Maurepas | Guillemont | 30 Jul 1916

Maurepas and Guillemont

The ears are senseless that should give us hearing to tell his commandment is fulfilled; that Maurepas and Guillemont are dead.

Ahem. Those names just seem to flow together in the same way that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” do. You know what’s not flowing at the moment? The River Somme. There’s a highly arresting story from about now-ish that I can’t quite verify 100%. The Somme has been heavily canalised, and the story goes that the lock gates at Abbeville are now being frequently jammed by the bodies of dead French and German soldiers floating gently down from the battlefields around Frise and Peronne.

There is, at this point, little reason to go into fresh amounts of detail. Once again the BEF is let down by its staff work. Seven days, it seems, is not enough time to pick up the pieces, learn lessons, and then successfully attack after the failure of the 23rd. Maybe it is enough time, and they’re just not doing things properly. At any rate, there is nothing new to add. Disjointed start time, enemy well aware, insufficient supporting fire, too much ground to cover to reach the German trenches, attacks broken up by artillery and finally dashed by intact barbed wire.

Meanwhile, off to the right, where they do things properly, the French conduct a successful methodical leap into the Second Line and after a couple of hours are pushing hard for Maurepas. Then the problems start. With the BEF’s attack a total failure, German guns and reserves can concentrate on defending Maurepas. The French attack slows, falters, halts, and then by evening they’re under so much pressure that they begin quietly withdrawing in the night.

Our correspondent Neil Fraser-Tytler of the artillery is laying down the artillery support, such as it is; it’s not his fault that there aren’t enough other guns. Once again he’s being harrassed by gas.

…I found working on a map with a gas helmet on was a job very trying to the temper. At 3am, after a mouthful of tea and bacon, both tasting vilely of gas, I started off to try to get to the French line … Having repaired our wire as far as Hardecourt, we found that it now lay uncomfortably near a huge store of hand grenades, which had caught fire and were exploding at intervals like giant Chinese crackers. After an exciting bit of duck and dodge, we succeded in removing it to a safer bit of ground.

I was just settling down to observe when an excited French runner gasped out the surprising news that the French had already captured Falfemont Farm. On questioning him as to the source of this information, I learnt that it was contained in a message from the attacking troops, and that the runner had given it to an officer in an observation post a little way down the trench. I hurried off immediately to see the news in writing, but as bad luck would have it, a shell preceded me and burst right in the OP.

There followed a desperate but unsuccessful hunt for the piece of paper amongst the very broken remains of two officers and two men.

Fraser-Tytler instead takes out his binoculars, verifies that there are German steel hats pouring into the farm, and organises some hate for them. His concluding thought is “It was a wonderful day [despite the failure of our attacks]”. I shall give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he means “full of wonder” and not “extremely good”. So, let’s have the map again. This is pretty much what the line is going to look like for the next month.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.  Planned engineering work is taking place...

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map. Planned engineering work is taking place…

General Haig’s attention, meanwhile, is now turning strongly towards tanks. More on that to come.

Wully Robertson

It must not have been much fun to be Wully Robertson, the British Empire’s senior soldieer over the past month. No matter how much good patriotic crap the newspapers write, there’s no covering up the gargantuan length of the official casualty lists, or the never-ending deluge of seriously wounded arriving back in British hospitals. Politicians, of course, have sources of information other than the official channels (not least the French government). For the Army, there’s always Sir John French’s office on Horse Guards, always busy when French isn’t out on the pull. (In a slightly later letter, Robertson will write a personal letter to Haig warning him that “Winston [Churchill], French, and various ‘degommed people’ are trying to make mischief”.)

For now, even Wully, the Western Fronter’s Western Fronter, is worried about the casualties and lack of progress from the Somme. He gives him a summary of the War Committee’s opinions and then puts three questions to General Haig for immediate reply. Will a loss of 300,000 men really lead to great results? Why did it seem that the British were now bearing the brunt of the fighting and the French seemed to be doing little? Has the primary objective of relieving the pressure on Verdun not, at least to some extent, been relieved?

Very good points; Haig will soon be carefully applying himself to answering them.

French intelligence

Meanwhile, it’s the turn of French intelligence to be optimistic about the effects of attrition. The boffins at GQG have been crunching some numbers. It seems that Austria-Hungary is surely about to run out of men as soon as the Romanians get stuck into them (a not totally inaccurate assessment). More vaguely, it speaks of the Germans having to use a large number of undesirable “expedients” to keep up the flow of men and supplies to the front. I’ll give you one guess where General Joffre’s thinking will be guided by this intelligence assessment. (It starts with “come here” and ends with “ow, my leg, they shot me in the leg”.)

Persia

Time for a quick note from Persia. The Russian General Baratov has been leading a force around the area to stop the Ottomans playing silly buggers; unfortunately, the fall of Kut has freed up men to get after Baratov. Enver Pasha has some typically ridiculous dreams of a grand advance all the way through Persia to make trouble for the British Empire in Afghanistan, apparently without regard for such fripperies as “supply lines” and “practicalities”. At the moment, though, his force has shoved Baratov right back from the Persian border with Mesopotamia; Baratov is trying to organise a defence.

However, he’ll soon decide that the best thing he can do is retreat to the Sultan-bulak Pass, sit there, and wait for developments. A solid mountain pass to defend is worth a thousand tons of concrete and fifty machine-guns.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson’s mates fall victim to some of the vagaries of camp life.

Woken up at 2am by Hassett waking up the 2 next tents saying there was a night adder. It turned out to be a belt wound round a stick, much to our disgust. Slept again till morning and after reveille went to bed again. … Nos. 2, 5 and 6 guns went out on harmonizing firing. Major Thompson and the orderly officer came around and kicked up a row about our tents. Rose made some 11 ‘o clock coffee. Short ration of bread, so drew mealie-meal to make up. Heard our troops are on the Dar-es-Salaam line.

I forget if I’ve mentioned recently that mealie-meal is a staple sub-Saharan food, a coarse maize flour which produces an acceptable porridge after the addition of water. And there’s another overly optimistic rumour for you; there are men heading towards the Central Railway, but they’re not quite there yet.

Emilio Lussu

For the time being, the General has been convinced to calm down a bit. There have been a few too many slaughters of late in the Dolomites, so the men are being left to their own devices for a little while, until some new plan can be devised. Emilio Lussu catches up with his reading.

Every once in a while, a newspaper happened our way and we passed it around ourselves. They were always the same and they annoyed us. The way they described the war was so strange it was unrecognisable. The Campomulo valley, which we had crossed without seeing a single casualty, was depicted in the papers as “lined with cadavers”. Austrian cadavers, naturally. Even our little army newspapers were irritating. The truth was something only we possessed, right before our eyes.

An old comrade pays Lusso a visit while the papers are in; they both survived the Carso together last year.

