Men for the Somme | 16 Mar 1916

Western Front

As the Germans and French continue mulching themselves in front of the Mort Homme and in front of Fort Vaux, there’s a lot of lovely, lovely infighting in the rear for us to cover. My enthusiasm is almost.

To begin with, General Foch has finished beetling away and has produced a first draft for the French contribution to the Battle of the Somme. This is almost like looking into an alternate universe; it’s briefly, awesomely fascinating. He’s planning a grand attack with three French armies on a 30-mile front between Maricourt, just north of the River Somme, and Lassigny, right at the apex of the Noyon salient. The 6th Army is settling in there now, and the 10th (with Louis Barthas in tow) is, as we’ve seen, resting at the other end of the river.

And now reality must intervene. General Joffre’s original plan called for 2nd Army to be the other part of this grand offensive. You may have seen that they’re just a little busy at Verdun right now. Joffre has also now given up on his attempts to restrict General Petain’s noria arrangements, and the twenty-division general reserve is diminishing rapidly. It’ll take a couple of weeks for all this to shake out, but this bold, grand plan will never see the light of day. It would surely, if nothing else, have been different to what we eventually got.

For one thing, with the French having two-thirds of the total men in the attack and the BEF only providing a third, that surely means that it would have been Foch, not General Haig, whose views would have taken precedence. Foch may have been planning a wide-scale offensive, but he’s strongly in favour of the new bite and hold-style attacking doctrines. More soon on the impact of a reduced French commitment.

Meanwhile, General Pierre Roques has been relieved as commander of 1st Army and sent back to Paris to be the new minister of war, in place of the terminally ill General Gallieni. Roques has been appointed with the express consent of General Joffre, and as far as Joffre is concerned, he’s just put his own man in place to stop the kind of Unpleasantnesses that Gallieni has recently been responsible for.

Salonika

Meanwhile, in the Balkans! The two chief generals, Sarrail (for the French) and Mahon (of Gallipoli infamy, and yes, I’ve very much got it in for him, he’s a prissy idiot), are now trying to justify their existence, in case someone thinks of redeploying their men elsewhere. Accordingly, there are some small operations underway to expand the area of the Birdcage and to take full control of the railway system in the area. (Once again I remind readers that they are in Greece, a neutral country.) Never mind the pissing rain and the frequent flooding; orders is orders.

I am hoping to be able to check back in a few times with the blokes here. They’re very easy to gloss over as, for the most part, nothing is happening except disease and sickness casualties. We’ll see how that goes.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian and friends have spent a sleepless night in a village coffee-house after their incredibly narrow escape yesterday. However, they have met a rare good man on their journey through the Armenian genocide.

When I asked the elderly Turkish innkeeper how much we owed for the night’s lodging, to our great surprise he answered, “How could it be acceptable to God for me to charge such wretched persons who, having left behind house and home, family and wealth, are being taken into exile like a flock of sheep?”

He condemns the profiteers who before him have charged the caravans swingeing prices. The deportees set out on the last leg of the journey to Kayseri, very slightly enheartened, and then walk right into a horrendous sandstorm. When it passes, they’re handed over to the Kayseri Jandarma, and marched…somewhere else.

We realised that instead of taking us into Kayseri, they were escorting us to Talas, a town on a hill an hour away. As we were proceeding along the outskirts of Kayseri, a crowd of curious Turks formed to gawk at us. They were surprised that there were still Armenians left in Anatolia.

When our caravan was passing through the streets of [Talas], we saw in the windows of the houses women clutching handkerchiefs, apparently crying. We heard that these were Islamised Armenian families, who had been moved at the sight of new caravans of exiled compatriots. No doubt they thought that we too were being taken to Der Zor.

In the night, some of these women find ways to spirit food in to the deportees. Overnight, the news also spreads to a girls school, which had been set up by an American missionary with a strong interest in Armenian culture.

E.S. Thompson

In Tanzania, E.S. Thompson gets a few reminders that he’s still at war, as if he needed any.

