. He has now had enough of trying to act with government sanction. We must do something drastic, this is something drastic, we must do this. Politicians be damned.

So today he has written a memo, for general distribution, urging his officers to execute immediately any man whose actions were “unworthy of an army that upholds the cult of military honour”. It will not be long before some [LONG LIST OF EXPLETIVES DELETED] decides to take advantage of this new opportunity to get a boost up the greasy pole on the backs of his own dead men. Ugh. Let’s go talk about something less depressing.

Battle of the Somme

Yes, this now counts as “less depressing”.

Time to dot the Is and cross the Ts on the Battle of the Somme. The reduction in French forces committed to the battle passes without a squeak; the BEF has already been planning under this assumption. General Haig’s suggestion that the offensive should be delayed until mid-August? Eh, not so much. General Joffre had opened the conference with such cheerful observations as “To allow its allies to be prepared completely, France has resisted alone violent enemy assaults for three months. The enemy probably wanted to hinder the general offensive. It would be vain to deny that he has succeeded.”

It’s perhaps then not surprising that almost as soon as Haig mentioned mid-August, Joffre completely lost his temper, shouting “The French Army will cease to exist!” This is an exaggeration, but perhaps it is merely Joffre playing “bad flic” to General Castelnau’s good flic. In any case, we saw yesterday that Haig is more than prepared to give in if the suggestion doesn’t appear to be going down well. So he does, Joffre’s temper immediately soothes, and we’re back once more to the 1st of July. Haig does request that this date not be tampered with at the last minute, as happened last year when attempting to coordinate the Battle of Loos with Third Artois.

The 1st of July is just a month and change away. And by then, the grand summer offensive will be well and truly underway. Last summer was busy as all hell; it’s looking to be no different this year also.

Greece and Bulgaria

Pretty much nobody in the Balkans is satisfied with the current situation. The Serbian Army, of course, has been thrown out of their own country. The Greek people are trapped between a rock and a hard place; there is strong popular support for Eleftherios Venizelos, and while King Constantine I’s actions have been constitutional, they’ve certainly been anti-democratic. But, they might well have saved Greece from invasion in 1915. General Sarrail desperately wants to attack and achieve something and make his name. General Milne wants nothing of the sort.

On the other side of the hill, the Germans are trying very hard not to think about all this. The Austro-Hungarians have seemingly achieved their war aims (remember those?), but the Serbian Army is still a viable fighting force, and the wobbling Austro-Hungarian army is still committed to three fronts. And then there’s the Bulgarians. They’d love to take further action to get rid of the Gardeners of Salonika and maybe grab a bit of Greece into the bargain. Capturing Salonika itself would mean gaining a vital Mediterranean port, one that wouldn’t require ships to pass through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus.

On the other hand, it’s not without a gigantic dollop of risk. There’s been a great deal of umming and ahhing and considerations of whys and wherefores and consultations with the Germans. Finally, they’re now going to do something; but the plan appears to be along the lines of “poke it with a stick and see what happens”. A brigade of the Army advances today into Greece along the line of the River Struma and pitches up next to Fort Rupel, demanding the fort be surrendered. The fort’s commander realises that this is far above his pay grade and contacts the Greek government.

Now what? Surrender, and you lose the “at least we’re stopping the country being dismembered by foreigners!” angle. Fight, and that surely means war with the Central Powers, which means all the effort you’ve gone to to keep Venizelos out of power is completely wasted. There’s no good answer to this problem, and no time to think up a plan as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at the University of Athens. The least worst option, from a monarchist perspective, is surrender; so the Army hands over the keys and scuttles off westwards.

This drops a massive depth charge into all the Entente calculations. General Milne has recently renegotiated the British force’s role at Salonika, and so it will be his responsibility to send men up the Struma Valley to defend against a Bulgarian attack up the coast from the east. Meanwhile, a large amount of very polite diplomatic shouting begins. More soon!