He was wearing a raincoat, all buttoned up. All you could see of his clothing were his helmet, the raincoat, the lower half of his gaiters, and his shoes, falling apart and held together by tangled pieces of wire. The soles were new, made of pine bark. He unbuttoned his raincoat and exhibited his bare naked body, from helmet to gaiters. Two months of campaigning had left him in this state. Not a single piece of clothing had made it to the line since the end of May. We were all, some more, some less, dressed like hobos.

“Where’s your underwear?” I asked.
“Not being an item of primary need, I have abolished it. My bodily fauna was forcing me to undertake such strenuous hunting expeditions that I preferred to burn their dens. Now I feel more like a man. I mean, more like an animal. And you read? I feel sorry for you. The life of the spirit? Don’t make me laugh, the spirit. We want to live, live, live.”
“Where is it written that in order to live you have to abolish the shirt?”

They continue in this vein for some time. Nobody gets blown up or shot. A genuine funny story!

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells has heard of something rather interesting as he remains in limbo. He’s still waiting for the final word to go to France, and still warned to be ready to leave immediately.

Last night I was wakened by the sound of bombs exploding and anti-aircraft guns being fired some miles away, possibly at Dover. It is said that the Germans do not attack Folkestone and its immediate neighbours along thecoast in gratitude for the rescue of the crew of a large German ship which was wrecked here at the beginning of the war. The story does not sound probable, but for some reason Folkestone has been overlooked by German aircraft while Dover only a short distance away has been repeatedly visited by them.

The short Canadian casualty lists show that the Canadians are still in reserve. When they return to the front line probably the officers who have been warned will be sent for. It is likely we shall spend some time at the base in Havre before going into the firing line.

The story of the large German ship is indeed bollocks, sadly.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis

Further Reading

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Montauban | Bayburt | 2 Jul 1916

Battle of Erzincan

Let’s have a little palate-cleansing aperitif before we dive back into the Somme, shall we? Quick reminder; the Ottomans have attacked the Russians on the Caucasus front and achieved some local successes. Russian commander General Yudenich is unconcerned, because today he launches another general offensive against the still under-strength Ottoman Third Army. Its main focus is a heavy push towards Bayburt, looking to split the Third Army clean in two.

The first day sees a little success; but just as a single Turkistani battalion recently defended mountain positions for several days without support, it’s going to take more than a gentle push to knock the new Ottoman defences over. We’ll check back and see how they’re doing once it’s obvious either way. Right then.

Battle of the Somme

You know, the Battle of the Somme is kind of like God Save the Queen. (Or, indeed, many national anthems.) Everyone knows how the song goes, right? Send her victorious, happy and glorious, and so on. Maybe you dimly remember that there’s something else in there about “rebellious Scots to crush”, but nobody bothers with that bit any more. Well, on further inspection, it turns out that everyone and his dog seems to have had their own go at writing a verse. The “standard version” is usually said to be three verses long, but really there’s as many as you want them to be, or indeed as many as the band feels like playing.

So, down on the Somme, we’ve all had a jolly good sing of the anthem…and now the band is carrying on for a second verse. What now? Is it just the second verse, same as the first, over and over? Let’s have a look at the map again and remind ourselves where we were.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

So there you go. Where do we go from here?

The Chief

Unfortunately, due to an unconscionable lack of 21st-century technology and 100 years of hindsight, General Haig’s trying to figure out what to do next based on a horrible potpourri of rumour, hearsay, third-hand reports, and the odd message. It seems obvious, right? Still, hazy though the picture is, both he and General Rawlinson seem to have appreciated that north of the Albert to Bapaume road has gone badly, but south of the road things are looking much better.

After church, I and Kiggell [Haig’s chief of staff] motored to Querrieu and saw Sir H. Rawlinson. I directed him to devote all his energies to capturing Fricourt and neighbouring villages, so as to reduce the number of our flanks, and then advance on Enemy’s second line. I questioned him as to his views of an advance from Montauban and his right, instead of from Thiepval and left. He did not seem to favour the scheme…The Adjutant-General reported that the total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe, in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.

Sounds kind of callous, doesn’t it? And it’s not exactly in accord with the actualite; other battles, before and after, did not come at nearly such a heavy price. But, come on, what else are we expecting? He’s a good soldier of the Empire and he’s got a job to do. For me, complaining about Haig reacting this way is kind of like complaining about footballers being petulant, cheating little sods. Of course he’s going to polish the turd; no good will come of doing anything else.

Incidentally, General Joffre has just made an appointment to see him tomorrow at 3pm. How do you think he would have reacted to something like “Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of men today, so now we’re going to have to call the battle off”. Spoilers, the meeting will be stormy enough even with Haig being positive about things. Haig saying “Nah, we’ve had enough” is the sort of thing that breaks coalitions and topples governments.

Fricourt

Right, let’s get back to the blokes on the ground. The lack of any decision by Haig or Rawlinson today about switching the focus of the offensive doesn’t mean that there’s a command vacuum, mind. Everyone still has orders to follow, and there’s plenty of layers of command below the Chief to make local decisions. At Fricourt, for instance, it’s obvious what should be done next; cut Fricourt village off completely and then prepare to press on. There is some difficulty with this; their supporting artillery barrage keeps getting in the way, and it’s into the afternoon before sanity can be restored.

And then they discovered that the Germans weren’t being suppressed by the artillery support. This is because the Germans in fact left under cover of darkness last night, recognising that their position was untenable. Red faces all round!

La Boisselle

Right, back now to La Boisselle, home of some of the bloodier fighting of yesterday. In the absence of any orders from above, again it’s obvious what needs to happen; reinforce Lochnagar Crater, hold what’s already been gained, and push on as best they can. The 34th Division has been completely shattered, but this is why God gave the army reserves. Another division is brought in, and during the night they’ve had extensive conversations with the local artillery commanders. A fire plan has been developed which will concentrate the heaviest weight of fire against Ovillers.

Meanwhile, the trenches guarding La Boisselle will only receive just enough shelling to (hopefully) clear the German wire and suppress the defenders. It works like a charm, and the 19th Division succeeds yesterday where the 34th was cut to ribbons. The German defenders are caught completely wrong-footed and are unable to bring anything like the weight of yesterday’s machine-gun fire to bear. The attackers push right through the trench system and by nightfall they’re holding part of La Boisselle itself. The Germans are now struggling to hold onto any part of the First Line south of the road.

It may be a behind-schedule success, but it’s still a success.

South of Fricourt

Here now is where perhaps the BEF could have done with a bit more direction from above. The Germans south of Fricourt are still struggling mightily to get themselves back together. On the one hand, the Second Line is fully occupied, and German artillery is taking up new positions to support it. It seems like the sensible thing for the Germans to do would just be to fall back, sit in the Second Line, and invite the BEF to come and have a go if they think they’re hard enough. There’s a problem with that idea, though: the French.