After lunch we moved to a better position for camp and entrenched ourselves. We were awakened by shots and a few bullets whizzed overhead. It appears that a few snipers had fired into the camp but nobody was hurt. This is the first dry night we have had at this camp and we have not seen Kilimanjaro free from clouds yet. [I officially found out] that Signaller E.J. Thompson had died of wounds. Very sorry to hear it as he was a very decent chap and my second cousin. He had been reported as missing after Salaita.

He thinks that they may well be waiting here a while, possibly until that narrow-gauge railway works its way forward to them.

Edward Mousley

The Siege of Kut continues. So does Edward Mousley of the artillery.

It is a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and the only blur on the silvery brightness is the muddied [River Tigris] winding like a yellow ribbon over this flat desert land. I felt so weak during my walk yesterday that to-day I merely strolled about the “gardens.” It was a fine sunset. Away over the muddy plain the Western skies were dragon-red, and clouds stirred by the evening breeze sailed in and out of the luminous belt which reflected a soft pink on the face of the rising moon climbing over the Eastern horizon.

I stale-mated a game of chess.

One way or another, this surely can’t end in stalemate. Can it?

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is out of the line at Morlancourt for a couple of days.

Some tea was on the table, and bully and bread and butter; there was no sugar, however. Richards smiled and said the rats had eaten it all in [the dugout], but Davies was buying some. Whenever anything was missing, these rats had eaten it, just as they were responsible for men’s equipment and packs getting torn, and their emergency rations lost. In many cases the excuse was quite a just one; but when it came to rats running off with canteen lids, our sympathy for the rat-ridden Tommy was not always very strong.

Private Davies is Adams’s batman, and Richards does the same for Lieutenant Dixon.

To-day, a new reason was found for the loss of three teaspoons. “Lost in the scuffle, sir, the night of the raid,” was the answer given to the demand for an explanation. I remembered there had been some confusion and noise behind the arras that night when the Germans raided on the left; apparently all the knives and forks had fallen to the ground and several had snapped under the martial trampling of feet when our retainers stood to arms.

For many days afterwards when anything was lost, one’s anger was appeased by “Lost in the scuffle, sir.” At last it got too much of a good thing. “Why this new teapot, Davies?” I said a few days later.
“The old one was lost in the scuffle, sir.”
“Look here” I said. “We had the old one yesterday, and this morning I saw it broken on Madame’s manure heap. Here endeth ‘lost in the scuffle’. See? Go back to rats.”
“Very good, sir.”

This is a good sensible piece of officering from Adams. Of course the batmen will make themselves popular by confiscating the odd buckshee and redistributing it somewhere else (the Sergeants’ mess, for instance). As we’ve seen, the Army runs on this kind of mild thievery (so long as it’s not of personal possessions). However, here he carefully indicates to Davies that he’s pushing his luck a little and should tone it down slightly; Davies, being sensible, complies. Nobody else needs to be involved, and nothing of importance has occurred.

After dinner, Dixon and Adams sit together, as friends do, and set the world to rights.

“Richards talks a jolly sight too much, sometimes, but after all what does it matter? They try their best; and think how we curse them! As soon as anything goes wrong, we strafe like blazes, whether it’s their fault or not. A fellow in England would resign on the spot. But they don’t care a damn, and just carry on. This cursing’s no good. Hang it all, they’re doing their bit same as we are, and they have a damned sight harder time,” [said Dixon].
“I don’t think they worry much about the strafing,” I said. “It’s part of the ordinary routine. Still, I agree, we do strafe them for thousands of things that aren’t their fault.”
“I don’t know how it is. One would never dream of cursing the men like we do these fellows. You know as well as I do, the only way to run a company is by love. It’s no earthly use trying to get the men behind you, by cursing them day and night. I really must try and stop cursing these servants. After all, they’re the best fellows in the world.”
“The men curse all right,” I said, “when they don’t get their food right. I guess we’re all animal, after all. It’s merely a method of getting things done quickly. Besides, you know perfectly well you won’t be able to stop blazing away when there’s no fire or food. It creates an artificial warmth.”
“Damned artificial,” laughed he. There was a silence.

