Kozincan-dag | 14 Jan 1916

Erzurum Offensive

Yesterday we had a nice bit of tension going. General Yudenich’s slightly complicated plan is working, so far. The Ottomans have committed their reserves in the wrong place. The remaining question is whether all the men required to drive home the attack on the Cakir Baba can arrive in time. And they have, despite having to force their way through chest-high snow. For once, a Russian commander has disregarded his orders and come up with a positive result.

General Vorobyev, commanding the critical brigade, ordered his men to start moving forward early, ahead of schedule. It’s a risky move; their advance was supposed to be concealed as far as possible by night. If some enemy observer had looked the wrong way at the wrong time with a good pair of binoculars, the game might just have been up. But luck was with him; if they’d left on time they might just have barely arrived, but they would have been going straight into battle after a long march in all-but-impossible conditions. We saw what happened at the Battle of Sarikamis when the Ottomans attacked with their men in that condition.

Now the Russians will attack after just a little rest, and that’s going to make all the difference. Soon after dawn the Kozincan shoulder is in Russian hands. By 11am, Vorobyev’s men are advancing, and this time they’ve achieved surprise. Up here in the mountains, there’s far too few men holding far too long a front. The defence is based around a series of strong-points rather than a continuous line, and the Russians are finding it all too easy to defeat individual positions with overwhelming force brought onto each one.

By evening the situation is critical, and only the most fractured information is filtering back to Third Army’s headquarters. On the right the Russians are poised to seize the Kozican-dag heights, the doorway to the western, less exposed portion of the Top Yol. On the left, they’ve taken an important village. One fork in the road leads up to the summit of the Cilligul-dag, still in Ottoman hands. The other leads down towards Koprukoy, and the practical upshot of this is that the Russians now have a shot at surrounding the Lines of Koprukoy.

Once the Cilligul-dag, now cut off from reinforcement, is captured, it’ll take about two days to march into Koprukoy; less than that if a recently-deployed Siberian Cossack brigade can make good time. They’re the only cavalry in the entire war that can be of any military use up a mountain in winter (other than as a source of horse meat). Between the original defenders and their reinforcements, there are about 50,000 Ottomans in the lines. If they aren’t told what’s happening, then the Russians will suddenly appear right on their line of retreat and a full-scale disaster is in the making.

Africa

Meanwhile, in east Africa, a new British Empire unit is arriving at Mbyuni. This is the 2nd South African Brigade, a freshly-raised mob with a few old sweats from the Boer War, and a great deal more pimply teenagers. They’re short on training, and high on enthusiasm; and they’re thousands of miles from home. Even after having been in theatre only 24 hours, they’re quickly discovering how different this place is from the Africa that they know. Now somebody has to figure out what the hell to do with them.

Lake Tanganyika

Meanwhile, over on Lake Tanganyika, a violent storm has blown in and wreaked havoc in Commander Spicer-Simson’s makeshift harbour. The newly-captured and renamed Fifi (late of the German navy as Kingani) has dragged her anchor and nearly thrown a Belgian ship onto the rocks, causing her to lose two propellers. Another Belgian speedboat has propeller-shaft damage. Mimi and Toutou are still carrying battle damage. When the weather finally clears, the only ship in fighting condition is Dix-Tonne, a fat, unwieldy, poorly-armed Belgian vessel.

And then Hedwig von Wissmann, one of the Germans’ remaining large steamers, appears on the horizon, prompting brief panic. This is the local German commander, Captain Zimmer, launching his latest attempt to find out what the hell’s going on on the Belgian Congo side of the lake. As it happens, Leutnant Odebrecht is under strict orders not to do anything risky, which means he never gets close enough to see anything worth spending the fuel for. But, hey. At least he came back with the ship in one working piece, which is a better result for Zimmer than the last two times he sent someone out. He’s left to scratch his head as his motley opponents set to trying to repair their damaged ships. More to come.

Royal Flying Corps

Time to drop in quickly on the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front. They’ve just adopted formation flying tactics for the first time in an effort to protect their observation planes. No observers are to go up without an escort of at least three British fighters. Of course, with aerial warfare in its infancy, exactly what “flying in formation” means is going to have to be sorted out mostly in mid-air…

Mesopotamia

There’s no escaping Mesopotamia while the Siege of Kut lasts. Once again, the Ottomans have done the sensible thing and retired at night from the Wadi. And yes, there’s yet another prepared position for them to fall back to. They’re still 30 miles from Kut-al-Amara itself.