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has discovered that there is nothing like the prospect of imminent death to keep your mind off ill health.

The Germans began shelling one of our A3 carts which was crossing the open. One of the shells went quite near the cart and another quite near us and we were expecting them to come on to our hill but we were lucky. … Dick, Smith and I then made an oven in the ground to bake our bread and scones in, after which I had a look at the German position through Mr Parsons’s field glasses. The Germans evidently have put up a dummy trench as it is so clear and the hill they are on affords ample cover without the necessity for trenches. They use a huge rock as outlook and it commands a good view.

When rations had been issued Alf made some bread and scones which after being allowed to rise were baked in the oven and were a success. I cut up the meat and found it a bit of a job as everybody wanted a bit of bone. Anyway I managed alright and got a good bit of fat for our mess. … I slept under a rock near our kitchen to look after the grub. The Germans began shelling the 10th Regiment’s trenches before tea with shrapnel and we had a good view of it from our look-out. Slept comfortably.

I usually try not to be skeptical of what seem like unlikely assertions. This guy’s barely been a soldier for six months, this is his second day under fire, he’s not got much cover if artillery fire does come onto their hills, and they could start shooting at any time during the night. When it comes to “slept comfortably”, I reckon there’s a real possibility that he might just have written down what he would rather have happened.

Building a bread oven in the field, on the other hand? That’s totally believable. Nothing like a good arts and crafts project to keep your mind off a stressful situation.

Malcolm White

Speaking of summary executions, let’s see if Malcolm White can write in his diary without making me want to have him put up against a wall by the Revolution.

Slept till late in the morning. Had a fine night and worked from 9.30 to 1.30, and then watched the daylight come as we marched back along Watling Street (so says the map), which is here under mined with trenches and sometimes swept by machine guns, which leads from the trenches to Radlett, and so to Church Stretton and Wenlock Edge. There was a bombardment of the trench in front (our front line) from 11pm to 11:15pm, and we had to stop work.

During this day there were many turns and much glorious futility, and I realised that I am peculiarly fortunate in my fellow Company-officers.

Sorry, mate. You probably aren’t.

On the subject of “how does the BEF name things?”, a mild preoccupation of mine: ‘Watling Street’ is about the most useless regional marker possible, since the most famous Watling Street runs 275 miles from mid-Wales through London to Dover. However, it does run through Shrewsbury near its beginning, and “Church Stretton” and “Wenlock Edge” are both just to the south of Shrewsbury, so I’ll guess that these names have almost certainly been applied by the Rifle Brigade.

(Radlett is more of a mystery; there is a Radlett on Watling Street, but it’s more than a hundred miles away in Hertfordshire…)

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

Further Reading

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

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

Voie Sacree | 13 Mar 1916

Voie Sacree

Right then. The Battle of Verdun is now firmly into the attrition phase. Time to consider how it was that the French were able to keep fighting. A major part of the German reasoning for choosing Verdun, after all, was that they had cut all the major road and rail links between Verdun and the rest of France. Before the battle the French had installed a Decauville narrow-gauge railway and widened the biggest “road” remaining so that traffic could pass in either direction. However, this single supply route is still a piddly little thing compared to pretty much anywhere else on the Western Front.

Indeed, a few days after the start of the battle Generals Petain and Castelnau both attempted to use the road to get forward and were held up by massive traffic jams. If Petain understands nothing else, he understands that it’s the logistics, stupid. The details in a moment; but first, a loudmouthed journalist and conservative deputy called Maurice Barrès has just (or possibly will soon; it depends who you read) referred to the road as the Voie Sacree, the Sacred Way, in his column for the first time.

Barres, incidentally, is a rather odd fellow; as a young man he spent a lot of time hanging around Gabriele D’Annunzio, and his relentlessly optimistic newspaper columns are viewed by Le Canard enchaine with the same kind of total contempt as the Wipers Times had for Hilaire Belloc, calling him “Chief of the brainwashers’ tribe”.

