Bazentin Ridge | Mwanza | 14 Jul 1916


Back to Africa today, where the Force Publique gets well and truly stuck into Major Wintgens’s defensive positions outside Mwanza, on Lake Victoria. The battle goes all day and through the night; they’re trying to buy time for a promised British Empire force to do an end run around Wintgens and cut off his southern escape route down the Tabora road. On the plus side, they’re nearby with 2,000 men; on the other hand, most of the force is irregulars around a core of King’s African Rifles. Tomorrow, the result.

Battle of the Somme

So, here we go, then. Time for the attack usually known as the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. But, before we can delve into that, we’ve got to quickly duck out to Trones Wood, which at midnight is far from in BEF hands. General Rawlinson has sold this mildly crackpot scheme to his boss at least partly on the premise that Trones Wood will be in BEF hands by zero hour. And, by zero hour, due to sheer dumb luck, it indeed is. Chance placed one Lt-Col Frank Maxwell (VC) of the 12th Middlesex in Trones Wood at this time.

To talk of a ‘wood’ is to talk rot. It was the most dreadful tangle of dense trees and undergrowth imaginable, with deep yawning broken trenches criss-crossing about it. Every tree broken off at top or bottom and branches cut away, so that the floor of the wood was almost an impenetrable tangle of timber, branches, undergrowth etc. blown to pieces by British and German heavy guns for a week. Never was anything so perfectly dreadful to look at—at least I couldn’t dream of anything worse…

A naturally charismatic commander, through sheer force of personality, Maxwell gathers all the men he can find together and has them advance in line abreast, almost holding hands. German tactics for defending the wood have been entirely based on picking on small, isolated, scared, lost British platoons and squads. For nearly a week fresh men have trickled inside to be broken up and picked off one by one. Today is when Maxwell earns his brigade command by taking Trones Wood and then holding it all day.

Let’s go to the map now to remind ourselves of the plan.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

As befits a critical day, there are all kinds of clever shenanigans going on here in support of the attack. To begin with, there will be no preliminary barrage at all, as we’ve come to understand the term. There has been some wire-cutting artillery fire over the past couple of days, but no concentrated firing for more than an hour or so at a time, what the Germans call drum-fire. Just brief blasts, then lifts, then more blasts, then a longer break, and so on. This is Behaviour Modification, as trialled over the last few months at Ypres, finally pressed into service for a major offensive. There’s another push in the wreckage of Ovillers, and a successful demonstration (without anyone leaving their trenches) at Beaumont Hamel.

The final ruse is one that relies on information gained a few days ago, that the Germans are tapping the BEF’s field-telephone system. Having already given careful verbal orders to the relevant units, shortly before zero hour 4th Army HQ telephones everyone it can think of to inform them that the attack has been postponed. (The order is of course meant for the enemy to overhear.) It’s difficult to say exactly how effective all the individual deception efforts were. All we can say is that the men sneaked out into No Man’s Land almost entirely unmolested, and when they attacked after a final bombardment of only five minutes, they achieved almost total surprise.

The whole world broke into gunfire. It was a stupendous spectacle—the darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes—the flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, followed a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps.

There’s our correspondent Fraser-Tytler; after five minutes, his guns switch to an effective and generously-timetabled creeping barrage. From Bazentin to Delville Wood the defending Germans have almost no answer. Resistance is sporadic, quickly snuffed out with bombs. At 10:30am, Fraser-Tytler is watching cavalry and arse hortillery moving past Montauban and forward towards the battle. There is, for the moment, utter confusion among German high command, caught with their trousers down, right in the middle of General von Falkenhayn’s command reorganisation, literally as the generals are formally handing things over to each other.

There is a gap in the German line, maybe a mile wide, although narrower than had been hoped for. It’s right in front of High Wood, capstone of an important intermediate trench line between the Second and Third Lines (usually referred to as a “switch line”). At 500 feet above sea level, along with Pozieres, it’s the highest point for miles around, critical for observation purposes. The defenders are mostly falling back in disarray. The BEF’s 7th Division waits for orders. Is it safe for them to push on?

On either side of the gap, the Germans are still holding on by their fingernails to the Second Line’s reserve trenches, local commanders feeding in troops via Pozieres and Combles. However, there aren’t, as yet, any orders to garrison the Third Line in strength or to attempt to occupy the switch lines between them. Opportunity is knocking. And then there was a Decision, and lo! it later became a Matter of Some Debate.

High Wood

Here is what happened. In the morning and the early afternoon, several patrols go out from the Second Line to High Wood, reporting it variously as completely empty or else garrisoned only by light enemy patrols. These reports all make it back to higher command. 4th Army then emits a number of extremely unhealthy grinding and crunching noises from under the bonnet, as several people all grab at the gear lever at once, and succeed only in ramming it firmly into neutral several times. The infantry gets orders to wait for the cavalry; advance; wait for the cavalry; do a little turn; and then sing “Knees Up Mother Brown”.

There is no advance towards High Wood until the evening, when the cavalry shows up, at which point machine-guns have appeared in the wood and the German artillery is beginning to recover after rapidly fleeing its positions behind Bazentin. Heavy fighting follows, and the attackers end the day with a solid foothold in High Wood, but when surely there had been a chance for far more. For once we cannot blame imperfect information. By First World War standards, communications with the rear were good enough. Division and corps commanders had about as good an idea of the situation as ever they could hope to have.

Several things got in the way. The first problem is the breakthrough itself. It’s relatively narrow, and the Germans are now hammering the left in particular with stiff counter-attacks from Pozieres. If their position at Bazentin gives way, anyone trying to exploit the breakthrough is in extreme danger of being cut off. So the 7th Division is kept waiting in front of High Wood, watching, cooling their heels until nightfall.

Here’s where we see through the apparent similarities between British “the man on the spot is king” principles and, say, the true freedoms given to subordinate commanders by General von Mackensen in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive. If one of Mackensen’s men had been in charge, he would surely have said “stuff the orders, I’m going to get that wood” and gone after it. A British man on the spot may be king, but he is a constitutional monarch and must first and foremost work within his orders.

This all might have been okay if three cavalry divisions had swept through the gap at, say, 2pm. But at that time, two of them are still knocking around the wrong side of Albert, by now far too far from the battle to play any part today. One division, the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, was sent forward early in the morning, but of course it’s had trouble getting forward. Not all of this is caused by trouble traversing ground broken up by artillery fire, mind you. When General Rawlinson sent it forward he attached it to XIII Corps, expecting the breakthrough to come in their portion of front. But 7th Division belongs to XV Corps, and hours are lost finding the cavalry, re-attaching them to XV Corps, and sending them forward to their new starting points.

I wish now to pause for a moment and reflect on the deep, deep irony of most of the cavalry being held too far to the rear, on Haig’s explicit orders. Commanders-in-chief have, earlier in the war, been overthrown by their senior army commanders for similar mistakes. I do wonder what Sir John French, sitting in his gossip factory on Horse Guards Parade, made of it all when someone told him what had happened.

The Charge of the Deccan Horse

So, in the early evening, we find cavalry coming into action on the Western Front for the first time in rather a while. More errors in getting orders forward sees only one cavalry brigade actually attack. But when they do, it’s a real sight to behold: they’re riding into action, ready for a charge. I’ve got two views of the attack, both from artillery spotters. The first is from Signaller Leonard Ounsworth, spotting for a heavy howitzer battery.

A Morane-Saulnier, a French aeroplane that we had at the time, kept diving down on to the corner of the field on our left front. I saw this Indian cavalry, the Deccan Horse they called them, and this plane was diving down and up again. Suddenly the officer in charge of the cavalry cottoned on. He stood up in his stirrups, waved his sword above his head and just charged across that field—like a shot out of a gun, like bats out of hell. The two outer lots split, so they made a pincer and encircled them—it was all over in a matter of seconds.

The next thing we saw was thirty-four Jerry prisoners, some with heavy machine guns. They were waiting while the Cavalry got a bit nearer—my God, they’d have slaughtered them. The plane was trying to draw their attention, just diving down on top, I suppose distracting these machine-gunners, because a plane coming down close above your head is enough to draw your attention.

And the second is from Lieutenant Beadle, spotting for the field guns. Sixteen Germans have been killed by the lance in addition to the 30 prisoners.

It was an incredible sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying. I’ve never seen anything like it! They simply galloped on through all that, and horses and men dropping on the ground. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight.

Brigadiers and division commanders are all sucked into a vortex of “wait, what do we do now?”, caught between common sense and orders. The cavalry dismounts with a foothold in High Wood and digs in. After a certain amount of shocked staring, a few individuals damn their orders and strike off in support. The approximate position at nightfall:

The switch line at High Wood is now being garrisoned, so it now appears on the map.

The switch line at High Wood is now being garrisoned, so it now appears on the map.

It’s a missed opportunity. How big, we really can’t say for sure. We can only speculate what might have happened if those three cavalry divisions had all got stuck in at once. They might have got lost, got over-enthusiastic, got massacred, got the VC, got to Bapaume, or all of the above.


General Haig is quite clear what he thinks of the day’s events. First in his diary.

I saw General Foch at Querrieu. He is very pleased with result of our attacks. French openly said their troops could not have carried out such an attack, not even the XX Corps! [which did particularly well on 1 July]

Foch is extremely enthused by this success, on Bastille Day, no less. He’s been worrying that the perfidious English will be content with allowing the battle to bog down once they learn that the Germans are giving up on Verdun. The two men spend a lot of time today talking over the possibilities for the coming days. There are a number of nasty German strong-points east of Trones Wood; they’re creating bottlenecks for the BEF right and the French left. Joint attacks are planned to free the bottleneck, and General Fayolle will soon get orders to make another big push for Peronne.

Back to Haig, who we now find writing to his wife.

This is indeed a very great success. The best day we have had this war and I feel what a reward it is to have been spared to see our troops so succeessful! There is no doubt that the results of today will be very far reaching. Our men showed that they have the superiority to the Germans in the fighting, and the latter are very much disorganised and rattled.

The best day we have had this war. And the sad thing is, he’s right. Think about that for a moment, if you can.

JRR Tolkien

Today, JRR Tolkien is off up the line with his men for the first time. The battalion halts for a long wait in the shadow of Lochnagar Crater, and then moves on into the ruins of La Boisselle. By nightfall they’re waiting in close reserve, as yet another penny-packet push tries to throw the Germans out of their remaining positions at Ovillers. True to their general’s promise, they are fighting for every inch and look set to fight to the last man if required.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach, the laziest German in France, continues making friends and influencing people.

I still like it best being on observation duty with the infantry. When there isn’t actually any heavy firing, you spend rewarding hours with the company commanders and the men. With time I’ve really found my feet in the infantry world and become fairly independent as well, and I often get together with the infantry leaders to discuss the artillery preparations required for a patrol operation. And afterwards I accompany these friends of mine on their night walks through the trenches, when they are inspecting their sentries.

The way these good-hearted infantrymen, some of them ex-Landwehr, stick to their work and do their duty, is the highest personal fulfilment of one’s task in life, faith incarnate in the justice of our victorious cause! Meanwhile, the second anniversary of the outbreak of war has passed, but you don’t really think any more about our entering the third year of war, and still less about whether and when there is going to be peace again.

Ah, it seems we’ve found the limits of his optimism. The Landwehr is, like the Territorial Army, supposed to be used only for the direct defence of the homeland. Unlike the Territorials, it contains no first-line forces and in an ideal world would never have to fight. But, you know, shit happens.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

March to Kondoa | Plans for the Somme | 3 Apr 1916

March to Kondoa

General van Deventer can wait no longer for his 2nd Division to finish forming up. Time is of the essence here. They must reach Kondoa Irangi before the rain comes. There is no other option. So today he rides out with his mounted troops and his arse hortillery. The infantry and the heavier guns will simply have to follow on as best they can. Kondoa is about 160 miles away, but of course it isn’t that simple. The first objective is Lolkisale Mountain, a short, fat lump of a mountain some 35 miles away. And there’s a Schutztruppe garrison hiding somewhere on it. But don’t worry, intelligence says there’s only about 500 men there.