North of the Somme, the French Army has now pushed through almost without exception to attack the German Second Line. Further north and west, up on the Thiepval Ridge, the Second Line has been constructed to just as high a standard as the First Line. Some of it more so, since its recent construction has allowed them to exploit lessons learned in 1915, like the importance of reverse-slope trenches, that they didn’t have in 1914 when the First Line was first dug. However, where the French are now pushing forward to, it seems that the work has been considerably more sloppy.

There’s not nearly as much barbed wire as there should be. There are none of the super-deep dugouts that proved so effective at Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel. The trenches themselves are far shallower. Mind, the fighting today in the French sector is far from an easy victory. Casualties are up on yesterday, and resistance is stiff, but for the most part, they’re getting into the trenches and fighting with grenade and bayonet. “Hold the Second Line against the BEF” is all well and good if the Second Line also holds against the French, but if not…

The situation is so bad that in fact the German Second Army is now preparing to retreat in the south from the Second Line to the Third Line and a number of intermediate switch lines around Peronne. The hope is to buy themselves enough time to make a really good stand there. Germans making hasty retreats is not what many people think of when they think of the Battle of the Somme!

von Falkenhayn arrives

And it’s against this backdrop that General von Falkenhayn arrives to try to figure out what’s going on here. From the German perspective, this is looking like some sort of Battle of Artois-sized attack between Fricourt and the River Somme. There’s been a supporting French attack south of the Somme and some sort of over-aggressive demonstration north of the Albert to Bapaume road. Accordingly, von Falkenhayn is still far from convinced that this is the main show. He’s even sent three of his own reserve divisions to defend against a second Artois-sized offensive on the old Artois battlefields at Vimy and Loos.

There is of course a great deal spoken about incompetent British generalship on the Somme; much of it accurate. However, there’s not nearly enough attention paid to what was happening on the other side of the hill. Arriving at Second Army headquarters, von Falkenhayn immediately begins laying down the law. When he finds out about the planned retreat, he immediately sacks the army’s chief of staff and summons commander General von Below for a long lecture about the correct attitude for his army, before leaving again. von Below promptly issues fresh orders for general distribution.

Despite the current superiority of the enemy in infantry and artillery, we must win this battle. Large-scale loss of terrain, as we have suffered in certain places, will be wrested back through counter-attack from the enemy after the arrival of the coming reinforcement. At the moment, we must hold fast our current positions absolutely and improve these through small-scale counter-attacks. I forbid the voluntary withdrawal from positions. Every commander is responsible for ensuring that this solid will for battle is understood by every man in the army.

The enemy must only be allowed to find his way forward over our dead bodies.

This will, of course, take some time to percolate through the relevant officers. However, when it does, this order will become absolutely critical to the way the Battle of the Somme will develop over the coming weeks. More soon.

Montauban

General von Below has also committed a division from his own Army reserves. In accordance with von Falkenhayn’s wishes that “The first principle of position warfare must be not to surrender a foot of ground, and when ground is lost to throw in even the last man in an immediate counter-attack”, that division attacks the BEF this morning around Montauban.

And here something very interesting happens. It’s a rather similar situation to what happened yesterday at Thiepval. Here the BEF holds a line anchored on a fortified village, and enjoying the benefit of observation from high ground. Their trenches have been hastily dug and are far from the quality of the trenches they’ve just left, but the German artillery does not know where they are. Consequently, the supporting barrage is inaccurate; while some Germans did make it into Montauban, they were evicted again thanks to plentiful use of the BEF’s new Mills bomb, a major improvement on the old No 15 “cricket ball”.

Once it’s been repelled, the BEF begins moving cautiously forward again. They can’t go too far, of course, or else they’ll lose touch with their left flank, still held up at Fricourt. Perhaps a bold push in the afternoon might have paid dividends. Perhaps it would just have turned out to be too uncoordinated to end in anything other than another slaughter against the Second Line. We’ll not know. The position at nightfall:

Pink marks uncaptured Day 1 objectives for the BEF.

Pink marks uncaptured Day 1 objectives for the BEF.

North of the Albert to Bapaume road, by the way, almost nothing has been done, and with good reason. General Rawlinson is minded to attack again as soon as possible, but even so, that means fresh artillery bombardments and the bringing up of reserves for another attack. Today there is a day of consolidation, and a day of bringing in the wounded, and a day of burying the dead.

Round the fringes

Let’s go sweep round the fringes of this battle and see what’s going on on a more personal level, shall we? We’ll begin under cover of the early morning darkness. About twenty miles north of Beaumont Hamel, last evening a brigadier became extremely excited by the news, which was barely more restrained than the ridiculous, over-optimistic blithering that’s about to be served up to the home front in the British newspapers. He’s also got rather sick and tired of the Germans’ damned unsporting habit of writing insulting notices and hanging them on the barbed wire.

Which is why we find one lance-corporal and one private of the 6th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry crawling across No Man’s Land in the dark, with one enormous noticeboard, and one booby trap. (Both sides have now taken to booby-trapping their own amusing jokes to stop the enemy trying to remove them.) The notice has been painted according to the brigadier’s explicit order, and it says:

10,000 MEN AND 100s OF GUNS CAPTURED ON SOMME! MORE TO FOLLOW! GOD SAVE THE KING!

If only it were true, mynheer. There is a rather less funny story from the aftermath of the diversionary attack at Gommecourt, though. Sergeant Stewart Jordan belongs to the London Scottish, from a battalion which has not attacked, and which is at rest in the rear. He’s gone up to a crossroads at the rear of the BEF trench system to find the survivors of a sister battalion and guide them back to their rest billets. An uncomfortably long wait follows.

I heard marching feet and after a bit in the dark I could see that they were wearing kilts and guessed that that was our regiment. When I could distinguish them I noticed about 120 men, I suppose, and the Adjutant was leading them. So I said to him, ‘Which company is this, please?’ ‘Company!’ he said, ‘This is the regiment!’ About 800 men went over, and about 100 came back.

This might be from Gommecourt, but it can stand for any number of battalions from Serre to Ovillers.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

Of course, rather than using the recent death and wounding of some of my correspondents as an excuse to do a little less work for a while, I’m bringing in more recruits. Briggs Kilburn Adams is quite a special character. He’s just about to begin the final year of a university degree at Harvard. However, being young and stupid, he’s decided to go to France for his summer holidays and drive an American volunteer ambulance. That’s not all he’ll do in the war, mind. But for now, he’s just finished several days hanging around in in Bordeaux and Paris.

The trip has been of the greatest interest so far because of its entire novelty. I had not realized a foreign country could be so foreign. On shipboard I noticed the change mostly in the cooking. Also the French are always shaking hands; when they meet in the morning, when they meet at lunch and when they go to bed. As a foreign city, [Bordeaux] was very attractive, I thought; but it was strange to see stone buildings everywhere. The fare to Paris is something over forty francs. We came through free! It is pretty soft being an ambulance driver.