Anyway. The road has been divided into seven sectors of control, each with its own complement of second-line Territorial soldiers to do whatever needs doing. Staff officer Major Richard has set down precise and careful instructions for every detail of the road’s efficient operation. Most importantly, broken-down vehicles are to be immediately pushed into the nearest ditch and attended to there. Traffic is carefully and strictly regulated all along the road. A series of workshops is being established at intervals to provide any kind of repair.

Particularly important is the provision of plenty of spare tyres for motor transport. Arrangements have been made for the transport of gravel from nearby quarries to keep the road passable in case of bad weather. Petain’s staff has been scouring the Army, and the rest of free France, for every kind of automobile that can possibly be had. There will be no horses and carts at Verdun. A second track to the Decauville railway line is being built. What all this adds up to is a simple, telling, and oft-quoted statistic.

If you were to stand by the side of the Voie Sacree at any point on the road, at any given time during the battle, then 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you would see a truck of some sort go past every 25 seconds or so. If you happened to be there when things were hot at the front, you would see a truck every 12 seconds. This is an incredible feat of logistics. It’s no exaggeration to say that it, more than perhaps anyone or anything else, saved Verdun from occupation.

U-boats and Admiral Tirpitz

The latest, limited U-boat campaign begins today. Admiral von Tirpitz, architect of the German naval policy that did so much to create the current Franco-British alliance, is deeply unhappy. He’s been loudly advocating unrestricted submarine warfare, and now that the Kaiser has definitely ruled it out for the forseeable future, he’s had enough and offers his resignation (for the second time). He’ll eventually come back into the story, but for the most part, his race is now run.

Grigoris Balakian

On the march with a new contingent of Jandarma, Grigoris Balakian does the prudent thing.

As was my custom, I began to cultivate the new Jandarma accompanying us, especially their Captain Osman, an educated young man from Constantinople, who had worked in the central telegraph office. To avoid being sent to the front as a soldier, he had taken this job as Jandarma officer and had just arrived in this most bloody district.

Fortunately, our first day passed without incident.

How long can his luck hold out, I wonder?

E.S. Thompson

In Africa, it’s now time for General Smuts’s men to set off after the Schutztruppe and cut them off before they can escape again. E.S. Thompson is not best pleased at the prospect.

Started on the march at 9.30am on the road to Moshi. Did not feel inclined for marching and it was so awfully hot. Our gun mule got the colic so the porters had to carry the guns. I had started out with 1/3 of a water bottle full and suffered from thirst very much. The Indian Pioneer Regiment were repairing the road and building bridges all the way along. After we had marched 10 miles we came across a coffee plantation and got some dirty water to drink.

Slept with Dick in the gun position. It began to rain at about 9 o’clock, so we shared my waterproof and Dick’s old one between the 3 of us, but we couldn’t keep the rain out and spent a rather uncomfortable night. Hear Moshi had been evacuated. Suffered from blistered heel. Rum issued.

It’d be a real blow to General Smuts if the Schutztruppe really have left Moshi. His advance has now been stymied by more blown bridges than the Pioneers can easily repair. More tomorrow.

Edward Mousley

The Siege of Kut continues. Morale remains firmly in the latrine. Edward Mousley continues doing his best.

More rain has fallen! The [River Tigris] is almost bank high, and still rising.

I have been around the horses. Every tail is bare, and the jhuls and head ropes disappear as fast as they are put on. They all remain perpetually on the qui vive to prevent their stall-mates from biting them. Some are scarcely horses, but rather half-inflated horse skins.

Downstream, General Gorringe is drawing up plans for a fresh attack, but at an extremely leisurely pace. Amongst the staff there’s virtually no conception of the need for speed; in Kut they can think of little else.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux is not finding rest in Bouxieres to be very restful.

