Air bombing | First Doiran | 9 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

There is one area of war in which the Italians are unquestionably world leaders. This is in long-range bombing missions against the enemy’s road and rail infrastructure. Today they prove it by launching what I’m pretty sure is the largest ever single bombing raid to this point. 58 of their excellent Caproni heavy bombers take flight today, with an escort of Nieuport fighters that far outclass the Austro-Hungarian Aviatik opposition. The total payload dropped on enemy-held railway stations is some 4,000 kilograms’ worth of bombs. Some of them are even on target!

If only things were better at the front. Not only does the enemy on the Carso appear to have disappeared, there’s a distinct lack of urgency off to the north in front of Gorizia. There may be only one intact bridge and a lot of men to get across the Isonzo. However, in stories of great victories, this is where you hear about the heroic engineer unit which built six pontoon bridges in as many hours out of six rotten planks and a large roll of hairy string. Unfortunately, the Italian engineers appear to be fresh out of hairy string; there’s a distinct lack of urgency all round after a year of war.

First Battle of Doiran

So. Time to sweeten the pot by doing something at Salonika. We must do something, this is something, we must do this. General Sarrail isn’t best pleased by orders to launch a pinning attack to keep the Bulgarians from interfering with Romania’s entry into the war. Whenever that’s going to happen. (Spoilers: not in the next few days.) Sarrail’s decided that the best thing is to attack near Lake Doiran and push north from there, without much hope of achieving more than a few hundred yards’ worth of advance, useful only on a local tactical level.

I mean, I’m calling this First Doiran. That implies we’re going to have a second one. Spoilers; there’s not going to be some massive unexpected advance and subsequent dramatic reversal. By far the more interesting news is that our old friend Sergeant Flora Sandes, hero of the Serbian Army and one-woman propaganda triumph, has now almost finished sailing back to the war. We’ll be picking her story up in just a few days; her regiment is about to see some interesting times.

Battle of Verdun

A brief newsflash from the Battle of Verdun, which continues rumbling nastily with the military equivalent of indigestion. General Nivelle is displeased; he’s got standing orders to counter-attack and recover lost ground. His efforts have indeed retaken a couple of hundred metres outside Fort Souville and made the position very mildly more secure. Counter-attacks create casualties and exhaust men. Who am I supposed to attack with, he enquires of his army-group commander. General Petain immediately takes his point, and now commander-in-chief Joffre is receiving the benefit of his wisdom once more.

Sadly, General Joffre is more interested in the prospects for attacking on the Somme. Request denied. If Petain wants more men for Verdun, he’ll have to milk them from the other armies under his command.

Battle of Romani

Things are going well in the absence of the wounded Oskar Teichman. The defenders of the Suez Canal take a big risk today, with a large number of mounted troops going into action at Bir el Abd. It’s a heavy day’s fighting, and the Ottomans, aware that neither of the three enemy forces opposing them are particularly large, launch several dangerous counter-attacks that might, on a different day, have scattered or captured their opponents.

It’s rather an odd day. I’ve got two different books here. One of them describes an extremely difficult day’s fighting that nearly ended in a British disaster. The other describes a day that was all but a cakewalk for them. At any rate, both agree that by mid-afternoon the Ottomans were burning their stores to prevent capture. They’ve lost more than half their force in casualties; the defenders’ casualties are minimal. More to come in a few days.

Oskar Teichman

Speaking of whom. Oskar Teichman has now been got right out of it.

We were visited by several friends from Kantara, and heard that there had been more cases of cholera, and that the Turks had left a note in one of the Hods through which our force had passed, saying “Beware of cholera.” Some dead Turks were found in the same place who had died of the disease. The Turk was indeed a gentleman; not many enemies would have given this warning. … We were taken in motor-ambulances to Kantara West station, where we were transferred to a Red Crescent train. The latter was perfect luxury after what we had gone through. Before midnight our train arrived at Cairo and we were distributed amongst the various hospitals.

He’ll stay there for two and a half months, but he will be fit for service again at the end of his convalescence. We shan’t hear from him again until he’s discharged, and the war on the Suez Canal is politely going to wait for him to get back before developing further.

Neil Tennant

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the RFC is trying to make progress up the River Tigris to what passes for the front line these days in Mesopotamia. It’s not any easier than it was a year previously, when these boats were crewed by Royal Navy men. Oh yes, and it’s still really hot.

We grounded on a mud bank at 6am. The Arab crew and pilot were useless, but we managed to kedge her off ourselves after three hours, only to go aground again an hour later. In spite of many more arduous hours spent in the heat and wind, we failed to find a channel, merely moving from one shoal to another; but at last, after dark, another steamer came down-stream and hauled us into deeper water by a heavy wire. She had been on the mud herself for ten hours.

The river was at its lowest and the channels continually altering; we were told thatit was doubtful whether we should get above Ali Gharbi. The heat during the whole of the journey up-stream had been terrific; the two batmen who had started with us were both down, one with dysentery, the other with heat
stroke. One’s apparel consisted of shorts, shirt-sleeves and a topi, without shoes or stockings. In the evening one was glad to hang over the side of the ship on a rope and be towed slowly through the water, which, though thick and nasty to taste, was at least cool.

Can’t you just imagine these idiots very solemnly climbing overboard to be towed for a few minutes of an evening? A topi in this sense is the cork pith helmet that’s also part of the stereotypical British explorer’s uniform. To kedge is to move a boat by taking a light kedge anchor on a long warp off in the desired direction of travel, letting it grip a long way from the boat, and then hauling on the rope to bring the boat to the anchor.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman appears rather taken with Captain Rowley, even if he is on a one-man quest to discover the original Mademoiselle from Armentieres.