“By Jove,” he said at last, getting up to go to bed. “When’s this war going to end?”

I’ll let you know, Mr Dixon.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

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.)

Verdun bogs down | 7 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

The German attack on the west bank of the River Meuse is now bogging down in earnest, after a strong first day. For this there is a simple explanation. On 21 February, the French Army had ten widely-spread divisions for the entire region around Verdun. Today, the front has been considerably shortened; they now have twenty divisions in the area, and heaping helpings of extra artillery. The MSPaint map, with a reminder of the line as it was on the 20th.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

The Germans are closing in on the Mort Homme and Hill 304, but they’re being hammered by counter-attacks and French artillery. There’s just too much opposition there for them to do anything quickly. The battle is congealing on this large quarter-circle around Verdun. And crucially, where General von Falkenhayn’s concept saw Germans sitting pretty on ground that the French had to capture at all costs, beating off endless attacks with a highly favourable casualty ratio, the exact opposite situation is now coming about.

They don’t have the Mort Homme. They don’t have Hill 304. They don’t have Fort Vaux. They’re still taking fire from those French guns west of the Meuse. von Falkenhayn has now completely lost sight of his original concept. His army commanders never had an adequate picture of it to begin with. Action east of the Meuse will be restricted now to merciless artillery bombardments, capture of obviously-abandoned trenches, and a careful bite and hold advance towards the walls of Vaux.

And on the west bank? On the west bank the Germans will be doing exactly what the French should now be doing. Again and again they’ll attack Hill 304 and the Mort Homme. Gains will come in increments of fifty or a hundred metres, at hideous cost, and mostly without threatening the French principal lines of resistance. They’ll never achieve that favourable casualty ratio if they’re constantly attacking things. The grind has begun, but at the moment both sides are taking losses in roughly equal proportion.

French political elbows

Meanwhile, the elbows are well and truly out behind the lines and it’s every man for himself. General Joffre, in a hasty face-saving exercise, is today writing to his government to inform them that he now believes the Germans are hoping to “beat down the nation’s morale”. Not a moment too soon, either; as his memo is being taken to Paris, minister of war General Gallieni is presenting his report on the first few days of the battle to the Council of Ministers.

President Poincare’s memoirs are clear on the tone of the report; he was quite sure that Gallieni was trying to stitch Joffre up and force him out. Unfortunately for Gallieni, the government is not yet ready to dismiss the hero of the Marne and prompt a political crisis. The Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, leads a spirited defence, and the mood quickly turns against Gallieni.

Gallieni’s position is now untenable; that was his last throw of the dice to gain power over the direction of the war for himself. In any case, he’s been suffering from prostate cancer from the last few months. He does agree to stay in his job for a few days while the government finds a new minister. And, just to complete the squabbling for today, off to the north General Foch is inserting his own oar on a separate point.

For once his opinions are similar to those of his boss. In about four months, one of his armies is supposed to be spearheading the Battle of the Somme, and his staff is busy drawing up plans. Now he’s being required to give up division after division to go to Verdun. He complains for quite a while about how this is affecting preparations; and his letter is going to find Joffre equally annoyed that General Petain’s noria concept is wearing out his own general reserve. It should have been held back for use on the Somme, but now it’s being exhausted by Petain’s demands for Verdun. More soon, as the elbowing continues.

Africa

The grand attack in East Africa is now swinging well and truly into motion. As General Stewart’s western detachment continues slogging thanklessly through the middle of nowhere east of Mount Kilimanjaro, in the east there’s rather a lot of men and guns bearing down on Salaita Hill. I’ve said quite a few uncharitable things already about General Smuts. However, now I’m prepared to say something nice. He’s determined to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and he does have far more capacity for even slightly original thinking than did any of the prats we’ve run across so far.

E.S. Thompson

And here we find E.S. Thompson, who’s going off on a long old march. The South Africans and plenty of guns are being sent out to the east as a flanking force. The idea here is to go round Salaita Hill and approach the border between Kenya and German East Africa. If the hill’s Schutztruppe garrison somehow misses the flanking movement, they can then be cut off. More likely is that they’ll see it and retreat to avoid that happening. What a concept.