I am terribly bored in this unsympathetic atmosphere where I have no friends. We are in a state of alert in a rotten little village of about 20 inhabitants. There’s no escape. Even with the prospect of leaving for the front at any moment, it’s barrack life. We clean the streets. In our quarters we make weapon racks, polish everything, and do theory.

Hold onto your hats, I’ve got a serious shock to report.

Louis Barthas

Private Louis Barthas is more comfortable than somebody! He’s just journeyed a good long way south and arrived at Lamotte-Buleux, near the mouth of the River Somme, just north of Abbeville. This is about as close as he can hope to get to the rear without going on leave or else falling into the Channel.

The squad I was in was lucky enough to be lodged with sturdy farm folk who also ran a roadside tavern, where the tables and chairs were at our disposal for taking our meals. In the barn, a soft bed of fresh straw was heavenly for us. Of course, the drills began right away, and no doubt at the orders of our commandant they became long and intensive.

A solid roof, fresh straw, and a table and chair to eat at. There’s even plenty of food. Luxury! And he’s got plenty of time to plot revenge against his superiors. Good thing there’s all this drill about to stop them from going soft. There is one worrying thing; all leave has been cancelled. More soon.

Robert Pelissier

Up on the Hartmannswillerkopf, Robert Pelissier is almost forgetting what the world outside his trench looks like, but that’s okay. I remind readers that he consistently refers to the Germans as “Dutch”.

We are wondering whether we shall ever come down. To-morrow will be the forty-third day spent here in close proximity to our friends the Dutch, very close proximity, since we can and do throw hand grenades at one another, and it will be the fifty-eighth day since we left the valley or have been in any town. We do not complain, however, because this apparently undue prolongation of service is the result of the fighting which is now raging around [Verdun].

Their attacking with so much determination at this time of the year was a big surprise to everybody. … Personally, I am having a pretty good time as one of the lieutenants is away just now and I have taken his place, being in charge of … one-quarter of the company. It is pretty good sport and gives one a little additional freedom if there is such a thing as freedom in this infernal business.

We did have one scandal. A man was taken sick. He was sent to the hospital from which he ran away, disappearing completely from sight then turning up again. He had just wanted a few days to get married and had taken them. Of course, he now faces court-martial for desertion, and the joke of it is that he won the Croix de Guerre for bravery last summer.

Have been able to order canned jam and condensed milk, so am living like a prince. Hot milk chocolate at 2am when on duty!

If he knew the fate of the decorated deserter, it never made it into print.

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.)

General Petain’s rise | Fort Douaumont’s fall | 25 Feb 1916

It’s time for another split day. This is about today at the Battle of Verdun. For everything else today, see this post.

Petain’s dirty weekend

Yesterday, we found two cars leaving GQG at Chantilly on long journeys with urgent missions. The first contains General Castelnau, the commander-in-chief’s right hand, who’s speeding towards Verdun; we’ll catch up to him in a moment. The second is someone’s aide-de-camp, on a rather shorter journey to Second Army’s headquarters. He’s carrying the most urgent of messages for General Petain; report to GQG at 8am sharp to receive new orders.

General Petain is not there. Fortunately, Petain’s aide-de-camp is a man of the world; and so it’s he who carries the message on by car, to a hotel near the Gare du Nord in Paris. The general, a good Frenchman to the bottom of his boots, is taking what may well be the last opportunity for a long time to spend the night with his mistress. His young ADC interrupts him, briefly. Petain instructs him to take a room in the hotel until the morning. There is, apparently, time enough to finish the game and beat the Germans too.

You know, just in case you had any doubts at all about how French this all is. Anyway, even General Joffre isn’t getting much sleep; the Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, has arrived, demanding a personal update on the situation. In an extremely savvy move, Joffre has in turn awakened some of his staff who have been suggesting to him that perhaps Verdun might be given up. He then sits back quietly and lets them present the argument to the Prime Minister, while he himself judges the mood of the conversation.