One is not uncomfortable in plain clothes as in England, for here the Army service is universal and it is only voluntary there. So if a man is in civilian clothes here they know he is either a foreigner or has some good reason. However, when in uniform, you are less conspicuous and you get half prices everywhere. Paris gets dark after sunset, but all the regular French places are going, except the Opera and the Comedie Francaise. The streets are crowded and busy, and everywhere you see women doing men’s work.

Women? Doing men’s work??? That’s unpossible!!!!!

Ahem. He’s just been sent up to Bar-le-Duc, so lots of lovely stories about the wounded from Verdun to come.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier has some rest to look forward to, but he’s also heard of something new in the offing.

This is a rolling New Englandish kind of country and we are all glad to be out in the open, having nothing to fear and plenty of time to bask in the sun. We are about eighty miles from the trenches and the battalion has never been so far back into the country and from the Dutch since war broke out two years ago. We may stay here two or three weeks, then we shall go North to attack; according to all probabilities, there are going to be great doings out that way and we want our share of them.

For the present we think of nothing but sleeping (I have a bed, glory be), eating and getting washed up in plenty of water, instead of in a tin cup. We have a fine cook and a pleasant dining-room, so life is rosy.

“Great doings” to the north could equally be Verdun or the Somme.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is now really getting his teeth into his three months’ course at the Canadian Military School in Kent. He too has heard the first hint of news from the front.

The course in riding under a regular cavalry instructor is quite an education in itself. We were told the first day, and it is repeated whenever necessary, that it is far better to fall off and break your neck than to hold on to the arch of the saddle. No necks have been broken yet, but there are cases of falling off nearly every day. I have managed to stick on under all circumstances hitherto. Before we get through, we shall be riding cross-country, jumping fences, etc. One has to be able to ride at a full gallop using neither reins nor stirrups, and keeping the arms folded. I find the ride every morning the pleasantest part of the day.

The “big drive” has apparently commenced at last. We are anxiously awaiting further reports as to its progress. It will not be over in a week, but it really does look as if the beginning of a series of advances had arrived. Canadian cavalry in France and England is training hard for “shock action,” with swords and lances, as though open fighting is expected some time. Canadian and Indian cavalry are reported to be training in the neighbourhood of Verdun.

Canadian and Indian cavalry is indeed training for shock action out in France, but of course they’re waiting for the call to action at the Somme. I am also reliably informed that holding onto the saddle when one rides is Just Not Done, Old Boy.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge, newly restored as an Army private (although still on light duties due to his heart) is defending the reputation of Tommy Atkins.

The boys with their phenomenal swear-words, (which make pure Limehouse and mere Billingsgate appear to be the refined accents of Sunday School teachers and Church workers), might create the impression of semi-savages to a superficial observer. But it is only their “slanguage” that does it. At heart most of them are really a good-natured lot, and with not a few I have become quite chummy. True, their fierce competition in filthy language does not ennoble them, but I hold it is mostly external.

The boys were quite astonished when I told them that “bloody” had been the strongest adjective I had known of hitherto, and that [George Bernard] Shaw became famous “beyond the Kaiser” because he made a lady in a play say “Not bloody likely.” The inscriptions to be found in the camp latrines, either recriminatory reflections on some rival regiment, or mad and stupid sexualities, are even more graceful. I do not reproach the working-man for having been left where he is, but I do condemn and curse that majority of the middle-classes and upper-classes who care neither about the men nor about what I may say.

Fortunately, there is a small minority who will agree with me.

The lady in the play is Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, which premiered in London just before the war and caused a major scandal among Britain’s chattering classes. (It then inspired the musical and film My Fair Lady.)

Actions in Progress

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

Fleury | Bras | Souville | 23 Jun 1916

Battle of Verdun

Here we go again. It’s time once more for the Germans to move hell and high water outside Verdun. The map again.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.  Crimson line is the French "Line of Panic".

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map. Crimson line is the French “Line of Panic”.

We’ll go first to Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux at Bras, right on the edge of the offensive.

I get a shell splinter in my lip. Nothing serious, fortunately, as the wounded have to wait until evening to get their wounds dressed. One cannot leave this shell-hole even by crawling on one’s stomach. The Boches attack, they are driven back by our return of fire. In the direction of Hill 321, a huge attack which lasts three hours with wave upon wave of them. The heat is oppressive. The stench of the corpses is nauseating. We have to live, eat, and wait in it. It’s six days since we’ve had a moment of rest or sleep.

The Boches have succeeded in advancing towards Hill 321 and are occupying a part of the ravine behind us, where our reinforcements are. The shelling has completely destroyed the trench where we were yesterday. The dead and the wounded are too numerous to count.

He’s lucky; he’s not taken the brunt of the German push towards Fleury. It started in the early hours with a major gas bombardment. The Germans have been working on methods of delivering gas inside shells, rather than having to release it from cylinders their own trenches. And this means that the first target of the phosgene gas bombardment is not the infantry in what’s left of the front line. This initial gas release is being aimed at the French artillery. Their horses stampede and then collapse, freezing the guns in place. The men run for their gas masks, but of course the masks have been designed to neutralise chlorine, not phosgene…

By midday, with German infiltration teams pushing hard towards Thiaumont and Fleury, the citadel at Verdun is on alert to prepare for a siege. There are two catchphrases which the French language gained from this battle. The first is Petain’s “On les aura!”, “We will get them”, from immediately after he took command. The second is issued today, as General Nivelle desperately tries to shore up the situation, to defend Fleury, to keep the enemy out of Fort Souville. After a little cleaning up for posterity’s sake, it reaches its final form. “Ils ne passeront pas!” “They shall not pass!” The French need to get the guns firing again.

If only Nivelle were a wizard. As it is, here’s the map at nightfall.

Henri Desagneaux is at Bras right now...

Note Bras, where Henri Desagneaux holds out.

The Germans have bitten a chunk out of the decreasing salient around Verdun, in the furthest advance since the first few days of the battle. In the night, Petain has a long telephone discussion with GQG, the meaning of which is slightly debatable. He’s quite clear that the Line of Panic south of Fleury is almost certainly indefensible if Fort Souville falls. Souville sits atop a hill, and German observers on top of Souville would be able to see with no further obstruction all the way to Verdun. It is, of course, possible that he may have been exaggerating the seriousness of the situation to screw as many fresh men out of GQG as he can.

But this is an important moment in the war. Militarily, it would be all but impossible to re-cross the River Meuse if the French are forced to withdraw behind it. Politically, a failure to defend Verdun will certainly bring down the government, and General Joffre with it, and very probably the officers who failed to defend it along with them. A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down!

Malcolm White

Church parade for the 1st Rifle Brigade and Malcolm White.

We hada before-going-into-action parade service, which Laurie conducted. It was very impressive. So was his short sermon, all of it almost too impressive, and I was most awfully moved by it all. I always find Church Parade a very moving affair. At the same time it seems awfully odd, reconciling all this with Christianity; almost using Christianity as a weapon. For while the Church out here, to all appearances, makes an appeal to the individual soul, yet it is felt by all to be an item in the training. All the most warlike similes of St. Paul are made to apply, and “Fight the good Fight” is of a certainty this Fight against the Boches, and little else.

The guns are getting more active. In the after noon Fraser, Fagan, and I rode over to Bertrancourt to see a raised relief model of the Divisional attack area. While we were waiting to start, a most terrific thunderstorm, with violent wind and rain. The sort of thing which they write about in the tropics, and of which there will be a kind of imitation beginning to-morrow.

Thousands of variants on that sermon will be preached to the men in this next week.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

No rest for the gunners. They’re due to open fire tomorrow, and everyone’s full of activity. However, Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler does still have a moment to spare for a funny story…

This was “T” Day. After lunch, [two other battery commanders and I] went to meet Lt-Col Poyntz of the 2nd Bedfords, in order to inspect certain Hun machine-guns which he wished us to remove before his raid on “V” night. I suggested that he should point them out from my Observation Post. As luck would have it, just as we were going the Huns started firing right onto it. However, by making rushes between the salvoes we reached my tunnel entrance, and all seven of us crawled in.

Please, no sniggering at the thought of six officers all tightly crammed into Fraser-Tytler’s tunnel entrance. I mean, Fraser-Tytler’s back passage. I mean…

The next salvo came, one shell blew in the mouth of the emergency exit, and the blast sent Macdonald onto me, and me backwards onto the Colonel. At the same time, another shell exploded near the main entrance, causing the last two officers to make desperate efforts to push further up. Those in front cried “forward!”, etc, with a vengeance. By this time I was helpless with laughter. Imagine seven of us on our hands and knees in a narrow tunnel, rather damp and very dark, all pushing towards the centre!

The next salvo blew in the top of the OP, which let in more light. By this time all evinced quite an uncalled-for dislike of my OP, so we all backed out singly and escaped in rushes down the trench. We then proceeded to the comparative security of the front line, and planned the destruction of the many Hun machine-gun emplacements.

This is a mighty helpful entry. For one thing, it’s a further clue for exactly where Fraser-Tytler’s battery was firing. For another, it’s a great prompt to mention that during the prepatory barrage, there will be several night-time lifts to allow raiders to cross No Man’s Land and investigate first-hand what damage is being caused. Of course, the barrage and the raids will be replicated in several other sectors, so that this does not give away where the real attack is coming.

Herbert Sulzbach

From one artilleryman to another. Herbert Sulzbach is in philosophical mood. He’s nowhere near either of the two hot sectors; the Somme is off to the north, and Verdun is off to the east of his position near the apex of the Noyon salient.

This area has become very dear to me, and I’m beginning to think of Evricourt and its surroundings as a second home. The summer is coming on, they’re beginning to make the hay, you can smell the scent past the deadly cannon, and at night the nightingales sing. General Linsingen is attacking on the River Styr, Hindenburg at Dunaburg, and the Russians on the River Sereth; and at Verdun the gigantic battle of heavy weapons rages on, without our being able to take Verdun itself.

Certain small attacking operations which we put on are now being given code names, so that the French can’t listen in to the telephone messages, or at least can’t understand them. A little one like this called [Feast of violets] was mounted yesterday. The French counter-attacked, but once again we took quite a few prisoners, who supplied under interrogation the information we were looking for.

Salandra has resigned.

“Salandra” is of course the now-former prime minister of Italy.

Oskar Teichman

Job done, Oskar Teichman heads back home, for a given value of “home”.

We left Oghratina at 3 p.m. and marched on a compass bearing of 260°, leaving Katia on our left. Here some squadrons of the Worcester and Gloucester Yeomanry had been attacked by 3,000 Turks and Germans with artillery. The bodies had been properly interred a day or two after the engagement, but it was now almost impossible to approach, on account of the very large number of dead horses and camels. As we approached the sandhills which protect Romani to the eastward, we noticed how strongly the latter place was defended with trenches, wire, guns and strong posts.

Passing through a narrow gap in the sandhills, we arrived at the water-troughs at 6 am; after resting in the heat of the day we rode straight back on a compass bearing of 240° through Hills 70 and 40 to Kantara, where we arrived at 9.30 pm, having done about 40 miles since three o’clock in the morning.

That’s a lot of riding. The men on the Suez Canal continue waiting to be attacked.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley continues staggering through the desert. His column of officers is a little under halfway to the railway at Ras-el-Ain.

At Demir Kapu we finished the most strenuous march I have ever done. It was a dry, waterless stretch of forty kilometres over parched ground with not even salt springs en route. Again and again we had nothing left but the will to go on. My donkey collapsed, and with difficulty I got him to a swamp of foul slime in which, besides many bones, were the half-picked skeletons of two donkeys that had apparently been drowned in their attempt to get water. So dry and thirsty were the animals that most of them rushed into the slimy pool up to their backs and then subsided, kit and all, into the mud.

We extricated them, and having drunk our fill also of slime, we set out for the last few miles. This water was green and filled with germs, but one’s experience had pretty well inoculated one by this time. Our thirst was not to be denied. One’s soul was hot within one and one’s tongue dry and hard. With our limit of transport there was no alternative, and most of us had had no money wherewith to buy waterskins. The column reached out for miles. Even our guard were quite done.

At our next halting-place a dust-storm descended on our camp in the night. With a roar like thunder a deluge of sand fell upon us, travelling terrifically fast. It tore down bivouacs, carried off tents and valises, pulled up picketing pegs, and rolled even heavy pots hundreds of yards off, where they were buried in the sand and many lost. We could not stand against it any more than against an incoming tide. It lasted for some minutes. One buried one’s head and lay with all one’s weight on one’s kit. I understand how people are often suffocated in these storms, as even this was quite long enough.

And the march goes on.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has a visitor in hospital.

Mr Parsons came to the hospital to see me. Told me De Bruin had come back, also Wackrill, and explained to me where the different forces were. He thinks it won’t be long before the campaign will be finished. Some more papers were given to us to read. Chilly wind blowing all the morning. Truly starvation rations. Tobacco, matches and cigarettes handed out. (4 cigarettes per man, 1 box of matches and 4 ounces of tobacco.) Wrote a letter to Bibby.

A good bit of officering there from Lieutenant Parsons. Thompson also takes the chance to complain about the lack of food.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still doing boring busy-work in Boulogne with the Non-Combatant Corps.

There is a schoolmaster, B.A. London. Quietly spoken and still gifted with the enthusiasm of the young lover of Wisdom, who woos her for her own sake. May he never turn into a mediocre machine or a vile hypocrite who treats his former idol as a slave-girl! Amongst the other boys we have a butcher, a tailor and a journalist. The only men in the hut who are not conscientious objectors are the hut-corporal Hart and myself.

