Joffre and Haig | Tanks | 10 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

The Italian Army is now, three days too late, pulling its collective finger out for a jolly good bash at the Austro-Hungarians’ reserve positions behind Gorizia. General Boroevic’s reserves have now finally arrived from their billets far behind the line; the defenders are firmly installed. After a brief period of excitement, we’re now back in exactly the same situation we’ve been in for the past year. The enemy is firmly dug into new positions, just as resistant to attack as the ones they’ve just left. There are half-arsed attacks without proper artillery support or observation. Rinse and repeat for a solid week.

All General Cadorna can do is bleat helplessly about his subordinates’ alleged slowness in following imaginary orders to capture Gorizia and push on. Well, in private, at least. He’s also made sure to invite all his pet newspapermen for personal briefings on the glorious victory he personally has just won. And so soon after repelling the perfidious enemy’s attack on the Asiago plateau, too! By the time the papers are done, the worst general of the war will also be its biggest hero. For a little while.

Battle of the Somme

Generals Joffre and Haig are total BFFs about now, visiting each other’s headquarters and writing letters to each other to propose grandiose combined offensives. For reasons that remain hard to explain, apparently a good thing to do is to launch a major all-out push from High Wood to the north bank of the River Somme. With seven days to prepare. Ugh. While relations between the two commanders-in-chief appear better than ever, they’re both having a rather unpleasant day.

General Haig is trying every measure possible (short of taking actual responsibility) to get 4th Army commander General Rawlinson to do his job properly. His latest wheeze is to send chief of staff General Kiggell round with a rude message to the effect of “please take personal control and responsibility for the next attack”. Meanwhile, those ANZACs at Pozieres are being given orders to push north-west tomorrow, downhill towards Mouquet Farm. The blokes, incidentally, prefer to call it “Mucky” or “Moo Cow” Farm.

Meanwhile meanwhile, General Joffre’s problem appears to be General Haig. Or so his liaison officer at Haig’s headquarters is saying, in an absolutely devastating report. Words like “disoriented” and “disarray” and “slow” have been used with worrying regularity. He’s extremely offended by the “small, distinct attacks” that the BEF is carrying out. “As far as the English are concerned, the Battle of the Somme is dead.” He concludes with the damning observation that neither the Commander-in-Chief nor his army commanders are actually commanding; real authority is only to be found at corps or division level.

Tanks

Meanwhile. Everyone and his dog, it seems, has a complaint about how the tank development programme is being managed. There’s the few short-sighted twerps, of course, who can’t see what they’re for in the first place. Then there are the military geniuses, who are convinced that having seen a tank run once for half an hour, they clearly know exactly how to use them. This is causing considerable friction between the Staff and Lt-Col Brough, Colonel Swinton’s liaison officer. Brough, unlike almost anyone else at GHQ, has read Swinton’s Notes on the Employment of Tanks, and he’s insisted on advocating loudly for its principles.

This is deeply unwelcome. Brough has now been officially deemed “difficult” after just three weeks in France and will soon be replaced by a fresh, hopefully more compliant man. And not one who will complain about plans to stage a punishing series of tank tests in France, or proposals to use tanks as individual infantry support weapons rather than as a solid mass of metal. On top of all this, General Haig has just been sent a deeply annoying letter stating that there can be no spare parts for the tanks until 1 September at the earliest. Insert disgruntled Scotch groans here.

First Doiran

The French attack near Doiran Lake.

Yeah, good luck trying to find out any more about it, I had the devil’s own time. In theory the French have the requisite three-to-one advantage that’s required to get anything done. In practice? Seems that the defending Bulgarians gave them a jolly good spanking and sent them back to their trenches to think again. Still, these attacks aren’t necessarily supposed to succeed, just happen. I’m sure it was a comfort to the families of the dead. No, sorry, “wasn’t”. Wasn’t a comfort. At all.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

Briggs Kilburn Adams continues his ridiculous summer job as an ambulance-driver on the Voie Sacree.

Any number of cars have been smashed, and fellows are getting nicked all the time, for they are more exposed than the men in the trenches. One fellow had a blow-out, so he got out to fix it. Just then a shell took off the seat he had left. Another driver was lying underneath his car fixing something. A shell hit it and knocked the car away and smashed it to bits, while he was left there lying on his back in the road with his hands reaching up holding a wrench, more surprised than you could imagine, and without a scratch.

Another fellow was famous for being the rottenest driver in that section. In one of the worst places he stalled his engine. While he was down cranking it, a shell went through his car killing one of the wounded fellows. The driver got his Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire! If he had been a decent driver he would have been out of the way and would not have got it.