This is not difficult; Briand is quite certain that if Verdun falls, so too does his government, and in his diary he admits to a frank exchange of views which finishes with him threatening to sack the entire room. Joffre can then speak up and point out what he’s already done to defend the east bank, and reassure the Prime Minister that of course he’ll hold out.

The sharp end at Verdun

Meanwhile, we find the blokes preparing a major retirement from the Woevre plain. Even before Briand’s arrival at GQG, Joffre had indeed made it quite clear that the east bank of the Meuse had to be defended. Conveniently, there are all these fortresses lying around that can be used as the anchors of a new defensive position around Verdun. Often referred to as the Douaumont-Vaux-Eix Line, it looks something like this.

Line of retreat in pink: positions of the front lines are as before dawn today

Line of retreat in pink: positions of the front lines are as before dawn today

The retirement begins as soon as messages can be sent forward, and although the Germans gain much territory today, most of it is being given up with minimal fighting. This means another retreat for the French artillery, another prolonged period when they’ll be barely able to support their infantry. Every gun available must be used, which includes the single 155mm howitzer still emplaced in Fort Douaumont.

Fort Douaumont

You may remember a few days ago how we discussed that Douaumont has, until very recently, been considered surplus to requirements. The Engineers had been preparing it for demolition, but they’ve now stopped work and cleared off. However, its earmarking for demolition has caused most everyone to forget all about it. No French soldier is retreating to it. No French reinforcements are advancing to occupy it. As far as the French Army is concerned, Fort Douaumont may as well have fallen into a hole.

There is one man on all the Western Front who has a diffferent opinion. His name is Sergeant Kunze; he’s a German engineer attached to the 24th Brandenburg Regiment. (Long-time readers will remember that German combat engineers are combat engineers; our long-departed correspondent the German Sapper spent a lot of his time throwing grenades at the enemy.) The German stormtrooper leapfrogs are advancing quicker than ever as the French infantry retreats before them.

Kunze had been ordered to halt 750 metres in front of Douaumont and wait for support, but he’s German, and therefore encouraged to take advantage of local opportunities. So, in the late afternoon, he leads ten of his sappers forward, waiting for someone to shoot at them. It never happens. The 155mm gun continues firing at God knows what several kilometres away. Soon the sergeant and his men are at the walls of the fortress. One human pyramid later and Kunze has achieved what I suppose we must describe as “infiltrating” the fort.

Single-handed and armed only with a rifle, Kunze tours the fort. Whether or not he succeeded in arresting the gunners manning the 155mm gun is unclear; they may have escaped into the fort for a while. At any rate he wanders around for a time (it’s often said that he stopped to eat a meal that the French had prepared for themselves) until some more raiding parties arrive and, with the advantage of numbers, take full control of the fort. Messages are sent to the rear and the last-arriving officer, one Captain von Brandis, hurries to call for reinforcements and place himself at the centre of events.

Fort Douaumont is German. No casualties were taken, with the possibly-apocryphal exception of a scraped German knee. No shots were fired. When the local French infantry commanders see German signal rockets rising over Fort Douaumont, they immediately advance to the rear once more. Most of the civilians go with them, fleeing their homes. In Verdun one lieutenant’s nerves break and he runs through the town yelling “every man for himself” until he can be arrested.

The Germans, meanwhile, immediately begin preparing to consolidate and push on once more. When the Kaiser is told of the news, he immediately begins making plans to visit the front. The Government prepares to declare a public holiday tomorrow in celebration. And this is the situation that General Petain finds when he arrives at Souilly town hall, home of the headquarters for the Fortified Region of Verdun. The MSPaint map by midnight:

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

General Castelnau gives Petain further orders and then makes a quiet exit. Take over command from General Herr, hold the line, don’t fuck up.

The rest of today

Once again, for everything else that happened today, see this 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.)