He is just a good-natured fellow, with any amount of pluck, whose morals have been damaged by the war and its whisky. The amount of whisky he and Mallow, the bombing-officer, can drink is astonishing. Every time Mallow reaches for the bottle he repeats the parrot phrase, “This war will be won on whisky or it won’t be won at all,” apparently intending to float home on whisky himself. Mallow is a pretty coarse-fibred creature; but Rowley is of different material. There’s been tragedy in this fellow’s life and it has knocked off his rudder.

His hair is prematurely grey; his complexion ashy; and although there is still a twinkle in his eye, it is fading, and in repose his face wears the expression of an injured animal. Crossed, he shows a streak of cruelty, but at heart he is full of kindliness. He carries out his duties as a company commander with a queer mixture of punctiliousness and slackness. I wish his conversation was not quite so filthy, for temperamentally I believe we are friends.

Rowley has done time at Hooge, the nastiest spot of the Ypres salient. He could have seen any number of things there.

Maximilian Mugge

Perennial piece of military jetsam Maximilian Mugge has finally washed up on solid ground. He’s back in Blighty in response to a summons from the War Office, and…

I had to report at the Headquarters of my unit, where I stayed a couple of days. “Mum” was the word and not a soul told me what was going to happen. I was still dreaming dreams waiting for a summons from Whitehall. Revelling in anticipation I still vowed to do my utmost to help and further England’s Cause. Yesterday they sent me here. Not to Whitehall henceforth to adorn the Intelligence Department or the Interpreters’ Corps. They sent me to the 33rd Midshire Regiment, an Infantry Works Battalion.

The 33rd Midshire Regiment is, in fact, the 30th (Works) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. Known variously as “works”, “labour”, or “pioneer” battalions, units composed solely of men fit only for labour (or with specialist skills) have been around for quite a while. The 30th Middlesex are, ahem, slightly different from your usual group of pioneers, though. Of which more tomorrow.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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Delville Wood | High Wood | 15 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

We start the day with a story from the 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. They’re urgently needed as reinforcements. 4th Army desperately needs to rotate some fresh men into the battle; some battalions have been fighting for almost two weeks with little rest. Today they’ve marched about 11 miles in high summer, one mile an hour, fifty minutes marching and ten minutes’ halt. They’ve just reached Fricourt; from here, it’s another ten miles (in a straight line; far more than that in the trenches) to High Wood, and of course it’ll now be uphill all the way. Corporal Jack Beament:

There was Jack Brown, and old Billy Thompson, and his pal Charlie Thompson from West Hartlepool, and myself. Billy wasn’t a big chap, but how he could swear! I always remember him after that march taking off his equipment and his boots and socks and swearing like hell. “Those fucking, bloody bastards! Those bloody fucking bastards!” Between us we said more than a word or two, because it was so hot and we had full equipment and 120 rounds of ammunition to carry. I’ll never forget the relief of it, coming to this stream and bathing my poor bloody feet. We weren’t there long, and there was more swearing when we were told to pick up our stuff and march up the line.

I shall never forget that scene. As we marched along there was a corpse of a soldier with no head plonked up against the side of this sunken road. A bit further on, sticking up above the ground, a hand and obviously a body underneath, but all you could see was a hand. And, on the left-hand side, just lumps of flesh with the innards and remains of a poor horse all rolled up there together. A shell must have got them. But we had to take it all in our stride because we couldn’t do anything about it. We’d got to go forward. That was our job.

And he hasn’t even started being shelled yet. There’s a lot of that about right now. The new German command structure is being put to a severe test, but it doesn’t take much wit or understanding of the situation to order “go here, dig trench, then counter-attack”. Aided by a bit of panic when a large column of BEF prisoners is mistaken for a major breakthrough, the gap in the German line has been plugged by dawn. The rest of the day is spent with the BEF, short of reserves, trying to consolidate its new positions, and three divisions’ worth of fresh German artillery trying to stop them.

Once again the question is “now what?” General Haig spends most of the day touring 4th Army corps commanders while he works out the answer. Let’s go to the map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

There has now been enough time for the Germans to fully garrison a “switch line”, an intermediate trench line between major defensive systems, which runs from Flers to Martinpuich by way of High Wood. Had the attack been pressed home yesterday afternoon, there’s every chance the cavalry might have beaten the Germans into their own trenches. They haven’t. Now General von Below has a safe halfway house for men moving forward to the two main sources of fighting: High Wood, and Delville Wood.

Delville Wood

General Haig has, unfortunately, been told that the whole of Delville Wood was captured today. The truth is rather more difficult. Though we’ve mostly heard of South Africans so far fighting in Tanzania, they have sent a brigade of three thousand men to the Western Front. Today it goes into Delville Wood, which has been stubbornly resisting for 24 hours now. The South Africans go in, the Germans carefully withdraw to a switch line running through the north of the wood and through Longueval also, to allow their guns a chance to shoot with minimal risk. Once again, tactical cohesion rapidly begins breaking down inside the thick wood. Captain Medlicort is trying very hard not to die.

In view of the fact that there is no wire in front of my firing line—neither is there any in front of the Huns and No Man’s Land is only about 300 yards—I think an ample supply of ammunition for Lewis Guns chiefly should be on hand with me. It was most difficult work getting the men to husband their ammunition—especially as we had to allow several hundred Huns to go in peace at a range of 800 yards. But it paid as we caught them at 500 yards. My supply of ammunition is very short.