This time they’ve arrived at something which people insist on referring to as the “Hanna defile”, which sounds like some red-faced British general did something inadvisable with a copy of the Quran. But no, in the military sense, a “defile” is a chokepoint. (Apparently, when one passes through a defile and comes out the other side, one “debouches” from it, which never fails to make me laugh.) And the men withdrawing from the Wadi have now met up with some mates.

Anyway. What we have at Hanna is a rather knotty problem for the relief column. Everyone’s on the right bank of the river. The Tigris is flowing fast and deep, and is currently defeating the Engineers as they try to bridge it without half their sappers and all their material being washed away in the general direction of Basra. Close on the right of the river is another nasty, sticky, impenetrable salt marsh. There’s no going around it; you either go up the river or turn round and go home. The chokepoint between the river and the marsh is the “defile”, and it currently contains some 30,000 men. A relief column that started the size of a division, and which is now much smaller, is facing the best part of an entire enemy corps.

A frontal attack is clearly hopeless. The thing to do is get across the river. Everybody knows it. From there you can at least bring fire on the chokepoint from two directions, possibly even bypass it and threaten to cut the defenders off entirely. But while there are plenty of cross words about, this river isn’t for crossing. Yet more rain hammers down in the evening, swelling its waters yet further.

Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer has drawn another of the terrible jobs. At first it was thought his men might be needed to attack, but then they found the Wadi positions empty. Instead, he’s been, cough cough, clearing up yesterday’s battlefield.

The stretcher parties had been out during the night, but they had been fired on so heavily that they could not get beyond the 1,200 yard line, so there were wounded to pick up as well as dead to bury and equipment to collect. The dead were so pitiable that one quite forgot their ghastliness; but it was a gruesome job searching their pockets. The poor wounded had had a fearful time too, lying out in the cold all night, but the satisfaction of getting them in cheered one up. The ground was simply littered with pointed bullets.

In the middle of this job we were recalled and told to march to the support of our outflanking force; but by the time we were collected and fallen in the need for our assistance had apparently passed, for we were merely marched to the Canal and then along it to where it joins the river; where we have been ever since. We got into camp here soon after noon, and were very glad to be within reach of water again. The weather was the limit. It blew a gale all the afternoon, and the dust was so bad one could hardly open one’s eyes. We had no tents, but Major Stilwell had a bivouac and invited me in with him, which was a blessing as it rained all night.

What now? They can’t go on, but they can’t just abandon Kut, either.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)

Battle of the Wadi | 13 Jan 1916

The Wadi

At midday, everything in Mesopotamia seems to be going quite well for the British Empire. They’ve taken Chittab Fort with very little fuss, and now they’re going to push on and take the Ottoman blocking force in the side…

Yes, of course there’s a catch. The Wadi has to be crossed; the Engineers and some bridging equipment are allegedly around somewhere, but for the moment they can’t be found. This isn’t too much of a problem for the blokes; the water at the bottom is just about shallow enough to be forded, although the banks of the small valley are annoyingly steep. The problem is with the guns. Yer standard 18-pounder weighs just under 3,000 pounds, and of course it has shells to go with it. I’ve spent the last month or so looking for personal accounts of how exactly they were got across, but so far, no luck. Apparently it was done. I’ll take their word for it.

The delay from that isn’t too bad, but when the men try to advance again, they hit a serious problem. Not having been born yesterday, the defenders have used a conveniently-placed drainage ditch to guard their flank, with a trench just behind it, in case the enemy should try exactly this stratagem. Not a problem, thinks General Younghusband, leading the attack. If only he can keep going, the ditch is going to tip into the Tigris eventually. If his men can find that point, they’ll have the entire Ottoman blocking force trapped and pocketed, to be summarily dealt with at leisure.

So off goes a reserve brigade. They can’t find the river. Time passes. Another brigade goes off, and still can’t find that pesky river. Afternoon turns to evening; Younghusband sends his cavalry off even further. Younghusband’s optimism doesn’t die even as the sun sets, and it takes several more hours for the cavalry to report that they’ve gone as far as they can and they still can’t find the river. It is, in fact, miles away from them; even with double the men available they would have struggled to find it. A little aerial observation of the Wadi can’t compensate for Younghusband’s inadequate maps. It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, mind you; right idea, wrong battle.

Meannwhile, someone’s dropped a bollock. As Younghusband’s men headed off, looking for the mystery river, the Ottomans naturally pulled men away from the positions along the Wadi to man the drainage ditch instead. A couple of brigades have been left along the Wadi; perhaps they might now be able to achieve something? General Aylmer orders them forward. They get an artillery barrage, of sorts; but the defenders, knowing their jobs, have created a 700-yard belt of clear ground in front of their positions. The edge of the scrubland acts both as range marker and sight screen for the artillery and machine-guns.