Dusty night and woke up feeling and looking filthy. Rolled blankets and had breakfast which consisted of oatmeal porridge, coffee and bread and jam. Still dusty. We moved out of camp in a northerly direction at 6.30 pm and marched all night. We are force reserve. Escorting 2 batteries of the South African Field Artillery. Every 100 yards or so we halted momentarily, which helped to make us more tired.

Thompson, of course, has little appreciation of the grand tactical planning. All he knows is that it’s a bloody long march in some very annoying company.

Hanna chokepoint

It’s now time for the force that’s attempting to relieve the Siege of Kut to have another crack at the Hanna chokepoint. I went over the plan back on February 21; the plan hasn’t got any more practical since then. General Townshend has been informed, and is now preparing to break out of Kut with as many men as possible as soon as he can see that things are going well.

But, in order for things to go well, the men first have to form up and then spend about seven hours marching through a featureless desert at night, using compass bearings to navigate. It doesn’t start well; there’s considerable trouble just getting everyone formed up and ready to set off. Finally they leave, in ideal weather. As today blurs into tomorrow they reach the spot where they’re supposed to all split up and move into positions for the attack on Dujaila Redoubt.

More problems ensue, with various elements getting mixed up with each other and their own transport units. As the sun rises, most of the men are still well short of their objective. The redoubt has excellent lines of sight for miles around it. This, um, this doesn’t sound good. More tomorrow.

Grigoris Balakian

Hair-raising times for Grigoris Balakian as he marches on and on through the Armenian genocide.

There is a village on the road to Boghazliyan, two hours from Yozgat. Before it, there is a bridge. There, Captain Shukri of the Yozgat Jandarma, had been waiting for us since morning. He took command from the men who had accompanied us from Corum, and received the blacklist of our names and other official documents.

Meanwhile, their carriage drivers unceremoniously dump everyone and their belongings at the side of the road and make a swift exit. Whatever happens next, they’ve no intention of sticking around to see it. As it happens, this caravan is not going to be killed quietly under the bridge.

They took us to a village where nobody would sell us any food. We spent a sleepless night. At dawn, horsemen arrived from Yozgat and burst into our rooms. The Jandarma confirmed that they were bandit chieftans who had come to kill us, but Captain Shukri ordered them out and forced them to leave empty-handed.

This man clearly knows a gravy train when he sees one. No point letting anyone else squeeze it dry.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier is writing a letter to a French friend who’s currently living in Texas (poor man).

I even believe that I do not hate at all in the literal sense of the word. If on a fine night when crossing the campus on my way back from Palo Alto, I should encounter a hold-up man, thrusting his revolver at me, I should do my best to smash his face, but once the deed was accomplished, I should be perfectly willing to have him taken at my expense to the Peninsular Hospital.

It is the kind of feeling I have when fighting the Boches. Against the Boches taken singly, I have no grudge, but I am perfectly determined not to allow my linguistic and idealistic family group to be swallowed up by theirs, which at the present time is certainly far from showing moral superiority.

I have had the luck to join a company under command of a young captain who is really a fine man and life is very different from what it was last year. For the last thirty-seven days we have been on the top of the worst one of the Alsatian Kopfs, and we cannot hope to be relieved as long as the fight is so fierce around Verdun. After all, our worst troubles here come from the cold, the snow and vermin; we are literally eaten up but the shelling is infrequent and of short duration.

This furious German attack on Verdun was launched very early in the season. Let us hope that the meaning of it is that our enemies are yearning to come to a conclusion. If such is the case, and if they cannot take Verdun, they may soon reach the end of their tether. Their rulers will not have a leg to stand on and possibly we may see the end of the war before next winter.

He’s very taken by his captain, who apparently is far more in the mould of Captain Hudelle than Captain Cros-Mayrevielle.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler today takes some officers to see his new French friends, who have offered him lunch. After a delay waiting for a general who fails to appear…

I found thirty-six oysters waiting for me, with the usual cheery crowd of French gunners round the table. The oysters were followed by foie gras, veal and chicken mousse, a young roast pig, and Rumpelmayer’s chocolate cake, washed down with Graves, some excellent Pontet Canet and champagne, then eau de vie.