It’s not easy.

High Wood

The situation at High Wood is no better. It’s taken just 24 hours for the latest push on the Somme to drift out of the control of the Army Commander and into penny-packet attacks authorised at division, brigade, and battalion level. After a punishing couple of days of marching, Corporal Beament and the lads from the 16th KRRC are trying to get forward to assist in High Wood, but…

I remember wondering if the Germans had machine-guns in the trees, because as we were getting back, I remember the bullets hitting the ground, just like heavy raindrops. There were explosions all over the place, it wasn’t very pleasant. I just had to struggle on as best I could and hope to God we would get back. What a shambles it was. I didn’t get more than thirty yards, or forty at most. We just couldn’t make any advance at all. It was a horrible, terrible massacre.

We lost all the officers out of our company. We lost all the sergeants, all the full corporals and all the NCOs right down to Herbert King, the senior Lance-Corporal. He was my pal, and he brought A Company out. There were more than 200 of us went in, and Herbert brought them out. 67 men, that was all.

The BEF is not going to break the switch line in penny packets. It needs another pause, a proper consolidation, and then a proper bite-and-hold leap. Aiming for a breakthrough is probably hopeless; the Germans have kept a few pioneer units spare to work on the Third Line, which in most places existed only in outline until a month or two ago. Now it’s being deepened as fast as the shovels can dig it, and they’re not nearly out of men who could garrison it.

Ovillers

JRR Tolkien is lucky. He doesn’t have to lead men through the hopeless tangle of trenches that make up the final German holdings at Ovillers. This is good; one platoon commander in his battalion dies today, and five more officers are wounded. In fact, he’s almost at something of a loose end. His job now as signalling officer is to set up and operate the battalion’s signalling capabilities. He spends a little time trying to lay some telephone wire, and then gives it up as a bad job. In any case, now that it’s known the Germans can listen in, use of the field telephone has been banned except as a last resort.

His signalling capabilities are one extremely temperamental wired Morse buzzer that spends most of its time cut off, and a few extremely unhappy runners who are now having to do all the work. He has at least installed himself at the bottom of a very deep dugout, and nothing except the order to go into reserve billets is likely to get him out again.

Fort Souville

Time for the first of many real attempts by General Nivelle to take the initiative at the Battle of Verdun for the first time in, well, ever. I’d get sarky and start saying “and he’s not going to let failure put him off!” but that’s unfair. The attacks of the last few days have been hasty, poorly-planned, and launched with tired men. Now they’re going to do some proper planning and come up with a really good idea for some time in August. That time for sure, Bullwinkle!

Romania

Meanwhile, it’s irony everywhere as General Joffre continues Operation Suck Up To Romania by ordering General Sarrail to plan an offensive in Salonika, assuming his current strength plus 50,000 Russians. About now there’s some rather interesting communications between Joffre and Wully Robertson, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff. A cynic might suggest that, although both men are officially assuring the other of cooperation, they’re both writing and reading “yeah, my arse” and other such cynical comments between the lines of their diplomatic communications. They’re both committed Western Fronters, after all…

Battle of Erzincan

General Yudenich is running about as high as he possibly can be. His men are sweeping towards Bayburt and Erzincan. The Ottoman Second Army is, for the moment, keeping their powder dry. (They’re now approaching full strength, although desertion is still a problem and they’re short of artillery and shells.) At the moment, his army just can’t stop winning, and again I note how nice it is to occasionally check in with someone who consistently seems to know what he’s doing. More soon!

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler is displacing forward once more to support the continued advances on the Somme. It’s been a horrible process, full of rain and tear gas and enemy high explosive. As a good battery commander, he is ever on the lookout for ways to improve his situation.

As we are again the right-hand British battery, the French infantry in support are beside our guns. On our arrival I succeeded in bribing a party of them with 100 Woodbines to dig a tiny dug-out for me on the fire-step of their trench, roofed with three sheets of galvanised iron. The one bright spot about our position is the possession of two deep Hun dug-outs, in which the bulk of the men can sleep in perfect safety. Anything which saves labour and economises energy is a blessing, particularly as the men were pretty beat after fifty hours’ non-stop firing and digging.

There’s plenty more firing to come, don’t you worry. A Woodbine is a strong unfiltered cigarette favoured by the Tommies.

Robert Pelissier

University professor turned soldier Robert Pelissier is writing to an American friend, with an eye to entertaining the internet in a far-off future. I do like it when people are polite enough to appeal to modern tastes.

I refuse to write a letter it’s too hot and besides there is nothing to say as life is as flat as a pancake or a Kansas town or a faculty meeting. We trot around and over the country in pursuit of imaginary Boches, then we sleep and eat and so days go by as alike as Siamese twins. A squash bug life of the purest Beverly type is more full of imprevu than our existence.

Did I ever tell you my opinion of cats? Well, for your sake I never killed any, but I may have betrayed my country in being so forbearing. At the last trenches where we were, German cats came across the line to us and we used to feed them and show them every courtesy, but with very few exceptions they would go back to the German lines and probably tell on us. I have thought since, that we should have put them in irons right away.

Nah mate, you were right first time.

Actions in Progress

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

Verdun and the Somme | Fromelles | 13 Jul 1916

Battle of Verdun

The Battle of the Somme has now succeeded in one of its main objectives. Today General von Falkenhayn orders offensive operations to cease at the Battle of Verdun. On the most charitable interpretation of von Falkenhayn’s intent, it was supposed to take a couple of weeks, maybe a month, to establish a strong line that the French would find it almost impossible to recapture, and then sit back and let them bleed to death on it. They’ve now taken five months and still they’re not quite as far forward as General von Knobelsdorf would like to be.