It doesn’t take too long for General Kemball to give that one up as a bad job, but it goes on long enough for three of the four battalion commanders in the attack to become casualties, along with 648 of their men. Another 1,000 were killed or wounded in front of the drainage ditch. In comparison to the casualty figures in Europe, this might not seem like much. For a force with about 9,000 effective rifles remaining, operating hundreds of miles from its base and with little hope of reinforcement, it’s unsustainable. The relief effort is slowly bleeding itself out.

Robert Palmer

It’s another dispiriting day at the rear of things for Robert Palmer.

We marched at 7 carrying food and water for two days. We were in support of the frontal containing force. The enemy were on the [Wadi], eight miles off. We marched about four miles and then halted, and waited most of the day for orders. A strong wind prevented us hearing anything of the battle, but we could see a certain amount of shelling.

About 3pm we got orders to go up in support of the frontal force, which (we were told) had advanced, the enemy having abandoned the [Wadi]. We marched another three miles to a fort, which stood about one and a quarter miles from the [Wadi], and from which we had driven the enemy in the morning.

This may or may not be Chittab Fort. Interesting to see how a general’s appreciation that “the enemy is moving to defend that ditch” changes into “the enemy has abandoned their positions!” by the time it percolates down to Company level.

Here we waited till after dark, when we heard that the frontal force had blundered into a Turkish rearguard holding the Canal, and had lost heavily and been obliged to retire. It is these disconcerting surprises which try one’s spirit more than anything else. We ate a cold and cheerless supper just beyond the fort, and then dug ourselves in, with other units of our brigade on either side of us.

It was windy and very cold. There was a small and filthy hut with every mark of recent Turkish use, just behind the trench, but sooner or later every officer (I among the first) came to the conclusion that dirt was preferable to cold, and we all packed in round a fire which our signallers had lit there.

Any port in a storm, laddie.

Erzurum Offensive

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus, General Yudenich’s meant-to-fail attack continues in front of Koprukoy. In truth it’s failed even worse than he was hoping. One regiment on the extreme right had been tasked with swerving up onto the Cakir Baba and taking a second important spur, the Cilligul-dag, to join the Kozincan shoulder. However, its artillery support failed to support. If the Ottomans don’t take the bait, this could get very nasty very quickly.

Over then to the other side of the hill. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that not only was Mahmut Kamil, the commander of the Ottoman Third Army, caught on his holi-bobs in Constantinople when the attack started; but he’s not deigned to come back yet. (Whether or not this actually mattered would be a Matter of Some Debate, were enough people interested in the subject to debate it.) Regardless of Kamil’s ability, or otherwise, the army is also missing its German chief of staff, Lt-Col Guse, who’s in Berlin (his excuse is better; he’s still recovering from typhus), and that’s a definite blow.

So we find one of the corps commanders, Abdul Karim, trying to fill in. He has made one good decision, to move his headquarters forward from Erzurum to Hasankale, to speed up communications. But now he reads the situation just as his enemy hopes, and commits his reserves into the Aras Valley. (It may be of interest that Karim’s corps is the one up on the Cakir Baba; he’s sent the reinforcements away from his own men.)

But the story of today doesn’t quite end there. The weather has done nothing but get worse for the last week. The snow in the mountains is now chest deep, almost impossible to pass through. Russian success now depends entirely on the timely arrival of another force at the Cakir Baba positions. The plan had accounted for bad weather, but not this bad. The temptation to make nerdy references to Mount Caradhras in the Lord of the Rings, refusing to let the Fellowship go past, is now quite irresistible. Can they make it in time?

I do like a nice bit of tension. It makes a real change from “More people went over the top in a hopeless cause and got slaughtered.” Can we not just agree to let the winner of this theatre, where things might actually happen, decide the overall winner of the war?

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is trying to settle back into the rhythm of battalion life. The 4th Royal Welch Fusiliers are still resting and training, but after his recent schooling, something feels off.

Everyone was so dull! They groused, they maligned the Staff, they were pessimistic, they were ignorant, oh ! profoundly ignorant; they were in fact in a state of not having seen a vision. I could not believe then that the time would come when I too should forget the vision, and fix my eyes on the mud.

Still, for the moment, I was immensely surprised, though I was not such a fool as to start at once on a general reform of everyone, starting with the Brigadier. For under the Commandant’s influence one felt ready to tell off the Brigadier, if he didn’t “get motor-buses to take your men to a divisional concert” instead of saying the men must march three miles to it.

But, as I say, I restrained myself.

Nothing of importance has occurred.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)