Hmm. That’s a story that we’ve heard before, not so long ago, at Salaita Hill. It probably doesn’t help if I mention that all the water sources worth mentioning are on the mountain somewhere, does it? More tomorrow. Things are at least going to develop quickly here. The South African Horse doesn’t get paid by the hour.

Battle of the Somme

Back in France, General Rawlinson and his Fourth Army staff have now completed their first plan for the British contribution to the Battle of the Somme. Time for one of those legendarily terrible MSPaint maps, I think. You might want to get used to this one; we’ll be seeing a lot of it in the months to come.

As ever, these are not to any kind of scale.  In particular this one ended up rather more East-West stretched than most of my other maps.  But you get the gist.

As ever, these are not to any kind of scale. In particular, this one ended up rather more East-West stretched than most of my other maps. But you get the gist.

The plans are still, in theory, based on General Joffre’s original plan for an attack far to the north and south. However, everyone is now hastily downsizing their expectations, based on unofficial notification from reliable sources, while they wait for the official word from GQG. Before we consider the plans, a word or few about the battlefield.

It is no exaggeration to say that this sector is one of the best-defended in the whole of the Western Front. Absent the odd raid or demonstration, the Germans enjoyed almost complete quiet from November 1914 to about a few months ago-ish, once the BEF had taken it over entirely and got their feet under the table. Through most of 1915, it was was a sector where French and German soldiers met in No Man’s Land to exchange newspapers, where French and German officers spent their evenings playing cards together in each other’s dugouts.

The German Second Army’s efforts have gone much further than being nice to the French. They have now dug out three separate defensive positions. The First Line is what it sounds like, immediately opposite the BEF’s trenches. It’s far from a single line of trenches. This picture is from Thiepval; the Schwaben Redoubt is at the top right.

The Schwaben Redoubt was the most infamous, but there are several other strong-points of that type on the Somme.

The Schwaben Redoubt was the most infamous, but there are several other strong-points of that type on the Somme.

This is all part of the German First Line. The BEF’s trenches are out of shot, away off the bottom left corner. At bottom left of the image, listening posts and saps poke out into No Man’s Land; at top right, communications trenches lead back to a final stop line. Underneath here, we would find electrically-wired, fully-plumbed dugouts as deep as 40 feet below ground, with multiple exits.

Behind the First Line we find the Second Line, oddly enough. It’s about 2,000 to 5,000 yards behind the First Line, following the most favourable defensive terrain all the way. The Second Line is entirely complete and mostly dug to the same standards as the First Line. Finally, just in case the appearance of the BEF opposite them is a cause for concern, for the last few months they’ve prudently been digging a Third Line behind the Second Line. This won’t be complete for some time yet, but at least it keeps the men busy.

Their command of the terrain is all but absolute. Travelling from Albert up the Bapaume road, the ground rises over 300 feet to Pozieres, the centre and highest point of a ridge-line that runs from Grandcourt to Combles. The road then falls sharply, before rising a final time around Bapaume and Le Transloy; and then it finally flattens into a plain towards Cambrai, Le Cateau, and the Belgian border. Things are considerably more flat away to the south, in what will be the French sector.

Sir Henry Rawlinson is, I think, the closest thing that this war has to an interesting general. He began the war as a divisional commander, then quickly became a corps commander, and a year later was appointed to command 4th Army. He commanded at First Ypres, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, Second Ypres, the Battle of Aubers Ridge, the Battle of Festubert, and finally the Battle of Loos. General Haig aside, he’s probably the most experienced general in the British Army who hasn’t cocked up badly enough to get sent home.

In December 1914 he predicted a long, attritional war. Nothing he’s seen in 1915 has done anything to change his mind. He and his staff have been in close touch with General Foch and the French staff. It is of course impossible to give anyone credit for inventing what the BEF calls “bite and hold” and what the French Army calls “methodical battle”. But, just as Foch has been its champion in the French Army, Rawlinson is its champion in the BEF. The plan he presents to his boss is based entirely on these principles. A slow, methodical advance against each line in succession, with overwhelming artillery preparation at each stage.

As the plans make their way to Haig’s desk, here’s an interesting note for you. In London, the bloated War Committee has been studiously failing to make an official decision on whether to sanction British participation in the summer offensive. There are times when having a bluff, plain-speaking man as Chief of the Imperial General Staff is helpful; Wully Robertson has just received a request to ask the War Committee for a yes or no answer as soon as possible. This won’t be possible for a few days, though, as the Prime Minister and a few others are currently off on a junket to Italy.

In fact, even as the Chief begins to read, Herbert Asquith is shaking hands with General Cadorna. Which is the kind of influence you really want on your government at a time like this. Colonel Hankey, meanwhile, is admiring the Italians’ new drilled-out-of-rock trenches on the Carso, and wondering why the BEF’s trenches aren’t concreted. It’s as though he doesn’t know the first thing about how long concrete takes to properly set and cure, or the logistics of hauling and mixing it up the line. Even the Germans didn’t try to lay concrete without digging a really big hole first. Pillock.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian does his bit to improve the mood of his story today with an arresting image. They walk all day and reach Anavarza Castle, where there’s been a fortification of some sort for over 2,000 years. The ancient town lies in ruins, with a small farming village next door. The village takes them in.

We found a few large stables by the riverbank and settled down in them. Taking advantage of the opportunity, we hurried to the bank to wash ourselves and our undergarments, which had become leathery.

Ahhhh. You have no idea how much I needed that mildly disgusting underpants joke. A spoonful of…yes, anyway.

The stables had not sheltered animals for quite some time, so they were dry. Indeed, they were palaces for us, and we were content to be permitted to live in them. The government had confiscated all useful animals. As with the people, it had left only the crippled, blind, mangy, and sickly.

Speaking of which…

Edward Mousley

Time to check in with the Siege of Kut and Edward Mousley.

It is four months to-day since the Division on its last legs entered Kut-el-Amara, expecting relief to be here in three weeks, a month, possibly six weeks. Inscrutable are the ways of Allah! This afternoon a fierce thunderstorm broke over Kut, and hailstones larger than pigeons’ eggs rattled upon us with the sharp music of musketry. One should be quite sufficient to knock a fellow out if it got him bare-headed. Afterwards it turned to rain, which we fear may delay the next battle for Kut.

I am feeling very seedy again to-day, what with this enteritis and rheumatics and jaundice. So is Tudway, to whom I have given various opium pills and camphoradine. I am, however, lucky so far to have escaped the severe form of enteritis which many others have had. It is a deadly and horrible thing enough, accompanied by violent pains in the abdomen, and vomiting. To be sure I have had the former for so many weeks that I am used to it, and we often say we can scarcely remember the time when we hadn’t these infernal pains.

In the Arctic circle the two seasons are light and dark, and in India dry and wet, and in Kut when one has stomach ache and when one hasn’t. Most of us have been put down for sick leave at once when the relief occurs. The India list is the most cheerful phrase one hears.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but “Tudway” is, for once, not a pseudonym. This is Lieutenant Lionel Tudway of the Navy, commander of HMS Sumana, a rather battered motor-launch. It’s the last remnant of Townshend’s Regatta. All the other ships have long since fled to avoid being trapped..

E.S. Thompson

Speaking of people who are ill, E.S. Thompson is rapidly going downhill.

Feeling weak and dejected, so reported sick to the Doctor who gave me 2 quinine tablets and light duties. Victor Rose got fever again. Both feeling pretty bad. Had some milk and rice for lunch. Experienced one of my longest and wretchedest nights.