But this is going to have to be it. They don’t have the men to keep attacking at Verdun, and keep counter-attacking on the Somme, and keep the Eastern Front as strong as it is right now to cover for the Austro-Hungarians’ ongoing failure against Russian attack. General Nivelle has officially been handed the initiative. Happily for the Blood God, he and General Mangin are planning a major counter-attack outside Fleury and Fort Souville, to go off in two days.

Fromelles

We’ll come on to the imminent attack on the German Second Line in just a moment. One of the many instructions from General Haig’s advanced headquarters in recent days has been a reminder to his other three army commanders of the need to keep up pressure away from the Somme, so that the enemy will think twice before sending men south to the big show. So we find one General Haking (last seen at the Battle of Loos, allegedly/possibly mis-managing the reserves) being given the ANZACs and told to give them something to do. Once again the BEF’s collective eye has fallen on Aubers Ridge.

They’re just looking for diversion this time; the plan is for a heavy 24-hour bombardment. Then there’ll be a major infantry attack by the ANZACs on the 15th, strictly limited to the enemy’s first trench system near Fromelles on top of Aubers Ridge, and then they hold on for dear life. The objective here is primarily to pinch out the Sugarloaf, a small and highly annoying German salient on top of a knobbly hill that’s ideal for observation of the surrounding low ground. We’ll be back.

Trones Wood

Let us have a snapshot of Trones Wood from artillery subaltern Lieutenant William Bloor. He has been sent forward on a recce, doing a similar job to the officers belonging to Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler who two days ago saved a wounded man.

The place beggars description quite—there has been the fiercest fighting here for four days, and both sides have taken and lost the wood several times. Wounded have not been cleared away, and there are some who have been all that time without food or any attention. The horror and misery and countless tragedies of this war—even the little of it I have seen—are much too awful to let the mind dwell on it and I am surprised that more men do not go mad with the horror of it.

Many of the infantry that I saw and spoke to were in a state of ‘daze’, their senses were all blurred and dull, and they neither cared if they lived or died, nor if they went forward or backward. I suppose it is as well that they can get that way.

There’s a major heave at 5pm. Fraser-Tytler himself is under the impression that it’s succeeded. Bloor meets several wounded men who describe the affair as a complete failure. All we can say for sure is that lots more people are dead, and there are still Germans somewhere in Trones Wood.

Bazentin Ridge and field telephones

Time to drop a bombshell. A few days ago, someone was poking around in an ex-German dugout in front of Ovillers, where their signallers used to live, and made an exceptionally nasty discovery. The dugout had some wires going out of it the wrong way, out towards No Man’s Land. Further investigation shows that this dugout is in fact a listening post. Turns out that the British telephone wire is badly insulated, and the Somme chalk is an excellent medium for carrying telephone signals through the ground. (In other sectors, particularly Ypres, the enemy is directly tapping into the hopelessly confused telephone network.)

Now the BEF is beginning to understand why the Germans have sent trench raids out only rarely over the last few months. They haven’t had to. They’ve been listening to everything that’s been said down the BEF’s field telephone system. To be fair, this has meant listening to a lot of inconsequential bullshit between bored subalterns. However, now all those taunting German signboards, welcoming new units to a section of line by their name, suddenly become explicable. (Why not attack today, Jock?) There’s a happy ending to this story, but it won’t come for a while. For now, field-telephones will have to be used with great caution, if at all.

Good time to be planning that major attack on the German Second Line, huh? After a frantic 24 hours, and much consultation with his own staff, General Haig has agreed to go with General Rawlinson’s bold and risky plan (discussed in detail on the 11th). Today he gives fresh orders and objectives at a personal meeting in the afternoon.

I spoke about use of the cavalry. The divisions were not to go forward until we had got through the Enemy’s fortifications, except a few squadrons to take High Wood.

Hold that thought; it will become relevant very soon.

I stated his objectives as:

1. Occupy position Longueval-Bazentin, and consolidate it.
2. Take High Wood, and establish right flank at Ginchy and Guillemont.
3. At same time (if possible, as there are ample troops, extend left and take Pozieres ridge…)

I saw General Pulteney…[he] had not thought of how to employ his divisions to capture Pozieres village. I said he should not attack direct, but take it from the rear to avoid loss.

Hold that thought, and all. There is a considerable amount of original thinking to be employed here. It could go badly wrong. Lying out in No Man’s Land, waiting for zero hour, is (to say the least) a deeply risky proposition. The Second Line will have a massive concentration of artillery, but it’ll only have time to fire a long hurricane bombardment in support. And the whole plan is based on having captured Trones Wood; as midnight turns into tomorrow morning, that still has not been achieved…

Let’s just get a map on this, shall we?

The yellow box marks the rough objectives for the end of the day.

The yellow box marks the rough objectives for the end of the day.

And, as today turns to tomorrow, German senior commanders are thinking entirely of their upcoming command shakeup. First, as General Haig has already done, the Germans are splitting the battlefield in two. Their chosen demarcation line is the River Somme. There has been no German First Army since 1914, but now the name is being resurrected and it’s being put in command of everything to the north. To provide continuity at the most vital point, General von Below is being shifted over to command First Army; General Max von Gallwitz has been recalled from the Eastern Front and given command of Second Army.