Beaumont | Woevre | Verdun | 24 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

The Germans continue rolling carefully but slowly forwards, now beginning to nuzzle up against what a week ago had been the third French defensive position. Here and there the French Army organises determined stands, most particularly at Beaumont, where concentrated machine-gun fire holds the enemy off for hours. But by and large it’s a fourth straight day of retreating. The MSPaint map…

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

And, at last, the centime has finally dropped back at GQG. Perhaps it was a good night’s sleep, or a good afternoon’s lunch, that helped General Joffre finally accept that his assumptions were completely wrong and that the Battle of Verdun is no preliminary poke. Or perhaps it’s a string of messages sent by General de Langle as the situation continues to deteriorate today. They finish with a telephone call at 7pm. de Langle informs his boss that on his own authority he’s ordering the men east of Verdun to abandon the Woevre plain and fall back on Verdun and the Meuse Heights. He also mentions that he’s considering abandoning the east bank of the river altogether.

There’s some divergence here when discussing what Joffre made of all this. Quite a few times I’ve seen the Chief described as being somewhat ambivalent towards the fate of Verdun, prepared to abandon it altogether if he thinks he could survive the political fallout. This does not accord with an order he gave to de Langle tonight. While approving of a withdrawal from the Woevre, he makes it quite clear that the forts on the east bank are still highly defensible positions, now that they’re part of a modern trench network, and are to be defended.

Late tonight, General Joffre is in bed; but Paris and M. Etienne will have no reassurance today. General Castelnau has woken his boss with an urgent message. Exactly what was said and how it was said is disputed, and boringly disputed at that. Suffice it to say that in short order, the Chief is back in dreamland. However, he’s taken two important decisions. Castelnau will go to Verdun with full authority to take the situation in hand himself. And, to stiffen the defences, General Petain and his spare Second Army is to be taken off training duty and immediately sent to Verdun. Of course, first Petain must be located, of which more tomorrow.

Africa

General Smuts has now completed his quick tour of the front, and officially reports that he’s confident of being able to implement Smith-Dorrien’s plan for twin attacks on Kilimanjaro and Taveta. War Office approval soon arrives and he’s only waiting for the last of his South Africans to arrive in theatre before launching his offensive.

Meanwhile, one of his subordinates has committed the dastardly crime of not agreeing wholeheartedly with Smuts’s optimism. General Stewart commands what’s left of Indian Expeditionary Force “C”; an experienced and respected man, he’s worried about a number of things. For one, he’s worried about how the South Africans are going to co-exist with Indian and African allies when they’re being loudly and openly racist about them. (Apparently the Baluchis’ zinger with the machine gun at Salaita Hill, if it happened, hasn’t had the desired effect.)

Currently at Longido, the Indians’ job will be to conduct a long and exhausting south-east march to Moshi, just to the south of Mount Kilimanjaro and due east of Taveta, and then proceed to Kahe to cut the Northern Railway and destroy the Schutztruppe’s mobility. Stewart is deeply concerned that Smuts hasn’t allowed nearly enough time for his men to complete their march, over incredibly inhospitable country and with no chance of having a reliable supply line back to Longido.

However, all that Stewart has achieved by expressing his reasonable concerns is to offend his boss. I for one am shocked and appalled that Smuts, a man who’s going to spend the next 30 years liberally fertilising the soil in which apartheid grew, isn’t overly concerned about Indians and black Africans under his command…

E.S. Thompson

While the generals squabble amongst themselves, E.S. Thompson is going out into the bush to give an apparent enemy patrol something to worry about.

Left camp 7am and marched about 3 miles into the bush. When we had our first halt we heard 2 shots so halted for some time to see what was happening, but nothing did, so we got on the march again and reached the hill (to the north) at 9.45 and off-saddled till 12. I found a German cigarette tin and a few pages from a German book…we zig-zagged through the bush and got home about 2.30. Went on perimeter guard with No 4 Gun.