Hart is a good old soul. A London County Council road-mender by trade, he is brusque and jolly by turns. His ready wit confirms my suspicion of his Irish descent, though he denies it. Like a father he treats his COs. and he is quite proud of his clever charges, despite the confidential criticism about NCCs in general he pours into my ears when he is cross. At 5 am he thunders out: “Show a leg milads, arise and shine!” and at 9:45 pm he turns off the “glim”.

There’s always going to be another ship to load, and another form to sign and file. Is this his lot for the rest of the war?

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina

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

Fort Vaux | Salandra vs Cadorna | 3 Jun 1916

Battle of Verdun

It’s a very, very, very bad start to the day at Fort Vaux, if you’re French. They’ve hastily organised reinforcements, but the men will have to advance over open ground to reach the fort. And there are now Germans on the roof of the fort with. And German guns behind them. They open fire and break up the reinforcements before they can get into the fort. Which is, by this point, an absolutely horrible place to be. Just about every possible source of ventilation has been destroyed or blocked. The air is turning foul and heavy. The fort’s corridors reek with the smell of death and latrines.

It’s also a pretty bad start to the day if you’re German. The French send over a fighter sweep at dawn, followed by artillery observers. As their own reinforcements are being broken up, they call in withering fire on the men trying to dig trenches next to the fort’s southern wall. The men flee for their captured bunkers, and most of them are now too tired to attack further. Those who are left spend most of the day in hand-to-hand and grenade fighting in the clogged, cramped access tunnels. Late in the evening they succeed in destroying an important French barricade and move about 25 metres closer to the main fort. (Helpfully, this tunnel emerges right next to the foul latrines.) Talk about marching on Paris six inches at a time…

Battle of Asiago

We’ll go up to the front here in a moment, but there are Important Happenings going off behind the line. The Prime Minister, Alessandro Salandra, one of the men whose fault this horrible, horrible theatre of the war is, is unhappy. It’s obvious that they’re taking a massive kicking in the current battle. Someone’s head is going to have to roll. Salandra, desperate to save himself, has been lobbying the King hard to sack General Cadorna (the murderer). The King has been cautious but receptive; as long as the whole government is united behind the decision…

And doubts are starting to creep in. Not everyone is 100% behind Salandra. Who will take over the army now, at the height of crisis? If this goes wrong, won’t it rebound on the government, twice as hard? The Italian parliament has been recalled and will open a session in three days. And Cadorna is not, despite appearances, stupid. He’s shoring up his own support, leaking to friendly journalists, making discreet contact with various deputies. One way or the other, in a few days’ time, someone who I don’t like very much is going to be leaving the stage.

And, at the front, the tide is finally beginning to turn. The Austro-Hungarian army is now in control of most of the Asiago plateau. It’s taken two weeks and plenty of hard fighting to get this far. Fresh men are having to march further and further just to get to the battle. And now they’re meeting the first units of the new Italian 5th Army. They’re not going to have an unopposed run down to Venice, or anywhere near to it. Now what?

Brusilov Offensive

This, then, is the backdrop for the Brusilov Offensive, Russia’s contribution to the great summer attack. On the face of things, the grand strategy is spectacularly uncomplicated and unoriginal: a mass attack over a wide front with every available man to beat the Austro-Hungarians with sheer brute force. It’s not an entirely unfair description, but the devil here is entirely in the details. General Brusilov and his staff have been doing a large amount of very original thinking, particularly by Russian standards. A large number of Russian tactical assumptions are about to be turned on their heads.

For one, Brusilov is not interested in whinging about how much artillery ammunition he doesn’t have. Learning from earlier Russian attempts to strike back, primarily at the failed Lake Naroch Offensive, he’s convinced that concentrating overwhelming fire on a small portion of front is a tactical blind alley. It rarely succeeds in the goal of eliminating all life from the beaten zone, and even if it does, the attacking infantry is then confined in a small space and assaulted from three sides. Importantly, the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive broke through with broad front attacks. If the Germans have shown it can be done…

Elsewhere, Brusilov appears to have been taking advice from his allies. Unlike at the Lake Naroch Offensive, his troops have been ordered to sap forward at night, just as is done on the Western Front, cutting No Man’s Land right down, so they’ll only have to cross about 100 yards of open ground when they advance. Observation planes in his army group have been issued with cameras and trained in aerial photography. Just as the BEF is doing now at the Somme, the Russians are practising advancing over detailed scale models of the enemy trenches. Careful arrangements have been made for sending supplies forward, and on preparing for artillery to displace forward to support the advance. Huge dugouts have been carved out at the front to conceal the buildup of men and to protect them from shelling as they wait to advance.

On a more granular level, the general (or at least, someone working for him) appears to have independently come to the same conclusions as the German thinkers who developed stormtrooper tactics for Verdun. The Russians won’t simply be sending vast human waves into the enemy wire. Instead, specialist units will attempt to penetrate deep into the Austro-Hungarian trench systems, interfering with their communications, stopping them calling for help, following up successes quickly, leaving follow-up waves to deal with problems. This is far from a brute sledgehammer blow. They’ve even been digging tunnels underneath their own barbed wire rather than cutting paths through it, to disguise the men’s routes out of their trenches.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, the Austro-Hungarians are staggeringly complacent. The primary concern for their senior commanders at this point appears to have been gloating over news from the Battle of Asiago. The failure of the Lake Naroch Offensive has convinced many that their opponents, although they might have done well in 1914 and 1915, have now run out of ideas and can’t do anything than throw human waves at them on narrow fronts. They have a serious lack of reserves, but they’re determined not to be worried.

And it’s not as though they had no warning of the upcoming attacks. They’ve had plenty of reports of more men arriving at the front. Their own observers have, of course, noticed the digging of the new Russian jumping-off trenches. Their aerial recon flights have seen the Russians digging their giant dugouts. The inevitable deserters have come across No Man’s Land. But there are, of course, none so blind as those who will not see. And there are plenty around who are very determined indeed not to see.

Tomorrow we find out who’s right. Since the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, it’s been the Central Powers who have had the initiative in most of the theatres of the war. The Ottomans have defended Gallipoli and Baghdad. The Austro-Hungarians have marched back into Galicia, occupied Serbia, and caught the Italians with their trousers down. The Germans have stymied the French and then forced them into brutal battle after brutal battle at Verdun. Now, according to the world’s media, they’ve won an underdog victory at sea, and they’ve just given the Royal Navy its worst kicking in centuries.

It is going to be a very long next couple of months.

Salonika

Meanwhile, at Salonika. The Entente has finally stopped pretending that Greece is being treated as a respected neutral, so I guess I’ll stop pointing out that bit of hypocrisy now. General Sarrail has declared martial law in Salonika, occupied the government buildings, and seized control of the city’s infrastructure. An ultimatum has been presented to the Greek government, insisting that the Greek Army be demobilised immediately, the government must resign, and the authorities must clamp down harshly on anti-Entente dissenters.