Aeroplanes are as thick as flies about here. Just now I can see three playing tag, pretending one is a German and chasing it.

He’ll soon have to go back home and get on with his university studies at Harvard.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is moving forward, closer to the Somme, leading his platoon on the march. The 10th Green Howards have received another reinforcement-draft, but they’re still comfortably below full strength.

There is a boy from D Company doing Field Punishment No. 1. His outstretched arms are tied to the wheel of a travelling field-kitchen. The Regimental Sergeant-Major has just told me that the boy is there for falling out on the march. He defended himself before the Commanding Officer by saying that he had splinters of glass in his feet; but the Medical Officer decided against him. Quite possibly the boy is a liar; but wouldn’t the army do well to avoid punishments which remind men of the Crucifixion?

And these two men being marched up and down in the blazing heat, under the raucous voice of the provost-sergeant, they disturb all peace of mind. I do not know from what offences they are doing “pack-drill,” but it is depressing to see them, loaded with rifles and full packs, going to and fro over a piece of ground not more than twenty yards long, moving like automata under that awful voice.

Volunteers going into battle! I think with almost physical sickness of the legends that sustain our armchair patriots at home.

Field punishment is sometimes excused by people who take great pains to point out that the Manual of Military Law expressly prohibited tying men in a way that caused physical harm. And yet, it’s still happening; this is a stress position. Funny how that happens despite the regulation, isn’t it? I’m sure the fire-breathing colonel approved.

Oswin Creighton

Padre Oswin Creighton has switched camps and finds his new surroundings, at Witley Camp in Surrey, much more to his liking than Romsey.

I had such a warm welcome here. The officers are so friendly. No one knew I was coming, but they made me at home at once. They are all young fellows with very strong Manchester accents, analytical chemists and such like. Several of them were out at Gallipoli. One remembers me at the Depot. We talk a great deal about Gallipoli.

Later. – I am with the 5th Lancashire Fusiliers now. It is a quaint sort of job, but I am getting into the way of looking at all these jobs from an explorer’s point of view. Almost nothing of a religious nature seems to have been attempted among the men here, and there is the usual sense of the utter estrangement of the Church from them.

Creighton has his work cut out for him. Unfortunately, his mother didn’t think the details, if ever he wrote of them, to be of much public interest, so edited them out of the published collection of his letters. Thanks for that.

Maximilian Mugge

The full nature of Maximilian Mugge’s predicament has now become apparent. He’s washed up at Pease Pottage Camp outside Crawley, home of the 30th Middlesex Regiment. But his latest unit is even stranger than the Non-Combatant Corps.

When I had recovered from the first shock and regained my breath. I turned to the pale faced clerks in the Orderly Room Tent and said, ” Then I take it, this is not a Regiment at all! This is a political concentration camp!”

“Hush! hush! You mustn’t say such a thing”, exclaimed a horrified staff sergeant but the six feet of formidable and dirty picturesqueness of my appearance as an expeditionary soldier overawed these knights of the pens, and nothing happened to me.

One of my tent-mates who had arrived from a fighting unit a few hours before me was crying bitterly half the night. He was English bred and born, spoke no other tongue but that of Shakespeare, had volunteered in 1914, had been wounded in the Mons retreat and here he was, as he cried, “Treated like a bloody Hun!” It was heart-rending to listen to that boy’s agony, his sighs and curses and groans.

I doubt anyone wants to read six paragraphs’ worth of incoherent swearing in response to this concept, although I did type some of it out and then delete it again. This is exactly what Mugge says it is; a quarantine battalion for people considered too dangerously German to be allowed in the rest of the Army. More details will emerge in due course as our correspondent gets his righteous anger into high gear.

I really, really, really don’t want to nitpick the guy today, but. I do have to make the observation that it would be all but impossible for a man to volunteer in August 1914 and then end up on the retreat from Mons. I do hope someone hasn’t been, ahem, improving their story slightly. I suppose it’s possible that he joined the Army in the early months of 1914, but usually when people talk about volunteering “in 1914”, they mean they volunteered at the start of the war.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani
Battle of the Isonzo (Sixth Isonzo)
Battle of Doiran (First Doiran)

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

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.

Tanks

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…

Romania

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

Brusilov Overture | Fort Vaux | 4 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

The great summer offensive plays its overture today. Today is given over entirely to artillery barrages. The Austro-Hungarian generals remain unconcerned; if this really is the prelude to an attack, the Russians will surely make like they did at Lake Naroch and precede it with a multiple-day bombardment. Surely. It stands to reason. Another drink? Why not, indeed. Nothing to be concerned about just yet!