A whole lot of nothing, but better for the adrenaline than going on a simple route march.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler of the artillery has a new gig. He’s still near Frise, but they’ve recently re-organised the sector divisions so that Anglo-French communication isn’t being done by shouting over the River Somme any more, so everyone’s shuffled up a bit. And guess who’s been put in charge of liaison now?

I at once determined to have a private telephone line to the French headquarters, as the old method was too cumbersome. In the morning I crossed the river and found Commandant Lotte. I already knew his aide-de-camp and we soon had the details of the proposed new line fixed up. They gave me a first-class lunch of five courses in a cellar, and we then went over to visit a 75mm battery. By dark my army of telephonists had got the new line established, nearly 5,000 yards but clear as a bell.

Our correspondent now has a chance to be exposed to the French way of doing things.

The French seem very fond of using the phone. They constantly ring me up at odd hours of the night and day, often merely for a chat. My telephonists are busy learning French. Nominally I am attached to a new British group, but they do not worry about me or my doings. I just go my own sweet way and report after action.

Nice work if you can get it.

Edward Mousley

From one artillery officer to another. The brief outbreak of hope for a relief expedition at the Siege of Kut has died away now. Edward Mousley reports.

We are to remain in a state of diminishing expectancy and increasing disappointment. We acknowledge the colossal difficulties that beset our friends downstream, nor do we forget one division there has been previously decimated in France, and has many recruits. The fighting is against the pick of Turkish troops entrenched behind seas of mud.

The Mussulman soldiers here will not eat horseflesh.

“Mussulman” is like “Mohammedan”, a no-longer-used term for a Muslim.

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.)

Frise, Vimy, and the Somme | 14 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

It’s still raining at Verdun. No battle today. Instead, there’s another attack in the Ypres salient at the Bluff, another all-but-insignificant knobbly bit that counts as high ground in Flanders. The BEF is pushed off the, um, feature (I can’t call it a hill in good conscience, although it is well named for the target of a diversionary attack). If the Germans are intending their main attack to come here, to cut them off from the Channel ports, this is an obvious preliminary measure…

The Organ Grinders’ Conference

Today there’s an Anglo-French military conference between the organ grinders: Joffre, Castelnau, Haig, and Wully Robertson. No monkeys here. And it turns out that the Germans have actually done their enemy a mild favour by attacking at Frise. They’ve shown it’s actually quite difficult to do inter-unit cooperation when they’re separated by the River Somme, so the sector division is going to be adjusted slightly to the north and the French will now take both banks of the river.

Both Joffre and Haig also feel they’ve come away with quite a coup. General Joffre has secured a commitment for the BEF to take over the Vimy sector currently being held by the French 10th Army. General Haig has succeeded in keeping the wording and nature of this commitment vague. Haig, never the most modest of men, wastes no time after the conference loudly trumpeting his achievement in a letter to the King.

I have however accepted the principle that the British Army would take over the 10th Army front when it was able to do so. And I added that would probably be “next winter”!

He’s also won most of his point about saving their strength for the one big push in July (still on the Somme, it’s what Joffre wants). There’s still an agreement for “a partial attack in northern France”, but this sounds suspiciously like an argument for some kind of Fourth Battle of Artois rather than a BEF attack. Where that 10th Army may well still be found. Say what you want about Haig as a tactician or a commander, but he certainly seems to have driven a very favourable bargain here.

Oh yes, and they’ve also re-affirmed their commitment to a July 1 attack at the Battle of the Somme, or thereabouts.

Erzurum Offensive

Under a determined attack from three sides, Tafet Fort falls to the Russians. The way is now open to Erzurum from the north. Crucially, the way is also open to the road leading west out of Erzurum and into the Anatolian heartland. If the Ottomans don’t get out now, they’re going to lose their army. Mahmut Kamil makes the only decision he can this evening, and his army begins another hasty advance to the rear.