So far, so sensible. Then it all goes a bit hatstand. In his infinite* wisdom, General von Falkenhayn has decided that von Gallwitz will also serve as an army-group commander. I suppose it’s better than having no army-group commander at all, but there’s a clear conflict of interest in having the guy who decides things like which armies get reinforcements also be in charge of an army. To make matters even better, HQ insists on re-examining their idea of what a corps is. In the Prussian style, a corps is rather like a large breeze-block; its identity is inherently entangled with that of its constituent divisions.

In the light of losses at Verdun and on the Somme, this is proving too inflexible. In isolation, a move to a more British-style concept, where a corps is a large bucket into which you throw and remove several different house-bricks/divisions according to the situation, is probably beneficial. But to make the change now, on top of everything, and with the BEF ready to attack them again? Too much, too soon.

*By this point, rather less than infinite, as more than a few high-powered people in Berlin are beginning to suggest…

Attack on the Karasu

The Ottoman Third Army’s southern divisions have been fleeing in front of the impetuous Russian General Lyakhov for the past few days. They’ve made it to the Karasu, one of the two long source rivers that eventually join to form the River Euphrates, in enough time to blow the bridge at Kotur. In the past week Lyakhov has given himself a jolly good talking to, and he’s managed to re-adjust his outlook from “foolhardy” back into “aggressive”. Attacking quickly to not allow the enemy to dig in is important, but not the only important point.

This time he’s made sure to select the freshest units and send them into battle with a well-designed plan, attacking tonight under cover of darkness and turning disorderly retreat into all-out rout. A full third of the already under-strength Third Army’s, ahem, strength, has now become casualties, prisoners, or deserters. The rest are heading off to the north in the general direction of Erzincan, in no fighting shape. Lyakhov has achieved his objective; he can now secure General Yudenich’s flank against the attack that Izzet Pasha and Second Army has no intention of launching anyway.

Losing the bridge is a blow, but not an immediate concern. Everything is looking set fair for a long Russian march to Erzincan. Right now, the only thing that seems like it might be able to stop them heading even further west is simple logistics. It’s 275 miles more to Kayseri; they’ll have gone 210 miles from Sarikamis to Erzincan, but if they can advance up the coast at the same time and capture Samsun…

E.S. Thompson

At Kondoa Irangi, E.S. Thompson is trying to keep morale up among his mates.

Reveille and roll call as usual. Put kits outside then had a fine breakfast of mealie-meal and koekjes. Went to town with Dick who was having a tooth drawn. Took Sourie to the hospital to get Smith’s kit. Afterwards went to see Alf and on the way saw Jack Wetton and Ernie Barritt. On entering the church heard somebody call ‘Eric’ and, going over, found poor Percy Forbes thinner than ever now down with dysentery. He looked so bad that it made me feel awfully upset. After chatting with him for a while went to see Alf who’s leg is better now but he is going back to Ufiome.

Had just got out of the church when I met Ralph and Whitticombe going in to see Percy so I took them to him. After cheering him up for about half an hour we walked to the 9th [Regiment] camp, going through the native town.

For now, their duties are still the universal military pastime of Hanging Around Until Something Happens.

Louis Barthas

Everyone’s favourite grognard Louis Barthas is today indulging in a little unexpected cultural exchange. He’s gone to the Camp de Chalons, a major French training centre, to become a trench mortar corporal.

Bomb throwers, snipers, machine gunners came in teams to spend ten or twelve days. This made the place a slacker’s haven for instructor officers and non-coms and their entourages of orderlies, aides, cooks, messengers, secretaries, etc. The very evening of our arrival, I went into the village of Bouy with my comrades, and there I saw Russian soldiers for the first time. They occupied the neighboring sector, took their rest in the nearby village of Mourmelon, and in spite of the strict prohibitions given to them they wandered around the area in the evenings.

There was an order given in the region, prohibiting their being served any alcoholic beverages, including the sacred pinard. Nevertheless you could tell that the Slavic soldiers I met in the streets of Bouy had had something other than tea, their customary beverage, to drink. They zigzagged in a manner which was dangerous to their equilibrium, and some of them, gesticulating, singing, stopped women and girls in the streets, kneeling comically before them to give them what was no doubt an elaborate declaration of love, in the form of raucous sounds interrupted with hiccups.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Corporal Barthas has been at the absinthe, but no. The Russian Expeditionary Forces are a real thing that happened, in this case mostly to stop General Joffre suggesting that Russia just casually send him two spare armies. They’ve already sent about a division’s worth of men to France. As part of the ongoing negotiations with Romania, about 50,000 men will eventually be sent to Salonika under the REF banner to join in there. You’ve probably not heard of them, and in this case it’s a compliment; they generally did their duty well and without fuss, and then packed up and went home.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge, God bless him, has come through with yet another of those “a day in the life of a bloke” lists that I just cannot resist. This one is by a friend and fellow crock; it’s daily life at the base.

Daily Routine of a Soldier’s Life in France, in a few Hymns:

2 a.m. Draft proceeding to the Front: ” God be with you.”
6-30 a.m. Reveille: “Christians Awake.”
6-45 a.m. Rouse Parade: “Art thou weary?”
7 a.m. Breakfast: “Meekly wait and murmur not.”
8 a.m. Sick Parade: “Tell me the old, old story.”
9-15 a.m. Manoeuvres: “Fight the good fight.”
9-45 a.m. Orderly Room: ” Oft in danger, oft in woe.”
11-15 a.m. Swedish Drill: “Here we suffer grief and pain.”
1 p.m. Dinner: “Come ye thankful people, come.”
2-15 p.m. Fatigue: “Come, labour on.”
3-15 p.m. Lecture by Officer: “Abide with me.”
4 p.m. Dismiss: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
4-30 p.m. Pack-Drill: ” For all the Saints who from their labours rest.”
5 p.m. Tea: “What means this eager anxious throng.”
6 p.m. Free for the night: “O Lord, how happy should we be.”
6-30 p.m. Out of Bounds : “We may not know, we cannot tell.”
7 p.m. In a Cafe: “How bright those glorious spirits shine.”
9-15 p.m. Last Post: “All is safely gathered in.”
9-30 p.m. Lights Out: “Peace, perfect peace.”
10 p.m. The Guard: “While Shepherds watched their flocks by night.”