The luxuries were accounted for by one of the staff having just returned from Paris leave.

Suitably refreshed, and despite the narrator’s feeling “like an inflated frog”, the party wanders off to show the French some good old-fashioned English public-school arsing around. Belts off, trousers down, isn’t life a scream? Hoy!

We took possession of one of Captain Vieux’s guns and fired it off with great rapidity. An international gun detachment of officers! Then I persuaded the whole party to come over to our side and see our happy home. After so large a lunch I had no desire to ride or walk. We got hold of a battered old car and Vieux, Dubois, Armstrong and I drove in triumph in it to Susanne.

No vehicles are supposed to go beyond the turn in daylight, but as I said before we had “dejeuned” extremely well, so ignoring the road-blocking sentry we charged down the road, in full sight of the Hun across the river.

I believe there is in fact an exception in the division’s standing orders which permits sufficiently drunk officers of the rank Major and above to disregard the instructions of a sentry.

We eventually ran into a mud pool and stuck fast near Royal Dragoon Wood, so we dismounted and bolted for our narrow valley. The Hun was shelling the countryside rather hard. He was not after us and the car particularly, but the shells would have hurt just the same.

What, it’s just a coincidence that they’re shelling random bits of roadside after seeing a bunch of drunken officers lurching about the place? Anyway, a convivial afternoon then follows. Before sunset, our narrator commandeers the men off a passing water-cart to retrieve the car from the ditch, and the French officers roar off in search of some brandy. And somewhere near Vimy, Louis Barthas looks up briefly from whatever misfortune has befallen him now (of which more soon), and curses the name of all officers without knowing why.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

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.)

Fall of Douaumont | Submarines | 4 Mar 1916

Fall of Douaumont

Douaumont, the village in the shadow of the fort, has almost ceased to exist. It’s no longer a village, just a small and unhappy collection of shell-holes and small piles of rubble. Its machine-gun nests have finally, after a week’s merciless pounding from the massed German artillery, fallen silent. The countryside is wrecked, still covered and pounded by yet more German guns, and French reinforcements can no longer make it forward. Never before were words so appropriate as “Douaumont falls”. After the war it was declared a village that died for France and was not rebuilt.

General Petain makes a personal intervention to prevent any counter-attacks. The sector defences have been designed with the assumption that the village will eventually fall; the ground on which it used to stand is of little tactical importance. Meanwhile, over on the other side of the hill, it’s nearly time for the Germans to push on again on the west bank. Which will be something to talk about.

Unrestricted submarine warfare

General von Falkenhayn is at an important meeting, trying desperately to rally support for his idea of resuming unrestricted submarine warfare, to bring pressure on both Britain and France from as many directions as possible. Unfortunately for him, the German Foreign Office has once again raised many extremely well-founded concerns about the idea. (Not least the possibility that inadvertently sinking American citizens might bring the USA into the war.)

There is a simpler, more practical objection to unrestricted submarine warfare, mind you. Admittedly, it is only one that we can confidently make with the benefit of hindsight, but that’s what we’ve got, so. In 1942, the German navy was able to have 100 U-boats continuously at sea hunting Allied shipping; by 1943 they had a peak of over 150 at sea at any one time. These numbers proved absolutely insufficient to sink enough merchant vessels to starve Britain out, particularly once anti-submarine methods matured.

By mid-1916, the Germans will have 54 U-boats ready for operations. That’s not 54 U-boats out on patrol in the Atlantic. That’s 54 U-boats, in total. And quite a few of them will be on duty in the Mediterranean. Even with the virtually non-existent state of anti-submarine measures in 1916, that just isn’t enough boats to win the war by concentrating on merchant shipping.

In the end, what the German Navy is left with is a compromise. The U-boats will not be obliged to follow prize rules when sinking merchants, and as always troopships are fair game, but they’re not to target passenger liners with civilians on board. Of course, since troopships are often requisitioned passenger liners…

If this sounds like rather a miserable, unsatisfying compromise, it is. More soon.