On the plus side, if they get attacked, his mates could turn him around and use him as a shotgun in classical defending-the-castle style.

Evelyn Southwell

Captain (for the time being) Evelyn Southwell of the 9th Rifle Brigade has remembered that his diary exists.

“There is an officer coming to see your trenches,’ said the Adjutant on the phone. “I want you to hand over the Company to him. No end of a man”, he went on, “Military Cross, Captain 1st R.B., and all that.” That was a bit sudden, but obviously for the enormous advantage of the Company; and this war is not being run entirely to gratify the ambitions of fourth-rate and unimportant subalterns!

So that’s that, and now behold me once more a subaltern, under authority better than any I ever exercised, and likely to have yet another chance of learning my job! Perhaps I may be a soldier yet if the war lasts long enough.

To-day’s gossip is rather fun. It appears some Frenchman has prophesied that the war will be over in 96 hours from this morning ! The offensive at Verdun is to break down then, and that means the end. Someone should really write a book on war rumours and gossip; it would be quite as entertaining as the real history.

I’ve not seen White again since our great meeting in the South. But his Battalion’s quite near again, and if he’s back from leave I hope to see him soon. It was very sad, that sudden news about his father.

Southwell is put back to his substantive rank of lieutenant. Malcolm White is indeed due to be back from leave soon.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge gets a chance to show some insight today as his whole battalion gets marched around the camp and then around town. Don’t screw up and get the sergeants mad at you, Private Mugge! That would break my heart!

Yesterday morning we were paraded on the road alongside the large drill ground. Company after company arrived. The smart ness of the N.C.O.’s and men, the beautiful precision of all the movements by which the long column was built up, the realization of one “Wille und Vorstellung” made a deep impression on me.

When finally the C.O. on horseback thundered, “Royal Sussex, ‘shun! Quick March!” and when shortly afterwards to the strain of the regimental band we marched through the streets, I felt quite proud to belong to the Regiment. It was the almost irresistible fascination of the glitter, and what is more, of the undeniable dignity of the mightiest human machine yet devised.

Apparently he survived. This is a very important personal moment for Mugge. He’s not only joining the Army, he’s finally getting the chance he’s been waiting 18 months for, to demonstrate that he’s as British as the next chap, and ready to serve King and Country. Belonging to a large body of people for the first time is always going to be a memorable experience, but for him it means so much more than that.

He’s also fighting with his publisher. You may recall that just before joining the Army, he finished a series of translations of Serbian folk songs. The book should apparently have been published tomorrow to support Serbian relief efforts, but instead he’s only just received the first set of proofs for correcting. Which he will be able to do in his copious spare time. (The proofs have instead been sent to “an eminent Serbian professor” who assisted with the translation.)

Clifford Wells

We finish with a quick note from Clifford Wells, the you-know-what of a you-know-who from you-know-where. He’s been inspected by an Important Personage.

The grand review of the troops of the Canadian Training Division took place. Contrary to expectation, Sir Sam Hughes remained in England for the occasion. I do not know how many troops were reviewed, as I had no opportunity to make a careful estimate, but there must have been at least twelve thousand.

Sir Sam shook hands with all the officers after the review. He even deigned to ask me where I was from. This is always a hard question for me to answer. I told him Montreal, which I call home, although I have lived there so little.

Sir Samuel Hughes is the Canadian Minister of Defence. He’s already made a number of very stupid decisions. He insisted on the use of fragile, mud-intolerant Canadian-made Ross rifles instead of the Lee-Enfield. He patronised the development of the Macadam Shield Shovel, an entirely useless item that was supposed to be a combination entrenching tool and portable loophole, and was in fact useless at both jobs. I could fill a chapter with “Dumb Things Done By Sir Samuel Hughes”.

Oh, and just to make things even better, his idiot son Colonel Garnet Hughes is serving in France. More about that later. Sadly, Wells hasn’t even been able to give Hughes measles.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

Further Reading

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