I am sure this is even funnier if you actually know anything about hymns. “Swedish drill” is a system of calisthenics originally set down by Martina Bergman-Österberg, a Swedish gymnastics teacher who settled in London and taught generations of female fitness instructors and PE teachers.

Actions in Progress

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

Return to Fort Douaumont | 22 May 1916

Battle of Verdun

So, time for the latest fruitless attempt to achieve something at the Battle of Verdun. And, with General Mangin in command, we can surely expect more proof of his maxim “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”. For five days they’ve been hammering Fort Douaumont and the surrounding area with artillery fire. Get the coffins ready, yo. And, tragically, it takes only eleven minutes for the French to be inside the fort. Just as I told you; another great debacle from the hands of General Nivelle and his lackey…

…wait, what? Inside the fort? Hold on, I’ll clean my glasses and read that again.

Um. Well. I was right the first time. Eleven minutes after going over the top, the more lucky French attackers have forced their way back into Douaumont and spend most of the day clearing it out. (The less lucky are dead in No Man’s Land from the vicious German defensive artillery fire.) But in the afternoon, it looks good enough for Mangin to rush round to General Nivelle’s headquarters and yell triumphantly “Douaumont is ours!”

Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire led an attack for the very first time today. A friend died as he led his own platoon over the top. Joubaire then had a full day of fighting. In the evening, he finds a relatively quiet, lonely room inside the fort. And, after jotting down some standard vomitous patriotic stuff about glory and heroes, his thoughts take a darker turn.

But for how long is it going to carry on? You wonder with anguish when and how this unprecedented struggle will end. There is no solution in sight. I wonder if it will end simply for lack of fighting men. It is no longer a case of one nation struggling with another. It is two blocs of nations which are fighting, two civilisations which are in conflict with each other. People are suffering from the madness of death and destruction.

Yes, humanity has gone mad. We must be mad to do what we are doing. What massacres! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be so terrible. Mankind has gone mad.

More tomorrow.

Battle of Asiago

Speaking of quick success. The Italians are now falling back on their last prepared defensive system before Asiago itself, built around the Kempel Ridge. A thousand metres high, a sheer cliff drops from the top of the ridge into the Assa valley, through which runs the only road to Asiago. Detailed plans for taking the ridge were drawn up long ago, ready for use by the first available division. Now they’re swinging into action, driving the Italians before them. Prisoners are mounting fast. Italian artillerymen are abandoning their guns, the ultimate shame for a gunner.

There’s a last defensive position to overcome before Asiago, but there’s also no indication at all that the battered remnants of 1st Army will be able to occupy them effectively. Still, the Austro-Hungarians are a long way from Venice. The battle continues, but these are the levels of straws we must now clutch for a pro-Italian stance.

Battle of the Somme

More high-level shenanigans, as General Joffre officially admits for the first time in correspondence with the BEF that the French are going to have to scale their participation in the Battle of the Somme right down. That was pretty much a given once it became obvious that the Germans weren’t moving from around Verdun any time soon, of course. But it’s worth remembering that the BEF committed to providing one-third of the manpower for the offensive. And it was originally to be fought on a far, far greater scale. The BEF might never have fought on what we think of now as the Somme battlefields, had it gone ahead as planned.

Events, dear boy! Events!

North Sea

See previous statement! We’re just a day from the High Seas Fleet setting sail to force a war-changing battle in the North Sea, and now events have intervened once more with the German Navy. They’ve already had to delay their sailing while a number of dreadnoughts had their condensers switched out. Now there’s a problem with one of the most important ships in the fleet, the battlecruiser Seydlitz, who hit a mine while on last month’s raid on Lowestoft. She should have been ready to go out by now, but the damage to her hull has proved more difficult to repair than it might have been.

Bottom line, the ship will be ready in about five or six days. Now we remember that, with the submarines out on patrol at the Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow, Admiral Scheer is on the clock. If he doesn’t sail before the end of the month, his submarines will run out of fuel and return home, meaning yet more delays. If he sails immediately, without Seydlitz, and something goes wrong…

So the operation is postponed again to the 30th, butting right up against the time limit imposed by the U-boats’ fuel tanks. More to follow!

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has finally made it out of the line. No sooner do they arrive at today’s billet than Lieutenant Breton summons him.

All Lieutenant Breton wanted to do was to congratulate me immediately for my courageous conduct on Hill 304! Surprised and confused, I mumbled that I hadn’t done anything extraordinary. “No, no,” he said, “Lieutenant Lorius reported to me that you volunteered for a perilous reconnaissance, replacing a courier on the very day of our being relieved.”

Fierce antimilitarist that I was, to be congratulated as an exemplary soldier was almost as painful to me as a wound would have been. But adding it all up, for my future well-being it would be better that my bosses had esteem and consideration for me, which would help wipe out the warnings and black marks which Commandant Leblanc and Captain Cros-Mayrevielle had amassed next to my name.