You know, because both Britain and France are so very, very concerned with the rights of neutral nations. And one of those empires even claimed to be joining the war to defend those rights.

All right, all right, that’s the last time. Anyway, the new governnment must commit to “benevolent neutrality”. Which appears to mean “You have a very nice country here, Your Majesty; wouldn’t it be a shame if anything happened to it?” Quite a lot does appear already to have happened to it, mind you. More soon.

Battle of Mont Sorrel

The Germans have driven home their attack on the heights outside Zillebeke and are digging in hard on top of Mont Sorrel and Hill 61. Though they don’t know it, they’ve struck a serious blow. Both the divisional commander and the brigade commander happened to be inspecting the trenches at the time. General Mercer has been wounded three times by shellfire and dies early today of his wounds. General Williams has been captured alive. For a few hours in the night, the Canadian communications were almost completely paralysed.

A 600-yard gap lay yawning in their line the other side of the high ground. While the Sunny Subaltern waited the wrong side of Ypres for orders, an enterprising German subaltern could almost have walked all the way to the town unchallenged. How far a larger, more ambitious attack could have got up the road is an open question. The German orders completely rule out the possibility, and there are not nearly enough reserves in the area to fully support such a drive even if they’d tried it.

Meanwhile. It takes until 7am for the Canadians to get enough control back to launch a counter-attack. The counter-attacking battalions are nearly a mile from the high ground and under observation all the way. Communication problems then see different units advancing at different times. It’s a very minor miracle that, despite horrific casualties, they managed to close up the gap in the line, and get back to within a couple of hundred yards from the hills. That’ll do. Fresh orders go out to dig in and establish new trenches while the Brains Trust does some thinking.

Sunny Subaltern

The Sunny Subaltern has now had his orders to move forward.

Once more, with the slow step that is used on the road to the front line, we started. The first part of the journey was easy. Occasionally a lone shrapnel would burst on the road, but it was only when we got up into the area where the “heavies” were that we felt the force of the bombardment.

Steadily we marched in the bright afternoon sun, here and there halting; at this corner turning off the main road into a by-way because the Germans were “searching” the road, until just at twilight tide we arrived, by devious by-paths, outside “Wipers”. The order was passed, “no lights, no smoking, no noise”. The last injunction was entirely superfluous, for between the shriek and boom of our shells, also theirs, coupled with the rumble of the artillery limbers that galloped up with more “iron rations”, one could scarce be heard. Here we sat or sprawled in the dewy grass awaiting orders.

Just as twilight faded into night, amid the roar of an exceptional burst of artillery, the sky lighted up by what seemed millions of flares. The whole place was bathed in the ghastly magnesium white they cast about, the scene here and there being punctuated by a red or green rocket. It was indeed one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever witnessed. The average pyrotechnic display pales considerably in comparison. This arc of light was continuous for some few minutes, mingled with the lurid yellow red burst of shrapnel.

They wait for orders. Orders will soon come, moving them south-east, into hastily-scraped reserve trenches at Zillebeke.

Georges Connes

French prisoner of war Georges Connes is still in a small room a few miles behind Fort Douaumont.

Is there among us in this attic a mole, or perhaps several? Here are soldiers or officers recently captured, still muddy and bloody from the battlefield. They are locked up, and after a moment, someone is brought in who is obviously muddy and bloody from the same battlefield. Who would suspect anything? Who wouldn’t enter into a trusting conversation? This kind of thing is practiced more easily with privates who are less experienced, or officers captured alone or in small numbers. Here there are too many of us. Everyone knows people in other units; the mole would soon be discovered.

As is well known, the mole is a bastard who deserves to be bled like a pig when he takes advantage of us for the benefit of the enemy. But, on the other hand, he is a hero for whom no reward is too high, when he does the same thing among our prisoners for our benefit.

I like this chap. I think we’re going to get along. They spend the rest of the day locked up; there is food, of a sort. In the wee hours they’re rudely awoken and ordered to get ready to move.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson’s diary notes that today is the King’s birthday, which it is. (It’s George V’s actual birthday, not his official one.) The doctor comes to have a look at the leg that Thompson slopped boiling fat all down a few days ago.

As soon as the doctor saw the condition of my leg he said ‘Oh, you must go to the hospital, sorry’. I wasn’t at all cheered when he said that I would very likely have to wear splints and one foot would be a bit shorter than the other At 4 o’clock a stretcher came up for me so I packed up my things and was taken down to the medical lines. Carried down to the river bed by 4 natives and aroused much interest among the men who were lined up for a service which the bishop was holding. Even the bishop, colonel, major and adjutant gazed at me interestedly.

I managed to get to sleep, but not long afterwards was woken by 2 shells from the Germans bursting 500 yards off. Five minutes later our wagons turned up with A & C Gompanies and the Nos. 1 & 2 machine guns of our regiment. Arthur Hassett gave me a letter from Bibby and told me Bibby was quite well again and was coming in as soon as possible. Also saw Waldeck.

The hospital he’s heading for has already been hit twice by enemy shells, so he is very far from safe.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells gets a chance to prove that perhaps he is not so much of an idiot as I like to make him out to be.

The following incident, and many others like it, show how wonderfully well informed the Germans are with regard to happenings behind the British line. A Major just back from France vouches for the truth of it. When a battalion of Australians took over a section of trench for the first time, they were at once greeted by a sign raised from the German trench, reading “Welcome, Australians! Come across without your arms and we will give you a splendid welcome,” or words to that effect. The Anzacs replied by a sign as follows: “Come across here with your arms, and we will give you a splendid welcome.”

The chief topic of conversation today is, of course, the great naval battle in the North Sea. I prefer to reserve comment on it until further particulars are published.

A funny story and he isn’t getting suckered by any bullshit from Jutland? That’s good work. But still. I remember stories of German placards before the Battle of Loos, taunting Scottish units, addressing them as “Jock” and telling them exactly when they were due to attack. And this story says the Germans knew right away when the Australians arrived, before they’d had any chance to launch a trench raid to take prisoners. Is something more going on?

Actions in Progress

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

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

Strategic bombing | 25 May 1916

Strategic bombing

It’s a big day in the development of aerial warfare. We’re having rather a lot of those, aren’t we? This one comes from Paris. Quick recap: while one of the articles of the Hague Conventions forbids the shelling of inhabited towns, the wheels of war have efficiently crushed it into the mud. Then the German Zeppelins came. When someone suggested dropping bombs out of aircraft, the idea was quickly developed into occasional bombing missions over German cities. Remember those Hispano-Suiza engines? Some at GQG have been arguing that they should primarily go to an enormous bomber fleet.