As it happens, here’s another thing General Brusilov’s staff has figured out. Not only is there a point past which artillery barrages start bringing in sharply diminishing returns, they’ve also realised that it’s far more feasible to use these bombardments at least partly to suppress the enemy, then cross No Man’s Land and capture them in their dugouts and shelters before they can open fire. The battle proper opens tomorrow. Which is convenient, because today is seriously stacked with other news.

Battle of Verdun

Another French attempt at sending fresh men into Fort Vaux fails miserably. On the other side of the hill, the Germans have sent fresh flamethrowers forward to deal with the situation. Fire and smoke rips through the confined tunnels, and inevitably their defenders retreat. For a moment it seems as though the Germans will follow the fire right into the rest of the fort, but the French have access to the most unlikely of weapons. The fort has a few portable hand-operated fans, in case the natural air circulation breaks down. When the flamethrower attacks come in, someone keeps enough about them to crank up the fans.

And the fire blows right back on the Germans. More vicious fighting. More horrific deaths. One of the access tunnels has caught fire. The other is re-occupied in the nick of time. Some thinking follows, and that tunnel is then blocked and blown up and generally made completely inaccessible. They can’t get at the other tunnel, though, owing to the fire…

Then follows another blow, this one much more critical. The fort has run out of water. The meticulous records insist that they should still have enough water for a little while yet, but as it turns out, some of the men who previously occupied the fort did not care much for accurate paperwork. The records they handed over to Raynal were completely inaccurate. They’ve gone from being able to hold out for a long time to come, to being on the verge of dying of thirst. Anyone who isn’t still fit to fight is to leave, and Raynal is desperate to establish communication with Fort Souville by signalling lamp, the only means of communication left to him.

Mamahatun Offensive

Baack to the Mamahatun Offensive in the Caucasus, which we’ve unfortunately been short-changing due to sheer lack of information. The Ottoman Third Army has been attacking tired and disorganised Russians for the past week, with quite a bit of success. Had there been plentiful reinforcements to throw in, they might have kept up the successes and forced a major retreat towards Erzurum, possibly splitting General Yudenich’s main body apart from the men at Trebizond.

There were not plentiful reinforcements. The men who attacked were the plentiful reinforcements. They were supposed to be the core of the new Third Army, and now they’ve been fighting, taking casualties, tiring themselves out. They’ve now been mostly fought to the stop by equally plentiful Russian reinforcements. Another fresh division has dodged a lurking German U-boat and landed near Trebizond. This is deeply worrying; the offensive is called off, having mildly worried the Russian commander-in-chief. Vehip Pasha’s staff now begin trying to work out whether they can do anything to oppose Russian control of Erzurum.

General Yudenich, meanwhile, has already turned his opinion to “what do I do next?” The offensive caught him somewhat by surprise, but now the situation’s back under control. Planning begins for the next major offensive. It’s not particularly complicated; Yudenich intends to shove a lot of men down the Erzurum-Erzincan road and split Third Army in two. Annoyingly, he’s timetabling it to begin on about the 2nd of July, when something else a bit bigger might be going on.

Battle of Jutland

I like to imagine a large transparent box sitting in the Admiralty’s operations room. The assembled admirals, as they sit in their latest conference, are all trying very hard to ignore the box. Inside is Winston Churchill, returned from the trenches, snoozing quietly. There’s an IV drip in his arm, administering a careful flow of Pol Roger champagne to keep his blood alcohol level just so. There is a sign on the box. It reads “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS”. And this is not just an emergency; it’s an emergency that requires an exceptional public speaker.

There is, however, no hammer. A minion must be sent out to get one. But they’ve now broken the glass, given Churchill everyone’s reports, and instructed him to please do something about this damned German narrative. It doesn’t take him long to figure out the obvious interpretation. The Grand Fleet might have lost a few ships more, and considerably more men, than the Germans. But the battle ended with both fleets exchanging fire and the Germans running the fuck away very fast. That is not, traditionally, how the winning side marks a great victory.

Churchill’s analysis pushes that angle as hard as possible. However, it does offend the British newspapermen. They’re all horribly offended that a politician (and a failed First Lord of the Admiralty at that) has been given access to secret documents and they have not. They all remember the political machinations on the Western Front in 1915, the Shell Crisis, the wrangling over the Battle of Loos. If the Army can attempt to cover up the scale of a major loss, and the reasons for a loss, why shouldn’t the Navy? What the Admiralty needs now is a few clear days to push their angle hard and without distractions.