The politician’s fallacy

Back in France, various people are succumbing to the politician’s fallacy “we must do something, this is something, we must do this”. At GQG, General Joffre has asked General Sarrail to “study” the possibility of an offensive out of the Salonika positions, a hilariously unfeasible idea. He’ll soon get a pointed response from Sarrail: unless he can wait for the Serbian Army to be ready to fight again, he requires some 21 divisions of reinforcement.

Meanwhile,in Paris the politicians are rumbling. A major enemy success means worrying times all round, and the politicians are desperate to have someone else to blame in order to save their jobs. Minister of war General Gallieni is preparing a report on the first few days of the battle, having been tipped off by GQG insiders about Joffre’s initial complacency. The Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, is strongly considering having some generals sacked pour encourager les autres. Over the next month or two, there’s going to be some extremely sharp-elbowed politics in France for us to keep our eye on.

Grigoris Balakian

It’s a quiet day on the march around every house in Anatolia for Grigoris Balakian. In Corum they had been permitted (after a bribe, of course) to hire carriages to carry those who are struggling to walk; their horses and mules, on the other hand, were all confiscated.

Our caravan set out towards desolate mountains and valleys. Our only consolation was that our carriages allowed us to travel along carriage routes this time. Our companions travelling on foot could now proceed more easily without stumbling over rocks that had fallen on the paths, as they had before.

Tonight is a cold night under the stars.

Clifford Wells

Clifford Wells, the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, has some news.

The first draft (50 men) from the Fourth University Company has been called for. This means that the fifty most efficient men of the company will be sent over to France shortly. They will not go direct to the trenches, of course, but will relieve other troops at the base near Le Havre, and will be employed there for a while.

As a newly-minted lieutenant, Wells will not be going with them; it’s a draft of Other Ranks only.

Having finished my Bombing Course, I am one of the regular officers of the Battalion now, and appear on the parade ground daily, usually in command of a platoon. I am enjoying it very much. The first day on parade was rather trying. I felt as though the whole Battalion was staring at me.

The Captain of the company was called away for half an hour, during which time I had to drill the platoon. By the time he got back I was feeling quite at home. I do not think any of the men guessed it was my first parade as an officer.

The camp is also struggling against an outbreak of measles.

It is amusing to see what a fine time the men in quarantine are having. As soon as a man gets the measles, he is sent to a hospital and all the men in his hut are quarantined. They go for a march by themselves every day, but of course cannot come on parade with the rest. So a lot of time is spent in their hut playing games, singing, reading, or sleeping, just as they choose.

Just as they choose, if you can believe it!

Flora Sandes

Down at the Corfu docks, Corporal Flora Sandes is taking on the greatest enemy of the NCO: bureaucracy. Her regiment’s uniforms are mostly worn out after the retreat.

There were a lot of new English uniforms, but the French authorities would not issue them unless there were enough underclothes to go with them, and these they were short of. However, I got a promise of underclothes from the Serbian Relief Fund, and then my troubles began.

First I had to get a paper signed by the English saying they would give them if the French approved; then another, signed by the French, that they did approve and would give the uniforms; then one signed by the Serbian Minister of War; then back to the French again to be countersigned; then back to the Minister of War; then to the Serbian warehouse, who refused to give them because I hadn’t got somebody else’s signature, and so on and so on.

To cut a long story short, it took three whole days walking round Corfu in the pouring rain before I could get all those papers sufficiently signed, including three visits to the Minister of War, and even then the transport remained to be found, as the motor-lorries were fully occupied carrying bread.

Stores, Corporal Sandes, is for storing! Not for issuing! If they were meant to be issued, they’d be called “Issues”, wouldn’t they?

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

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.)

