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.)

War at sea | Eastern Front | 12 Jan 1916

Eastern Front

General Joffre isn’t the world’s biggest fan of the Salonika expedition. However, he’s a practical man. Not only does it still have the firm backing of his Prime Minister, but the Russians are also strong supporters of the idea. Joffre knows he needs plenty of positive credit if he’s to convince the Russians to launch a major offensive in the spring, and for the last few months he’s been sending frequent letters and messages to Stavka for the attention of anyone who might read them.

It seems his charm offensive has now borne fruit. Today a French liaison officer has a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II, who’s taken personal command of the army. The Tsar apparently said a lot of very nice things about the Franco-Russian alliance and promised to be personally overseeing preparations for a major offensive later “in mid-1916”. Perhaps a little later than Joffre would like, but the important thing is the commitment.

The war at sea

Time now to take a moment and review quickly state of the war at sea. The German High Seas Fleet has spent the last year or so twiddling its thumbs in port after the Kaiser issued a firm directive that it not be unnecessarily risked. Its commander, Admiral von Pohl, has been more than happy to obey, and the focus switched briefly to submarine warfare. After the suspension of unrestricted submarine warfare, some of the German submarines have found their way to the Mediterranean. Things in the North Sea have been broadly quiet in terms of battles. The Blockade of Germany continues to be enforced, and at the Admiralty Room 40 continues to read the Germans’ wireless messages with impunity.

There are two areas of interest. In the Black Sea, the Ottoman and Russian fleets are semi-frequently jockeying for position without fighting any major actions. And, down on Lake Tanganyika, the newly-promoted Commander Spicer-Simson (still wearing his bespoke khaki skirt), is feeling rather optimistic. The German steamer Kingani is now in his possession, and repairs on her are nearly finished. The Belgians have given him a new, bigger gun to replace the ex-Konigsberg cannon, which has been shifted to a newly-repaired Belgian steamer, Vengeur

The biggest question on Spicer-Simson’s mind is a new name for Kingani; he quickly settles on Fifi, the French for “Tweet-tweet”. It goes nicely with Mimi and Toutou, Kitty and Doggie. So far things have gone well (barring the weather, which is now pouring rain on the camp). A pair of flat-pack British seaplanes have just arrived. Military success has smoothed ruffled feathers between Spicer-Simson and Major Stinghlamber, the Force Publique commander. For now, it’s all going rather well. More from them soon.

Change in the North Sea

The war in the North Sea isn’t going to be quiet for too much longer. Admiral von Pohl has developed liver cancer, and a few days ago he left his flagship for a Berlin hospital. He’s clearly not fit for further duty; in fact, he has barely more than a month to live. Meanwhile, the commerce raider Moewe continues her cruise. After briefly ducking into the Bay of Biscay to drop some more mines off Rochelle, she’s now operating with impunity between Finisterre and the Canary Islands. The ship has already captured five merchants, including one collier, which has been sent to a quiet Brasilian island under a German prize-crew for later rendezvous. In just a few more short days her tally will reach seven captures; and as none of the captured ships are yet due in port, nobody has reason to suspect that anything’s gone wrong.

Erzurum Offensive

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus, the Russians are launching an attack that isn’t supposed to work. This is their big, obvious assault into the Pasin Valley against the Ottomans’ extensive system of prepared defences, with shouts and great action. The object here is to spook the Ottomans into thinking that the last couple of days on the Cakir Baba was a distraction, and that this is the main offensive; of course, it’s really t’other way about. Come back tomorrow to see if it worked!

Mesopotamia

As his men carefully shuffle forward towards the Wadi, General Aylmer has a nasty little problem. Given a free choice, the sensible thing would be to withdraw, or at least to halt without fighting and await reinforcements. At best, he’s got equal numbers, at worst he’s slightly outnumbered. But he doesn’t have a free choice. The Siege of Kut needs to be broken, and soon. There’s no two ways about it.

So, in an effort to square the circle, he’s come up with just about the best plan possible. Most of the men are going off to the right, a few miles inland, to find a point where they can cross the Wadi while not under enemy fire, then attack from there. It’s not the most convincing plan in the world, but it’s all they’ve got.

Robert Palmer

Meanwhile, Robert Palmer narrowly avoids the most unpleasant duty of all.

In the evening D Company had to find a firing party to shoot three Indians; a havildar, a lance-naik, and a sepoy, for cowardice in the face of the enemy. I’m thankful that North and not I was detailed for the job. I think there is nothing more horrible in all war than these executions. Luckily they are rare. They helped dig their own graves and were very brave about it. They lay down in the graves to be shot.

The men, however, didn’t mind at all. I talked to Corporal Boughey about it afterwards, and remarked that it was a nasty job for him to have to do. to which he replied gaily, “Well, sir, I ‘ad a bit o’ rust in my barrel wanted shootin’ out, so it came in handy like.”

Tommy Atkins is a wonderful and attractive creature.

Add three more to the roster of Indians who were shot for military crimes and whose total number nobody seems to know. By my rough count the total number of men executed while in the service of the British Empire is now in the region of 400, without much sign of stopping. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, my arse.

Montenegro

After six days of fighting, the writing’s on the wall for Montenegro. The Government contacts Austria-Hungary to ask for an armistice. Meanwhile, the Army commander, General Vukovic, is not quite so ready just to stop. He sends out a general order to retreat to Scutari, and join the evacuation. Some go, some stay. Montenegro’s independence is, for the time being, about to end.

Mother

In Lincoln, Mother is going back into the factory yard with repaired caterpillar tracks. This time they work perfectly, and several members of the committee indulge themselves in driving up and down a number of heaps of slag and pig-iron. The prototype makes short work of them, and tomorrow they’re going to take the tank out on a longer drive through some quiet fields. Some of the drivers will be unable to resist driving right through a few hedges on the way. Just to prove it can be done, you understand.

The next step will be to test-fire one of the small 6-pound guns from Mother. Of course, there are first a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through in order to get some shells to fire…

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux has dutifully taken himself off to Remiremont, in the hope that someone might tell him if he’s actually needed.

I arrive at the Army HQ. There, the same old story, they don’t know what to do with us. They have heard that some railway officers were to join a unit, but that’s all. No orders. Once again, there are phone calls to the Ministry, and to central HQ. Result, call again and we will see then. Finally, in the evening, we learn we are to have a training course for company commanders at Remiremont.

Looks like someone wants him after all!

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.)