French politicians have, so far, been resisting the idea of a strategic bombing programme. While General Joffre isn’t interested in a thousand-plane bomber fleet, he’s nevertheless been lobbying hard for authorisation for some kind of strategic bombing effort. And he’s finally worn them down. Today he gets his authorisation, although with the requirement for strict scrutiny to ensure that only military, industrial, and transportation targets are selected. Political resistance towards the use of gas by the French Army is also weakening sharply in the face of the Battle of Verdun.

Africa

The situation in Africa continues developing fast. The grand plan for three combined offensives to throw a net over the Schutztruppe and hopefully defeat as much of it as possible in small, isolated groups is now fully underway. The last element of it is an attack out of Nyasaland by General Northey and a force of just under 3,000 men. They’re coming from the south-west, at the very bottom end of Lake Tanganyika. In the long term, they’re to march to the Central Railway, over a thousand miles away, and meet General van Deventer there.

But, in the short term, the Schutztruppe have a number of forts on the border that have to be dealt with. Northey has split his force in two. The right wing will have a relatively easy time of it; but the left wing, just over a thousand Rhodesians, have been sent to Namema, easily the strongest of all forts. And, knowing this, Lieutenant Franken of the Schutztruppe has had his men putting it into a state of defence for a long old time. This could get difficult. Things usually do in Tanzania. More soon.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson is far from recovered, but he’s healthy enough to go to the defensive positions, such as they are, south of Kondoa Irangi.

While we were waiting for the wagons Mr Parsons explained to us that we were taking up a position on Battery Hill and that we were not to show ourselves above the skyline as the Germans had the range to a nicety. We began climbing and in a quarter of an hour arrived at a fairly flat place, so off-saddled and dossed down for the night. I found a fairly level patch and slept comfortably with the exception of cold legs and feet.

As if he wasn’t having a hard enough time not dying when there were no enemies around to shoot at him!

Haig and Robertson

With a vital Anglo-French military conference imminent, Wully Robertson is visiting General Haig at Montreuil. Haig’s diary:

After dinner, we discussed whether the British Army should comply with [Joffre’s] request to attack in the month of July, or wait till August 15th when we would be much stronger. I had gone fully into the various aspects of the question and what might be the results if we did not support the French. I came to the conclusion that we must march to the support of the French. Robertson entirely agreed, and took my notes away to study.

It’s still the French who have the moral authority to guide the conduct of the war. It’s General Joffre who has arranged and timetabled the grand summer combined offensive. Of course Haig’s going to give it the old college try for getting a delay, but of course they’re not going to fight this one too hard. It is, quite literally, not their hill to die on.

Oskar Teichman

Fortunately, Army doctor Oskar Teichman is the kind of boring old sod who likes to go into great detail about the logistical arrangements that keeps an army in the field. And I love me some good crunchy logistics on the practicalities of keeping an army alive and fighting in the Egyptian desert.

Arrived at Ballah, a post on the western side of the Suez Canal, between Kantara and El Ferdan. Horses had been sent to meet us, as our camp was some distance across the desert. Here we found the remains of our regiment [Worcestershire Yeomanry], which had suffered so severely at Katia and Oghratina on Easter Sunday.

In addition to our regiment there were in this camp two squadrons of Warwickshire Yeomanry, “B” Battery Honourable Artillery Company, our Field Ambulance and Army Service Corps, Army Veterinary Corps, and Royal Engineers details. Nearer the Canal was a part of the 33rd Field Ambulance and the 26th Casualty Clearing Station; on the opposite bank were some Brigades of the Eleventh Division. Two squadrons of Gloucester Yeomanry were at El Ferdan and one squadron of the Warwickshire Yeomanry were at Ballybunnion.

Our drinking water supply came by pipe from Ismailia and was carried from a depot near the station by water-cart. Washing water was obtained from a branch of the Sweet Water Canal; this water contained [parasitic worms], and in order to render it safe for ablution purposes it had to be pumped into tanks and allowed to stand for forty-eight hours before use. The organism, whose habitat is the snail, dies twenty-four hours after it leaves its host. A sentry was always on duty at the tanks and an RAMC water-duty man was in charge.

The Sweet Water Canal was built in order to make construction of the Suez Canal itself possible; it brings fresh water down from Lake Timsah.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White’s battalion is on permanent rest/working party duties for the next little while.

Went up to the ground for work this morning, with Gracey and Pagan, a weary walk. At night the Company worked in those same trenches from 9:30pm to 1:30am in pouring rain. Got back in an ‘uneasy dawn’ at 3 am, drenched and muddied. And whereas we officers could change and sleep in something like beds, the men had not a dry stitch save their great-coats in which to lie on the floor of their barns, and I felt ashamed at this unavoidable injustice.

With the amount of comfort that an officer has and must have, it is easy to love the tiredness for sleep and the hunger for food that are so frequent in this kind of life.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop. Rewind. Back up. Reverse. Holdest thine equines for just a moment, Mr White. “Must” have? Must have??? We’ll come back to him tomorrow, and see if I can get through it without wanting to brick my computer screen.

Louis Barthas

Thank God Louis Barthas has a particularly amusing funny story for us. They’re on a train, heading blessedly far from Verdun.

We passed by Vitry-le-Francois, and at daybreak we went through Chalons-sur-Marne. At the station at Saint-Hilaire-au-Temple there was a brief halt. Commandant Leblanc took advantage of it and went to the toilet. Was he constipated? Or did he linger to examine these restrooms—a subject about which he was very knowledgeable? I can’t set straight anyone who reads these lines, but the outcome was that when Quinze-Grammes stepped back onto the station platform, our train had disappeared.

At the station at Cuperly they had us get out of the train. This was the end of an ordeal. Now we could relax our arms and legs, loosen up our shoulders and our flanks, after twelve hours of being piled up in cattle cars too small for the number of men they contained. This was a great relief, a blessing. It’s true that a fine, thick rain was falling, and that the wait in front of the station, with arms stacked, really lasted a bit too long. What were we doing there, anyway, instead of proceeding to our next encampment?

Well, the reason was that the commandant alone knew where our battalion had to be. He was stuck in the lavatories back at the Saint-Hilaire station, and he had to arrive in order to reveal to us the site of our next billet—a secret which he had kept to himself like a state secret. When the news of his misadventure spread through the battalion, it brought on a general outburst of laughter. He himself arrived sooner than we thought he would, brought by an automobile which a providential fate carried to Cuperly.

Almost immediately, the bleating of a hoarse goat was heard. It was the whistle of Quinze-Grammes giving the signal for departure.

These heroes of Verdun are eventually given a load of shacks to sleep in, in the middle of a forest, without even straw to soften the wooden floors. But, you know, officers must have comfort. Can’t do any officering if you don’t have comfort. Well-known fact. Look at Edward Mousley, he didn’t have any comfort and he couldn’t do any officering.

(I’ll stop now before I start singing The Red Flag. See you tomorrow.)

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

Further Reading

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