Evacuating Gallipoli | 18 Dec 1915

Gallipoli

The intermediate stage of the evacuation of ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay has now been completed. You may have noticed that there’s been a distinct lack of updates about it, and this is because they’ve done most everything in good order and without fanfare. The Ottomans opposite remain completely in the dark about the withdrawal. The staged quiet periods described earlier

Now it’s time for the most dangerous part of the process to begin; under cover of darkness, over the next three days the entire British Empire presence at these two locations (the poor sods at Cape Helles will have to wait a little longer) is going to evacuate. The 1/1st West Somerset Yeomanry won’t have too much more time to kill, and they’re now daring to wonder where they might go next. Lieutenant Alfred Richardson…

We know nothing as yet and spend all day arguing as to what our final destination may be. In fact, we have started a sweepstake. The horses running are:

(1) England
(2) Western Front
(3) Helles
(4) Egypt
(5) Balkans
(6) Townsend’s Expedition
(7) East Africa
(8) The Field, which includes any place not mentioned above.

If anybody comes back from the orderly room it is correct for him to put on the air of ‘knowing a lot, but not being able to tell’!

If anyone wants to nip back in time 100 years to enrich a relative or family friend, then I hear that the smart money is on number 4, Egypt. Tonight’s evacuation goes absolutely without a hitch, as good as anyone might have hoped it to be. There’s about 10,000 blokes left; most of them are set to leave tomorrow. Just as they’re getting settled in for a very long and nervous day of waiting, things are enlivened considerably by the arrival of two Ottoman deserters. History does not record how they reacted at finding the enemy trenches half-empty…

Verdun

Excrement, like many things, has a distinct inclination to roll downhill. Therefore: questions are asked in the Chamber of Deputies. General Gallieni, on their behalf, bitches at General Joffre. General Joffre defends himself vigorously; and both Joffre and Gallieni complain at General Herr, commander at Verdun, for different reasons. (Presumably then General Herr goes and shouts at his chief of staff for things going so slowly that he’s getting flak; the chief of staff goes and kicks the cat; the cat slaps the mouse around; and the mouse bites Private le Baldrique on the bum.)

It’s good to see French higher command working so harmoniously together! General Herr has also decided that it might be good for his career if after Christmas he travels to Paris to offer a personal report. More soon, from the German side of the hill.

Siege of Kut

As the Siege of Kut continues, back at Basra, General Nixon is at least trying his utmost to get as many men as possible into theatre. There is, however, an immediate logistical concern; most of the Empire’s shipping in the Mediterranean is busy. If they’re not evacuating Gallipoli, they’re supplying the Gardeners of Salonika, or busy rescuing the Serbian Army from Albania (more on that in a moment). With the best will in the world, you can’t march an army across the sea.

However, there is good news on this score; if the force at Kut can hold out until February, there will by that time be five divisions available for service, a hell of a lot when you consider that most of the key players in the Army and the War Office are intent on following General Joffre’s prescription to focus on the Western Front as far as possible. The siege continues.

Corfu

The main problem with rescuing the Serbian Army is of course “where are these people going to go?” The first men out were temporarily taken to Italy, but the Italians were quite unequivocal that this wasn’t going to be a long-term solution. So instead, the evacuees will be taken to Corfu to rest, recuperate, and be turned back into a proper army. Men are now arriving there from today.

There is just a slight theoretical problem with this arrangement. Corfu is a Greek island. Greece, of course, is theoretically neutral, but the temptation to refer to it as at least partly being under Franco-British occupation is growing every time I have to discuss its situation. Respecting someone’s neutrality is, of course, only important when it works to one’s diplomatic advantage. So, the Greek government has been strong-armed into not kicking up too much of a fuss. Yet. This can’t last, and it won’t; although it’ll be something of a slow burner.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow as long as y’all buy 1914!

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.)

Emile Driant | Verdun | 16 Dec 1915

Emile Driant

Lieutenant-Colonel Emile Driant is, as you may have gathered from his getting an entire heading to himself, no ordinary French Army officer. He’s a well-known politician (having been in the Chamber of Deputies since 1910, and is currently on an army committee) and also a highly successful pulp novelist, France’s answer to the likes of William Le Queux. His table-breaking thousand-page-long stories are well known enough that in 40 years time, Driant will be given his own postage stamp.