Ah, a stroke of luck. For our favourite grognard, this surely can’t mean anything good. So it proves. A bicycle messenger arrives and goes straight to Commandant Quinze-Grammes. For once, the feelings of the commandant, his lackey, and the men are entirely in accord.

The commandant read the fatal note and stood speechless; over his shoulder, Captain Cros-Mayrevieille read it, too, and made an indecipherable grimace; I could see no good coming out of any of this; there was something ominous about it. It was nothing less than an order from Colonel Douce, ordering us to take the road back to Hill 304 immediately. The Germans were once again massing for an assault, and our two front-line battalions were poorly positioned.

Not good. Very, very, very not good. The commandant decides that there is time at least to get stuck into the gluttonous dinner he’s been anticipating for the last two weeks, before setting out again.

Suddenly, a cloud of dust rolls down the road and stops in front of us. It clears away, and a handsome automobile appears before our eyes. On the hood and the sides are painted a square with red stripes: it’s a divisional staff car, and from the door which an orderly hastens to open descends our divisional general, General Andrieu. His face radiates joy. At the sight of him, the commandant and the capitaine-adjutant-major interrupt their repast and rush up to their big boss, bowing and saluting, grimacing with smiles. “I bring you good news,” the general calls out. “The division is relieved!”

Embarrassed, the commandant puts the colonel’s message in front of him. “Oh, the devil,” the general says, scratching an ear. “This is serious.” He took a look at us, a look filled with pity, then got back into his car, saying, “I’m going to Corps headquarters in Bar-le-Duc. In an hour you’ll be all set.” This hour was, for us, an hour of anguish; the anguish of a condemned man who is awaiting his final judgment of life or death.

50 minutes later, the general’s car returns, and the driver has the official order. They will indeed leave. Just as soon as the transport arrives to take them off down the Voie Sacree once more.

Finally the liberating vehicles arrived, and disgorged onto the roadside clusters of soldiers who silently examined our cadaverous faces, our untidy uniforms, our coatings of mud, our shaggy beards, all of which made us look like highway robbers. They posed few questions, as they looked at us and listened to the incessant rumbling of the cannonade in the distance. Even the stupidest among them understood where they were going and what was awaiting them. They surely envied our lot, and on our side we surely pitied them. But to each his turn, and to each his destiny.

They, of course, have already experienced this meeting from the opposite side.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson might have a nasty case of the squitters, but that’s no reason to be excused marching. Certainly not when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you need to march to have any hope of arriving somewhere that might help.

Dick and I being both crook, marched on slowly at our own pace. When we camped we just had time to make some tea when we were told to move off again and marched to Galley Camp, a lovely place on top of the hills. Our next camp was in an open space. Boiled vegetables and cold bully comprised our dinner. All lights had to be out at 8pm and some of our chaps were sent out on outpost. Very cold night and no overcoats. Total 16 miles for the day.

Yeah, strident criticism of this man’s weeping, open racism aside for a moment. I do not think I could march 16 miles from anywhere to anywhere on boiled vegetables and corned beef while the world was also trying to fall out of my bottom. Never mind doing it in Africa during the rainy season. This is, at the least, a great physical feat.

Maximilian Mugge

He may have been exiled to the Non-Combatant Corps for reasons that are yet to become clear, but at least it means Maximilian Mugge gets a new group of people to enjoy observing.

There is an early Christian touch about some of the NCCs. Most of them are really gentlemen, in the sense of Cardinal Newman’s definition. I have never seen so many prayer books; before going to sleep some men read page after page in their Bibles. Somehow or other I like the quiet and determined faces, but feel the most violent dislike towards some of the show-people who kneel on their beds in the sight of all to pray.

In the Dry Canteen where all the NCCs are dining together I listened to some very interesting discussions. Said one CO to me, “If you are in the hands of the insane, you simply do what you would do in an asylum, if you were the only sane man there!” The majority of the NCCs are Christians (though very few of the Church of England), but there is a good sprinkling of free-thinkers and socialists. They come from all over England. Amongst my acquaintances are two men from Letchwood and from Ilford.

Now, sometimes I bag on Mugge for misunderstanding some important point of his adopted country. However, if there were ever proof that he’s truly English at heart, it’s this “most violent dislike” for the sanctimoniously pious. If his reaction isn’t yet to turn away and mutter “oh, come off it!”, it surely will be soon.

(Cardinal Newman, a famous English convert to Catholicism in the days when people really cared about Catholics having a dual loyalty to the Pope and the King, wrote a long paragraph which explores the notion of “a gentleman is a gentle man in all regards”.)

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

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

Hill 304 | Verdun | 11 May 1916

Joffre and Petain

You may recall a couple of days ago that General Petain recently used his new position as commander of Central Army Group to give his boss some thoughts about grand strategic matters. Today General Joffre uses his old position as Grand High Poobah to give his subordinate some thoughts about “shut up and do as you’re told”. He is being counted on, apparently to “conform to GQG’s directives”. He even helpfully re-states them: “hold the line and get me my nice shiny Fort Douaumont back”, like that nice General Nivelle wants to do. As it happens, the bombardment for that operation will be starting in a week’s time.

Louis Barthas

The waiting’s over. The order to go into the trenches on Hill 304 has just arrived. Louis Barthas is still horribly ill and can barely keep food down, but as long as he’s able to march, he’s going with them.