Lord Kitchener’s mission

Maybe now is a good time to be out of the country. In Russia, Lord Kitchener will surely have to field fewer damn fool questions about Jutland, if nothing else. With a little luck, he might even be able to see the Russians winning a major victory, and find out how it might be done. Maybe they can work out some deal to send the Russians more supplies, somehow. Nobody in the Cabinet seems to like him any more. So, very quietly, he leaves London today by sleeper train, heading for Thurso, and eventually for Scapa Flow. We’ll pick the mission up if anything ever comes of it.

Tanks

Colonel Swinton of the Tank Supply Committee currently has the unenviable job of trying to train the first tank crews with precisely one machine; the prototype, Mother. The good news is that Mother’s engine is working fine and crews can now start learning how to move a tank about a battlefield. The bad news, a minor flaw I’m sure, is that Mother has no sponsons (she had them at the trials; they were probably removed to be used as templates for the manufacturers) and no guns to fire from them. By the end of the month they will have five whole tanks, but still no hint of sponsons…

Georges Connes

A long way from all this, Georges Connes has just been ordered to march about 25 miles to Stenay. Fortunately, Connes’s group includes one Commandant Mercier. Mercier may not have much left after being captured, but he still has his dignity, and he evidently is an accomplished bullshitter.

Speaking firmly, he states to the German officer that we are too tired to walk. He further argues that the French transport German officer-prisoners by car (how does he know this?) and demands the same treatment. His request is immediately fulfilled. Five or six peasant carts arrive, each one led by a soldier, and we board as we like. Personally, I believe that the German officer from whom we requested something reasonable and easy didn’t see any reason to refuse. As for the privates, they will walk. No carts for them.

[In Stenay] I spent dismal days, the most sinister of my captivity. The joy of knowing we won’t be killed doesn’t sustain us for very long. One soon gets used to no longer dying. Already I can forsee where our main suffering will come from. We will suffer more because of one another, being crowded and without privacy, than from our guards, who we rarely see. German authority seems to be represented by a vociferous officer who walks about the courtyard yelling all the time. He is typical of those barking officers who constitute the major strength of all the armies of the world.

Damn, I really wish now that he’d written memoirs about the first part of his war.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has finished moving to wherever it is in France he’s going. It has a town and some docks. I’ll let you know where it is once I work it out.

After a long and weary railway journey lasting several days we have arrived in a “hutted” camp. Why a journey which in peace-time would have taken not more than eight hours should require four days, passes my understanding. I am glad the journey is ended. Last night, for the first time since Tuesday morning, I put off my clothes. What a relief ! And no more climbing of hills with that kit-bag on one’s back. After half-an-hour of it I always feel like Sinbad the Sailor must have felt when he carried the Old Man of the Sea. The THING grows heavier and heavier.

To-day is a rest-day. To-morrow I presume will see us hard at work. Loading, unloading, road-making? Went with John and Fair into the town. Found it awfully hard to walk on cobbled pavements or on flag-stones. Whenever we encountered a slope in the rather undulating streets of the older town, we began to move about in all directions like a crowd of drunken roller-skaters.

The trouble is his brand new boots with hob-nailed soles. I’ll lay very good odds that he’s never worn hob-nailed boots before in his life.

Bernard Adams

Nothing of importance is happening for Bernard Adams at the Bois Francais. He continues going in and out of the line, preparing for the Battle of the Somme. They’ve recently thrown a very good concert party for the men in Amiens, and been visited for the occasion by the music-hall star Basil Hallam. They’re due back up the line tomorrow, but now is the time to eat, drink, and make merry. They’ve even invited the grizzled old sweat Captain Jim Potter of the quartermaster’s department round. Captain Potter, in the tradition of senior Army quartermasters, was commissioned from the ranks after winning two medals in the Boer War, and therefore is a most entertaining dinner guest. After dinner, they sit around talking about this and that.

“A good entry tonight in Comic Cuts”, I remarked. “‘A dog was heard barking in Fricourt ad 11pm.’ Someone must have been hard up for intelligence to put that in.
“A dog barking in Fricourt”, said old Jim, marked. “What’s that, Corps stuff? I never read the thing. That’s what it is to have a Staff. A dog barking in Fricourt!”
“The Corps officer didn’t hear it. It was some battalion intelligence officer that was such a fool to report it.”
“I’d like to meet the fellow. The first fellow I’ve ever met yet who has a just appreciation of the brain capacity of the Staff. You or I might have thought of reporting a dog’s mew, or roar, or bellow. But a dog’s bark we should have thought of no interest whatever to the, er, fellows up there, you know, who plan our destinies.” And he gave an obsequious flick of his hand, to an imaginary person too high up to see him at all. “The Staff”, he went on, with the greatest contempt. “I saw three of them in a car today. I stood to attention. Saluted. A young fellow waved his hand, graciously accepted my salute, and passed on, leaning back in his limousine. The Brains of the British Army, I thought. Pah!”

This is the best entertainment that Jim Potter can offer, so Adams and his chums continue winding him up. Do you think there might be a push soon, Jim?

“Of course there will be a push. The Staff must have something to show for themselves. ‘Shove ’em in!’, they say, ‘rather a bigger front than last time. Strategy? Oh no, that’s out of date, you know. Five-mile front. Frontal attack. Get a few hundred thousand mown down, and then discover the Boche has got a second line. The Staff. Pah!” And no more would he say.

More drink is taken. The young men round the table begin arsing around and engaging in small doses of High Spirits until the wee hours. At great length, the drink runs out, and they eventually retire to bed.

As I opened the door of my billet, I heard a strafe getting up. “In” tomorrow, I thought. I lost no time in getting into bed, and yet I could not sleep. I could not help thinking of the jollity of the last few hours, the humour. Most of all I thought of old Jim, the mainspring somehow of it all. And again I saw the picture of the concert a few nights ago, the bright lights of the stage, the crowds of our fellows, all their bodies and spirits for the moment relaxed.

And lastly I thought of Private Benjamin [one of his snipers], that refined eager face, that rather delicate body, and that warm hand as I placed mine over his, squeezing the trigger. He was no more than a child, really, a simple-minded child of Wales. Somehow it was more terrible that these young boys should see the war, than for the older men. Yet were we not all children wondering, wondering, wondering? Yes, we were like children faced by a wild beast. “Sometimes I dislike you almost,” I thought. “Your dullness, your coarseness, your lack of romance, your unattractiveness. Yet that is only physical. You, I love really.”

And in the darkness, I buried my face in the pillow, and sobbed.

And the war goes on.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Mamahatun Offensive
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Brusilov Offensive

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

Tank delivery | James McConnell | 26 Apr 1916

Tanks for the Somme

The story of tanks on the Somme takes a considerable lurch to the left today. Regardless of what Colonel Swinton told General Haig about delivery dates a while ago, he’s now been to consult with fellow Tank Supply Committee member Lieutenant Stern. Stern has given him an uncompromising message for Haig, which is now percolating through the military structure. There will be no tanks ready in June. There will be no tanks ready for the first day on the Somme, either.

His current estimated delivery date is 150 tanks (and no word on crews) by the start of August. In a couple of months that’s going to slip again, to 50 tanks by the start of August and 100 more in September. It’s not all bad news, mind you. The Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd-George, has written to Paul Painleve, the French Minister for Inventions, to open official communications between both countries’ research efforts. Just your year and a bit after they started, but better late than never.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is off on the march again. The recent spell of bad weather is now at an end, and the hot weather is causing plenty of men to fall out. This has drawn the attention of Captain Cros-Mayrevielle, and when they arrive at Conde-en-Barrois…

Our Kronprinz didn’t calm down. Heat, fatigue, sickness, age, all those were negligible to him. To succumb, at the limit of your endurance, was to be a bad soldier, to display bad spirits. Except to drop dead, a soldier shouldn’t quit the ranks, like a convict forming a link in a chain gang. Hardly had we unloaded our packs in the big threshing barn where our whole company was billeted when, by order of [Cros], a thorough roll call was carried out in each squad.

Those who were missing, which meant those whom fatigue had forced to fall out en route, had to be called to medical inspection by the sergeant on duty, as soon as they staggered into camp. Those who weren’t deemed to be sick had to be hauled off, without delay, to the jail which our battalion’s capitaine-adjutant-flichad set up next to the police station.

If our old medical officer Torres had been on duty, there’d be as many in prison as there were laggards. But we had at this time a good and decent doctor who excused everyone, thereby canceling out the petty meanness.

In France, “les flics” are the cops.

James McConnell

James McConnell and the Lafayette Escadrille have arrived at Luxueil aerodrome, full of bounce and spit and vinegar. (At least, he’d tell you it was spit.) He’s such a jolly All-American boy.

On our arrival at Luxeuil we were met by Captain Thenault, the French commander of the American Escadrille–officially known as No. 124, by the way–and motored to the aviation field in one of the staff cars assigned to us. I enjoyed that ride. Lolling back against the soft leather cushions, I recalled how in my apprenticeship days at Pau I had had to walk six miles for my laundry.

The equipment awaiting us at the field was even more impressive than our automobile. Everything was brand new, from the fifteen Fiat trucks to the office, magazine, and rest tents. And the men attached to the escadrille! At first sight they seemed to outnumber the Nicaraguan army–mechanicians, chauffeurs, armourers, motorcyclists, telephonists, wireless operators, Red Cross stretcher bearers, clerks! Afterward I learned they totalled seventy-odd, and that all of them were glad to be connected with the American Escadrille.

In their hangars stood our trim little Nieuports.

He’s hugely gilding a very small lily when he speaks of arriving to find Bebe planes cramming the aircraft hangars. In fact there are none right now. It will take until early May for Nieuport to make a delivery. They were all Bebes, but due to a general shortage of engines, three of them are horribly underpowered. Even better, they come with plenty of spare parts, but most of the parts were manufactured for a Nieuport 10. Hmmm.

Malcolm White

Meanwhile, over in BEF-land, Malcolm White is in close reserve.

Our Mess is in a room with a large fireplace and one arm-chair. The four subalterns, we occupy a dug-out constructed out of the remains of a ruined house; most snug, and the beds are grand. I am writing this in shirt-sleeves outside that dug-out. My platoon are billeted in the cellars of the ruined Gendarmerie. In fact, this village is pretty well knocked about; but nothing can spoil the beauty and exhilaration of this Spring day. It must have been a happy place at the Easter of 1914.

Just a touch of delicate grey on the trees, and swallows gliding in and out of the ruins. I wonder what they thought of their village the first time they returned since the War. So far, the horrors of war for me have been chiefly the wetness, coldness, and mud of the trenches. The Bosches are over 1,000 yards away from the 800 yards of front held by our Company, and the shelling has not been very serious.

He’s also writing to Evelyn Southwell.

Man,
Le temps a laisse son manteau.
Much love from
A Man.

All together now: d’awwwwwwwwww. It’s a line from an Old French poem by Charles d’Orleans, about the coming of spring.

Evelyn Southwell

Speaking of the newly-minted Captain Southwell; he’s lost none of his enthusiasm for taking his company on route marches.

It was to be eight miles, and I found a way that made what I calculated to be 13,600 yards, and perfectly glorious. The route is on my 1/40,000 map at the top, and mainly remarkable for that fact that it had a most glorious halt, right on a hill overlooking village after village of this beautiful plain. Also it was on high ground nearly all the way, and the men thoroughly enjoyed it, I think, though it was quite hot (after my liking this): I gave them twenty minutes’ halt at that place, which pleased them, I think. We want lots more of this hot weather to sweat the damp and rheumatism out of our old bones.

I for one would love to know whether the men in fact enjoyed being marched all over half of Flanders and the Pas-de-Calais. If anyone knows of any personal accounts from the other ranks of the 9th Rifle Brigade, sing out!

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge continues adjusting to life in a “home service only” company.

How to dodge work and yet be happy! is the motto of the 8th Company.

I have become a “marker” at the rifle range, which is about two miles from our camp. Get up at five, dress, wash and make up “cot.” Then fetch breakfast, since the others do not have theirs before 7.30, and at seven about twelve of us set out for our day’s work. It’s quite a lovely walk in the morning, I enjoy it. At first I was not allowed to handle the targets, of which there are eight; see-saw affairs. Armed with a paste brush and bands of tiny squares of green, gray and brown paper, I had to paste up the bullet-holes in the targets. Stickier than jam!

Or I was told to watch the sand bank above us, thus helping the signaller in reading results. For a solid three hours I had to crane my neck to find out which of the five shots in each “detail” missed the target altogether. Soon, however, I shall reach the responsible dignity of an actual signaller and the twistings of my disk will bring joy to the firing parties.

We were merrily sandboying about when a “sub” came along with a party from Newhaven Hill. They brought huge hurdles made of gorse, about three yards square each, which were to be put on the sandbank behind the targets, and we, the range party, were to help. So four of us went off to fetch “them bloody ‘urdles.”

It was a very hot afternoon and the hurdles were three-quarters of a mile away. Everywhere we met weary parties of four resting with their gorsy burden, for there were a lot of dips and dells in the ground. Hurdle and hurdle party could lie down and the smokers soothed their ruffled tempers without being copped by the NCO or “orficers.” We managed two hurdles though, and if there were lead-swingers anywhere they were not in our party. We didn’t dodge work. We loved it. Of course we did.

Now that sounds distinctly sarcastic, Private Mugge. You mind how you go now. These old crocks are clearly a Bad Influence on you.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

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

Vehip and Izzet | 20 Apr 1916

Still too busy for my own good right now. Today, though, we have lots of little snippets to be catching up with.

Siege of Kut

If any readers are waiting for me to say rude things about General Gorringe or his subordinates for launching yet more attacks today as they try, ever-more-frantically, to relieve the Siege of Kut, you can stop holding your breath. Won’t do it. Not even in response to the formation of more “as seen on Gallipoli” composite battalions out of wrecked units who’ve taken more than 50% casualties already. They were going to attack at Sannaiyat today, but the wind has changed and quite literally blown sheets of water into the river. Men who were supposed to be attacking are soon running from the floods.

The ground that they’re supposed to attack over is now covered with a foot of water, and a foot of claggy, clinging mud underneath it. Meanwhile, General Baratov is just leaving Kermanshah to evict the Ottomans from Persia. We might be tempted to write this off as “too little, too late”, but looking longer-term, this Russian force is far from irrelevant. More to come from them.

Vehip and Izzet

Sticking with the Ottomans for the moment. Vehip Pasha and Izzet Pasha, the two new army commanders in eastern Anatolia, are trying to pick up the pieces and re-organise after the Russian offensives. Vehip’s Third Army is still mostly in disarray, although reinforcements are now beginning to arrive in earnest. As for Izzet’s Second Army, most of it still exists only on paper. There’s barely a corps’ worth of men in theatre at the moment. It’ll be July before the army is operating at anything like full strength.

Needless to say, while most of his attention at the moment is on the Middle East, Enver Pasha has been giving some thought for how to recover the situation. He’ll soon be dropping by the region to give his commanders some advice. Good for them. Aren’t they lucky. And other such insincere thoughts.

Salonika

With the Serbian Army beginning to arrive at Salonika, General Joffre is doing his best to torpedo any chance of using them in an offensive any time soon, lest it divert resources for the Western Front. He does give General Sarrail permission to conduct a “demonstration” of some sort, but once again he’s talking out of both sides of his face. He’s also putting together a proposal to be sent to Wully Robertson for an offensive in the Balkans, which is intended to offend the British government and prompt loud resistance. One day, this bloke is going to get too clever for his own good.

German strategy at Verdun

So, we’re two months into the Battle of Verdun. General von Knobelsdorf has prepared a strategic assessment for General von Falkenhayn, and it doesn’t make very pleasant reading. Let’s have the map of Verdun again.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey.

Right, see that green line? General von Knobelsdorf is offering von Falkenhayn two options, and both of them suck. The first one is to push on to the green line, from where they can set up proper defensive positions. After weeks and months more of grinding attritional war. Then they can stop and let the French counter-attack. It’s a pretty crappy choice. But it’s better than the alternative. This is to retreat. And to retreat pretty much entirely to the black line, the position as it was immediately before the offensive (with some small modifications, but that’s the face of it).

This, while very possibly a sensible thing to do, would require admitting failure. It could very possibly cost von Falkenhayn his job. He’s pretty much staked his credibility on a major success. A retreat now would signal an unequivocal defeat. So, inevitably, the attacks will have to continue. The Fifth Army’s corps commanders, at least, are all eager to finish the job. And von Falkenhayn will have to commit most of his general reserve if this is going to work.

Tanks on the Somme

Back to Colonel Swinton for a moment, who’s somewhat worried about his recent conversation with General Haig. Seems he might be concerned that Haig is about to do something rash. He in turn has shared his concerns with Colonel Hankey, and Hankey has used his position to take them directly to Wully Robertson.

…My suggestion is that Sir Douglas Haig should be asked to do all in his power to avoid being committed to anything in the nature of a decisive infantry attack until the [tanks] are ready … and to put all possible pressure on General Joffre to do likewise. The reasons are as follows.

If my information on the subject is correct, a very large proportion of the casualties in the great attacks are inflicted by machine guns. The [tanks] have been designed for the express purpose of dealing with these. A very large sum of money has been spent on them and a great number have been ordered… If, only a few weeks before they were ready, we had lost a very large number of infantry (such a figure for example as Sir Douglas Haig mentioned last Saturday) in attacks unproductive of material results, it would be most unfortunate.

This is a major latter-day Matter of Some Debate. On the one hand, of course General Haig should have held the tanks back to use them in massive numbers at once (150, at least, or possibly more). On the other, this is a critically important battle, so of course General Haig should have deployed the tanks as soon as possible in whatever number could be made available. Even if they don’t work perfectly, they will at least learn valuable lessons that can be deployed in a future mass attack with tanks.

There’s no reconciling these two points of view, at least, not without another couple of hundred years of computer modelling of battles. It is far from a simple or easy decision. And we’ll have a bit more to say about the eventual decision. Later.

Grigoris Balakian

The major missing link in the German Berlin to Baghdad railway project at the moment is the lack of tunnels through the Amanos and Taurus Mountains. The urgency of digging some out has given the German railway companies absolute freedom to employ whoever they feel like.

All kinds of people gathered there; criminals, army deserters, fugitives. Intellectuals and people of all classes and nationalities; Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Circassian, and so on. Because caravans of deportees were forced to pass through, it was very easy for individuals to escape at night and take refuge near the railway. More than ten thousand Armenians had taken refuge all around the Amanos tunnels.

With few exceptions, the Germans and especially the Austrian engineers and surveyors treated the Armenians in a kind and compassionate manner. Some Armenians complained that the Germans weren’t acting for humane reasons, but were merely getting slave labour…The truth is that the majority had noble feelings towards the Armenian people. The old man Winkler, in particular, who had been in charge of the surveyors and civil engineers in Adana, treated the Armenians with deep paternal concerns.

His successor in Ayran was Morf, a former Austrian officer who also showed special compassion towards the Armenian survivors. His right-hand man was Papazian, the Armenian who had used his influence to help me obtain my job. He helped Armenians at all costs and was so careless in doing so that he almost paid with his life. In the name of truth, I must also note that the German soldiers passing through were not friendly. With very rare exceptions, the men were hostile, detached, and unreliable. They simply considered Armenians partisans of the Allied powers.

With his disguise and a false name, Balakian begins blending in and keeping his head down.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson is manfully attempting to drive his car and his battalion’s machine-guns to Arusha. Never mind that the rainy season has just turned everything around him into a giant malarial swamp. Orders is orders.

We started to let the petrol out of the tank so as to be able to separate the water and to our consternation found that there were only about 4 cupfuls of petrol left (about enough to take us half a mile on a level road) Rose and I went to see if we could borrow some but everybody was short. If we cannot get petrol things will be serious for us as we have only 2 days rations and we are far from any base where we can draw any supplies. We managed to get 8 gallons of petrol from a passing convoy so started at once.

Legg went into the river with the motor and got pulled through with a good many bumps and stoppages by a crowd of natives and with a good many swear words from the officer commanding the transport which was going through. We had some difficulty in starting up again as water had got into the carburettor and crank case. The car was still giving some trouble but we managed to get to the next river on the other side of which was No.2 workshop. As we were too late to be pulled across we stopped and had tea.

After tea we thought we would try to spear some fish with a fork so took an acetylene lamp down to the river, but we got nothing. As we thought it might rain we slept on the mail bags and put a sort of tent over the car and slept fairly comfortably, except when we were wakened in the middle of the night by some Indian transport getting across the river.

If you want to imagine the future of the East African campaign, imagine a human trying to catch fish in a flooded river with a fork, forever. I hope they were at least using a pitchfork and not a cutlery fork. This attempt to move a division to Arusha is quickly turning into a case of “Every man for himself”. I can only imagine how bad it must be for the poor sods who are trying to reach Kondoa.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell may just have had his leave cancelled, but there is some good news for him, for a given value of “good news”. He’s back in billets, and he’s just been told that Captain Barclay is being transferred. Furthermore, he’s getting a permanent promotion to Captain and is to take over permanently as a company commander. And, on top of all that, there’s even a funny story.

A month ago, when we came into this town, I secured, with the Town Major’s approval, a very fine house for our officers’ billet. We were just taking over, when in came an agitated French Priest, who made a long and moving speech to the effect that it belonged to the Depute-an important person, of course, and also an officer in the French army. He had several brothers in the service, and generally had great claims to consideration, and (in short) would we be so very good as not to insist on our right to occupy his house?

The clergyman had been asked to plead with troops coming in, apparently, and as the French had agreed, I thought I could not (in the interest of the Entente, as well as from natural sympathy) very well do otherwise than clear out. So we took another house, and now, after some more trips to the trenches, we have returned, again not to his house. This afternoon the Depute’s house, not many yards up the street from where I was sitting, was heavily crumped and we were not there!

Poetic justice, is it not?

Rather, old bean.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

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