Meanwhile, General Yudenich is ordering his men on the Black Sea coast to advance…

Edward Mousley

For Captain Edward Mousley at the Siege of Kut: it’s 8am, time for the bomb inside your bottom to explode! Continuing the Sunny Subaltern’s arse-related theme from yesterday…

This morning I awoke feeling abominably seedy with sharp pains across the small of my back, awful head and wretchedly feverish. Devereux and I are suffering from dysentery, as, in one form or another, are many others. This complaint in its mildest form is diarrhoea which becomes colitis, which becomes dysentery, which turns sometimes to cholera.

The doctors shake their heads and say: “Diet.” They might as well recommend a sea trip. But of course they are right. Some fellows in their unwillingness to enter hospital stuff down dozens of leaden opium pills, various powders, much castor oil with chlorodyne and camphoradyne in between. The last is an excellent drug. It’s all a matter of constitution, but sooner or later it’s a case of hospital and injection of emmatine.

A hostile aeroplane flew over to-day and dropped bombs on the town and brick kilns, evidently potting at the 5-inch guns there. A brisk rifle fire from our trenches followed it. Accounts suggest the unpopularity of this demon bird with its unhappy trick of laying, in mid-air, eggs that explode on reaching the earth. Another danger is from falling bullets fired at the plane. The circuit is now complete. We are shot at all round and from on top.

I finished a novel to-day. It has at least made me long for England again. We are all full of longings; and the chief blessing of civilization is that it supplies the wherewithal to quieten them. Lord! for a glass of fresh milk and a jelly. Temperature 103 degrees and shivering. I am going to have an attempt at sleeping. Everything is very quiet. The sentry’s steps beside my roof make the earth shake.

It’s only going to get worse, folks.

Malcolm White

Time for Malcolm White to do some work while he waits at Rouen to be called as reinforcements. Dead man’s shoes, laddie. Dead man’s shoes.

On fatigue near the ship-yards down the [River Seine]. Unhappy day, followed by a tempestuous night, when the men’s tents blew down and the corrugated iron was blown about the huts, which rocked like ships. I wonder if I shall dislike the trenches much more than the base.

Perhaps he’ll become more fond of base duty after someone starts shooting at him?

Bernard Adams

Meanwhile, Bernard Adams is learning his patch at the Bois Francais.

I wish I could convey the sense of intimacy with which I am filled when I look at the map. It is something like the feelings I should ascribe to a farmer looking at a map of his property, every inch of which he knows by heart; every field, every copse; every lane, every hollow and hill are intimate things to him.

With every comer he has some association; every tree cut down, every fence repaired, every road made up, every few hundred yards of shaw grubbed up, every acre of orchard enclosed and planted, all these he can call back to memory at his will. So do I know every corner, every turning in these trenches; every traverse has its peculiar familiarity, very often its peculiar history.

This traverse was built the night after P’s death; this trench was dug because 75 Street was so marked down by the enemy rifle-grenades; another was a terrible straight trench till we built those traverses in it. Another was a morass until we boarded it. How well I remember being half buried by a canister at the corner of 78 Street, and the night the mine blew in all the trench between the Fort and the Loop. What an awful dug-out that was at Trafalgar Square, how we loathed the straightness of Watling Street. And so on ad infinitum.

We were in those trenches for over four months, and I know them as one knows the creakings of the doors at home, the subtle smell of the bath-room, the dusty atmosphere of the box-room, or the lowness of the cellar door. Particularly intimate are the recollections of dug-outs, with their good or bad conveniences in the way of beds and tables, their beams that smote you on the head as regularly as clockwork, or their peculiarly musty smell. One dug-out invariably smelt of high rodent; another of sand-bag, nothing but sand-bag.

Tommy Atkins, of course, is not expected to know all this. Tommy Atkins is not supposed to think; that’s what his officer is for. Tommy Atkins is supposed to look to his front and do as he’s told.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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