Of course, that’s then. At the moment, he and his two battalions of light infantry are stationed at Verdun, and have been for quite some time. He’s extremely worried by the steps that General Joffre has been taking recently; and, no fan of the man who’s been running his blokes against machine-guns for a year, he’s passed his concerns on to the Council of Ministers, and President Poincare wants to know what Joffre thinks of Driant’s concerns, so General Gallieni has passed them on.

They don’t spare many blushes. Driant is quite convinced that Joffre is bungling things. He’s highly concerned by the loss of many of the fortresses’ heavy guns for use elsewhere on the front, and the running-down of their garrisons to provide men for service elsewhere. Digging new trench networks in front of the fortress is also all well and good, but they’re not yet complete, and appear to Driant be even less extensive than French trench networks elsewhere on the front.

I hope it’s not too surprising that, after all this time, General Joffre’s response to this criticism is that the best form of defence is attack. Look at all these orders he’s given! They’re extensive and will of course take a little time, but work is progressing well and will totally finish before the weather becomes dry enough for any attack. The garrison is adequate, the guns are needed elsewhere, and in any case, he sees absolutely no reason why the Germans should attack Verdun. (More on that in a few days.) Once again, Joffre shows his fatal weakness: he’s extremely prone to assuming that his enemy thinks in the same way that he does. It came back to hurt him in 1914, and it’s about to come around again for the encore to end all encores.

Mark Sykes

Meanwhile, in London, the War Committee is being addressed by, in terms of current affairs in 2015, probably the most important person in the entire war, and one not entirely unlike the good Lt-Col Driant. His full name and title (of course he has a title) is “Colonel Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet”. And, as befits both the name and the title, he’s had a full and varied life. He might well have been a senior staff officer, a famous racehorse trainer, or a front-bench politician. (He is currently the Unionist MP for Hull Central.)

But he’s best-known for being a well-travelled man, a love for travel being one of many things he inherited from his father. In particular, he’s travelled extensively in the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, about which he’s written three books, and is considered a leading expert on the area. On the outbreak of war he was removed from command of his unit and made an official adviser to the Cabinet on the Middle East, and for the last year he’s been mostly out of the country, during which time he’s been to Bulgaria (before they joined the war), Gallipoli, Egypt, Yemen, and India.

Now he’s back in London, promoting the concept of supporting an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire, and subsequently dismembering it wholesale after the war. His ideas are met with considerable enthusiasm, but there is an obvious and large problem. The British Empire is far from the only Great Power with eyes on Ottoman Empire territory. Skilled diplomacy will be needed to find a solution that everybody* will be happy with.

*”Everybody” in this sense meaning “The governments of Britain, France, and Russia”. The opinions of the locals are of course not worth considering.

Therefore, Sykes is to contact the French Foreign Office and see if some kind of deal can’t be hammered out. This in turn will bring him into contact with the French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot. The fallout from their negotiations and the eventual Sykes-Picot Agreement is still poisoning the Middle East today. More to follow after they’re done chatting.

Flora Sandes

Meanwhile, a long way from all this bollocks, Private Flora Sandes of the Serbian Army is still retreating through Albania.

We picked up the rest of the regiment soon after daybreak and halted there. I already knew nearly all the officers, and they all wanted to know what I thought of [the fighting]. We sat round the fires for some time laughing and joking and then all went on to within a few miles of Elbasan. I thought we were going to camp there, but we still had another five or six miles’ march to the outskirts of Elbasan.

Since I had joined this company we had had a day’s fighting, then a twelve-hour march, starting at 3 a.m. with a climb to the top of [a mountain] thrown in, 36 hours’ pelting rain, two days’ continuous fighting, nothing but a few cobs to eat, and now had been marching since 9 o’clock the night before. Yet as we turned at 5 o’clock in the afternoon into the swampy field where we were to camp, they had enough spirit left to respond to their company Commander’s appeal, “Now then, men, left, right, left, right; pull yourselves together and remember you are soldiers,” and this was only a sample of what they had been doing for weeks past.

They’re retreating, but they’re not beaten.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow as long as y’all buy 1914!

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.)