Departure was set for 8 in the evening. Each of us had to carry 250 cartridges, grenades, reserve rations, flares, assorted tools, etc. Weak, still suffering, I had to make a superhuman effort to keep up with my comrades, who lightened my load as best they could. Many times a cold sweat soaked my temples, and it looked like I was going to fall over. A few swallows of eau de mélisse fortified me. Along the route I threw away everything: food, cartridges, grenades, tools. Boy, if our Kronprinz had seen me!

We passed through Vigneville and Montzeville, in ruins, and at about eleven at night we set ourselves up in a trench about one kilometer to the right of Esnes, fifty meters from a windmill. Its walls, riddled by shellfire, were still standing. There was, at this moment, a relative calm. All night long they brought forward pieces of sheet metal, planks, and tree branches to cover up this trench and hide us from the view of aircraft, just as had been recommended to us.

Nothing quite like a massive, potentially war-changing battle to make the big bosses care about protecting the lives of their men, huh? If it were light, Barthas would now be able to look out of his shelter and see the south slopes of Hill 304. Where some of Barthas’s comrades have just counter-attacked, and shoved their way back up to the summit again.

Eau de melisse, by the way, is a then-300-year-old herbal remedy which, among other things, is supposed to cure stomach pains and digestion issues. It’s supposed to be dripped sparingly into water as a cordial, but the manufacturing process makes it sound suspiciously like an extremely over-complicated gin.

Battle of Kondoa

Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is still mulling over the effects of his recent defeat. Perhaps he hasn’t transferred his men across in time? Maybe the South Africans are in Kondoa in greater force than he’d thought? He certainly can’t keep bashing his head fruitlessly against well-garrisoned defences. To go around them would require long marching and the risk of ambush. And so he continues to sit and do nothing. Across the way, General van Deventer has seen an opportunity, and is now making plans for a few men to go out to the right and see whether anything interesting happens. He’s got reinforcements on the way, don’t you know!

E.S. Thompson

Guess who the reinforcements are? That’s right, it’s E.S. Thompson and the 7th South African Infantry who get to try the 250-mile march across the middle of nowhere in the rainy season without dying of dysentery.

Mr Parsons came round and told us to get up early as we were moving off to-morrow. Name of place is Kumbulum.

The Oregon Trail has nothing on this for difficulty.

Air Board

Hey, remember the British Joint War Air Committee? Useless talking shop that recently collapsed under its own uselessness? Its only achievement being as a potential starting point for historians of useless “jointery” exercises? As they’ve been fiddling, the Conservative Cabinet member Lord Curzon has been arguing for something more radical. He’s after an independent Air Board, controlling and coordinating the supply and design of aircraft and aircraft material to both the Army and the Navy, as a prelude to a proper independent Air Force as a third armed force.

Politically, it would also have the useful effect for the Prime Minister, a Liberal, of giving one of Bonar Law’s Tories (don’t snigger) something to do. So now the War Committee has given him his Air Board. As an advisory body. Able to make recommendations and work for greater co-operation…but without any actual authority. In a couple of months, it will try to exert some control over raw materials and be told in almost as many words to sod off by David Lloyd-George, who for some reason thinks the Ministry of Munitions (which he just so happens to be in charge of) should do that instead. Second verse, same as the first! I’m a useless talking shop I am, I am…

Oswin Creighton

Army chaplain Oswin Creighton is still tooling around Romsey having, ahem, pleasant theological discussions with all and sundry. (Today it’s very much “sundry”.)

I am making friends with the corporals in rather a questionable way. The last two nights I have visited their special rooms in the wet canteen. I have had an uproarious welcome each time, my health drunk, three cheers, and was made a member of a cork club, the sole point of which is that you are given a cork which you must produce at any moment when asked by any other member, or forfeit a penny. They are pretty beery fellows – not drunk, of course, but fairly full.

I feel my going may be interpreted as my countenancing this wretched beer-swilling. They offer me beer, but I refuse, saying I dislike it. However, I am only carrying out my own ideas that a parson must go everywhere, and mix with everybody, and try and understand their point of view.

I just cannot get enough of reading about good, conscientious men going around the place trying to make the war slightly less terrible.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells has had a few days’ leave. Being the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, he has a friend at Queen’s College Oxford, so goes there to stay.

There are less than 500 students at Oxford now. Before the war there were over 3,000. Most of those who are there are foreigners or physically unfit. Although life at the University is far different from what it is in peace times, I was able to imagine what it would be like under normal conditions.

The thing that surprised me most was the strict discipline to which the students are subjected. They have to pay a fine if they return to college after 9 in the evening, and are liable to suspension if they are out after 11. They have to answer to their names every morning. In many ways life at Oxford resembles life in camp.

Pssst, nobody tell him about the Bullingdon Club, Oxford’s elite drinking/shagging/smashing-up-restaurants club for the sons of the great and the good. As the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, surely Wells realises that the point here is to prove how much you totes don’t need to care about little-people froo-froo like “paying fines” or “getting arrested” or “academic failure”?

Speaking of the Bullingdon Club, guess who they count as a former member? Some spotty kid called Douglas Haig, now a knight of the realm and commander-in-chief of the BEF. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more ex-Bullers in some high office or other, but I didn’t start this project to waste time researching upper-class twits. (Incidentally, 24 of the 28 members in 1914 joined the Army, most went to the trenches, some won medals, and six of them died.)

On the other hand, the students are not compelled to attend any lectures which do not interest or concern them. In this and other respects it is very unlike an American University. One pleasing feature is that everybody here takes some outdoor exercise of one sort or another every day. In American colleges a small proportion devote a large amount of time to athletics, and the majority take no part in them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same! Roll Tide, Paaaawwwwlllll.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Kondoa

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide