The Middle East theatre | 1 May 1916

Battle of Verdun

General Joffre’s command rearrangement officially takes effect today. General Nivelle now commands 2nd Army, with predictable results. Petain is now an army-group commander, and all this nonsense will no doubt require a great deal of pomp and ceremony and bluster and bullshit. Hold that thought for a couple of days, won’t you?

In the meantime, a quick comparison of the difference in strategic approaches. The Germans have used 26 divisions so far at Verdun, many of them attacking again and again until their strength is completely worn down. The noria, on the other hand, has so far used 40 French divisions for a brief stint at a time, and that number is only going to keep rising in the months to come.

Middle East

With the British Empire relief column now skulking quietly away from Kut with tail firmly between legs, it’s time to work out what to do next. For the British Empire this is obvious; sack the generals once appropriate replacements can be found. In the meantime, retreat towards Amarah and find somewhere to hunker down and rebuild. As far as the buck-stoppers are concerned, doing anything in Mesopotamia is now off the table for the rest of the year.

Over on the other side of the hill, Enver Pasha has hurried down to Baghdad by train to bask in some reflected glory. He’s just heavily reinforced the theatre in anticipation of a long struggle over Kut, and now the strategic appreciation seems, ahem, rather different. Even as he arrives, the Russian General Baratov has just removed a small Ottoman detachment from Persian territory, right as he’s heard of Kut’s fall. He and his men will remain hanging around on the Persian border like a bad smell.

And if there’s one thing that Enver can’t stand, it’s a bad smell. Army commander Halil (now Halil Pasha after his success, no longer Halil Bey) is loudly pressing the case for a strong campaign back down the River Tigris. However, although the Siege of Kut was a success, both the siege and obstructing the relief efforts have seriously weakened his existing force. Fresh men will soon arrive, but it seems that they too will need a period of inactivity to refresh their spirits, not to mention the need to get rid of those dratted prisoners. And then there’s the question of supply lines, no less acute going down the river than coming up it.

There’s that bad smell. By the time Enver leaves again, he’s decided to use two of his fresh divisions to go over to Persia and give the Russians a damn good kicking. Long-term, he’s still holding hope that some combination of these two divisions and the German agent Wilhelm Wasmuss might yet open a path to destabilise Afghanistan and directly threaten India. Which is, ahem, extremely optimistic. But surely worth the risk; it would be all but impossible for the British Empire to keep up its current efforts and prepare for a full-scale defence of the Raj…

Tank development

Another person who we’ll be hearing a lot more about as the war unfolds is one General Launcelot Kiggell, the Chief of Staff of the BEF. Like intelligence chief Charteris, rude things are often said about him. So it’s only fair, then, to record any moments of insight he might have so that we can set them against his failures, if any.

Today is a good day for the elaborately-named man. He’s been very interested by British camouflage efforts, and he’s seen that perhaps there might be some use for:

…the painting and disguising of tanks. It seems that if a loose mat or roof covering will meet the purpose, the mats themselves can be constructed and painted differently on both sides so as to materially conceal [the tanks] from the air.

Nice to know that someone is thinking about these things. He’s also sent Lt-Col Solomon J. Solomon, late of the Royal Academy, now of the Royal Engineers, to Elveden to see what can be done. It’ll take a while for Solomon’s efforts to go anywhere…and when they do, it seems he’s taken inspiration from the Affair of the Purple Horse, painting tanks in all kinds of intricate shades of pink/green/brown/grey. In very short order, once testing starts in earnest, it’ll become obvious that the best camouflage is the mud splatters that the tanks naturally create.

The tanks will therefore all be painted mud-brown. and Solomon will quietly be moved elsewhere. It’s a shame; he’s recently done excellent work adapting French fake tree and fake dead horse designs for British use. (I am not making any of that up. I do love me a good fake tree.) Unfortunately, his work with tanks will see him develop a not-unjustified obsession with the potential for netting. By war’s end, he’ll be found loudly insisting that the Germans could be concealing entire armies under vast camouflage nets.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach returns to the front after some jolly home leave with absolutely no food shortages at all, do you hear?

I spend eight days in what they call the Bois de la Reserve, where I have to keep the Divisional telephone exchange informed of everything that happens. I’m quite alone up here. It’s enchanting to be all on one’s own, surrounded by young forest trees all decked out in fresh green. It seems to be a paradise for wild birds. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be sitting like this again, out in the midst of Nature again. You have an untroubled mind and can devote yourself to all your thoughts.

What a contrast, these splendid natural surroundings in this wonderful month of May – and Death, a million deaths, sitting as if it were just next door.

Of course he’s managed to return to an even cushier job than when he left, the lucky bastard.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas and friends has been granted a rare treat. While the BEF has been able to look forward for quite a while to regular visits to the divisional baths, washing facilities for the poilus have been thin on the ground. En France, maintenant…

For everyone there were showers. The installation of these showers didn’t match modern standards of comfort. In a little old hovel open to all the winds of April, we had to slog through the mud to get a sprinkle of rather cold water, which came out of a container set up on the roof, filled with buckets of river water that medical orderlies passed up a ladder, in a bucket brigade.

Many of us balked at the risk of catching a cold by undergoing this kind of shower, which was surely beneficial only for madmen. But inexorably discipline was brought to bear, in the person of our capitaine-adjutant-major. Stiffnecked, haughty, all decked out in his field outfit, he cast a suspicious eye on those who were getting dressed, lifted up their helmets to examine whether their hair was wet or not, and went away only to survey the arrival and departure of the sections, which had to come and go in the best possible order.

Hands up anyone who’s surprised that Captain Cros-Mayrevielle would stick his nose into this. It’s hardly the sort of thing that would lead Siegfried Sassoon to write a mildly homoerotic poem about doing foot inspections. (I’m not making that up, either.)

Clifford Wells

All change for the Canadians still in England; idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells has been moved to Shorncliffe Camp, a couple of miles away.

A general rearrangement of the Canadian Training Division has taken place, the idea being to group the various battalions according to the district in Canada in which they were raised; all the troops from any given district being brigaded together. … One advantage in the transfer is that I am quite well up in the seniority list of the subalterns of the 11th, while [previously] I was junior to every other officer except those of the Fifth University Company.

He wastes a lot of words explaining exactly what the transfer means; we’ll leave him to it. Practical upshot: he’s now a lot more likely to make it to France in the near future.

Maximilian Mugge

Budding malcontent Maximilian Mugge continues complaining.

More favoured than any other argument to shake the evidence of a communist, of an admirer of the organised State with nationalized industries, will be the classical instance of Army Labour during the present War.

“Look at the awful waste of man power in the Army?” will be the clamorous objection of the individualist. He forgets, of course, conveniently, that, through no fault of their own, the vast majority of men were without any civic and cultural knowledge, and, as a result, constituted that ever-increasing dead-weight of apathetic humanity with which every Sham-democracy is burdened. These men have no interest in their work.

To make the men more efficient, to impress them with the importance of cleanliness and discipline, the officers and NCO’s have peculiar notions. Instead of talking to the men in a sensible way, they bully and punish them. I suggested to my mates that the next order would be to scrub the back of our blacking brushes. Moreover the roof of the hut might be divided into thirty sections and each man should scrub one.

Mind your words, idiot. Don’t go giving them ideas!

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun

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

Negotiating for Kut | Hulluch | 27 Apr 1916

Siege of Kut

Today General Townshend attempts to open negotiations for his surrender. I say “attempts” advisedly, since he spends a great deal of time talking about money, and the details of parole. Meanwhile, and pardon me for being crude, but Halil mostly gives his opposite number the arsehole. And well he might; his men have spent the last six months or so dispensing liberal kickings to British Empire forces. It surely shouldn’t be a surprise that Townshend is instead met with a demand for unconditional surrender. Halil does at least do them the courtesy of referring the question of money to Enver Pasha, but I’m not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, inside the garrison, Edward Mousley continues recording his thoughts.

Last night we destroyed surplus ammunition. Today General Townshend, Colonel Parr, and Captain Morland have gone upstream to interview the Turkish Commander-in-Chief. There is a hum of inquiries. One says it is parole and marching out with the honours of war. Another talks of the Turks requiring our guns as the price of the garrison.

Today it is a changed Kut. It is armistice. No sound of fire breaks the hush of expectations. The river-front, grass-grown from long disuse, and the landing-stage likewise, for it has been certain death to go on that fire-swept zone, to-day swarm with people walking and talking. The Turks on the opposite bank do the same. It is strange. I walked a little with a stick. Hope has made one almost strong.

This afternoon I went over the river to Woolpress village, where the tiny garrison has been the whole siege, and many of them have not once visited Kut. The defences are excellent. They have also had to fight floods. A little hockey ground and mess overlooking the river safe from bullets suggested Woolpress as a peaceful spot, notwithstanding its liability to instant isolation from Kut.

This is a deeply fertile ground for the growing of latrine rumours. General Townshend is about to do his own part to patronise them, incidentally. Tonight the garrison eats the last of its last-resort emergency iron rations. Tomorrow they are officially out of food.

Actions at Hulluch

It’s been a hot week or two in the Loos sector, with heavier than usual bombardments. If that were the only thing that were up, so much so normal. However, three days ago a deserter came across No Man’s Land with a warning that a gas-supported attack was imminent. This information confirmed earlier suspicions (which included a large number of rats fleeing the German trenches, which could potentially have been because of leaky gas cylinders), and General Kavanagh has put his corps on high alert for a gas attack.

This morning it comes, with a large release of a mixture of chlorine, phosgene, and tear gas. The clouds have reduced visibility to 3 yards, gas masks are being worn three and a half miles behind the front lines, and the smell is carrying a full 15 miles into the BEF’s rear. When the infantry attack comes, it’s almost entirely made up of large raiding parties, heading in with hand grenades and melee weapons to capture prisoners and papers.

It’s a pain in the arse, of course, but it’s not too much more. Indeed, while the Germans will be able to return with useful intelligence, this might actually turn out to be a useful chance for the defenders to study carefully what might happen in the aftermath of a gas attack. More to come.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson continues his efforts to drive a car across the Tanzanian backcountry in the middle of the rainy season.

Legg went back to workshop No.2 to see if he could get his spring fixed up and also to see if he could get some rations. He got stuck in the river while going across but with the aid of Sergeant Grey and his section and a motor lorry we soon got him out. After lunch I went out shooting. It rained pretty heavily during the night but I managed to keep dry as I slept in Legg’s waterproof shelter.

The spring, you may recall, was broken on a rock while trying to cross a particularly nasty bog.

The Sunny Subaltern

The Sunny Subaltern has been released from his penance at Hellfire Corner, taking rations up and down the Menin Road every night as transport officer. Now he’s going up the line with everybody else. And when they do go up the line, it’s still going to be to the very nastiest spot of all at Hooge.

I return to my company tonight. The transport job was all right but I d just as soon go back to my platoon. However, the Commanding Officer in turning over to the Transport Officer said I had done good work and he would remember it; also, he wouldn’t remove me were it not for the fact that I was a senior subaltern in the regiment. So, tomorrow night up we go into the trenches, into a real delightful spot; at least delightful in the fact that Fritz makes it very warm there. Casualties have been quite heavy there lately.

Humor out here is a saving grace, and I can assure you there are lots of chances to acquire the grace. For instance, while passing through [Ypres], a soldier on sentry duty in my hearing said “I was sent back to do base duty. This is an ‘ell of a base!” This caustic remark was made as he stopped the transport to inform me the road ahead was being shelled. And as we stopped, Fritz lobbed over a couple of shrapnel just ahead some twenty yards.

Base duty usually means a long and very boring spell guarding some bridge or headquarters out of sound of the guns, to make sure nobody steals it.

Clifford Wells

More humour from idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells, back in England.

We have a saying in the army which indicates well the optimistic spirit which prevails, showing as it does that we always look on the bright side of things. Whenever anything goes wrong, or an unexpected (or in one’s own private opinion an unnecessary) disagreeable task is thrust on one, the customary remark, uttered in a tone of patient resignation and determination not to be discouraged, is “Well, we have a good navy, anyway,” or “Thank goodness, we have a navy.”

The other day it was storming so hard that we knew it would be impossible to carry out the “battle practice” at the ranges according to schedule, but as Divisional Orders said we were to go to the Ranges, we went. On arriving at the ranges, we were officially informed that the weather conditions were unfavourable, and so we marched back again—eight miles altogether in a driving, pouring rain.

When I reached my room wet to the skin, my batman’s greeting was “Good gracious, Mr. Wells, ain’t it a good thing we have a navy?”

The Navy is, of course, the last line of defence that prevents an invasion of England. Allegedly. When its battleships aren’t crashing into each other like a pair of town drunks. I smell heavy potential for a running joke here.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge, meanwhile, has plenty to complain about.

Probably, if a trained philologist should ever take the trouble to correct my amateurish opinions, the latest hypothesis of mine as to the origin of the phrase, “We’ll gie ’em beans!” will be considered silly and absurd by those learned Mandarins whose assertions even about the most uncertain things are always vehement in their insistence. To give “beans” to somebody is an equivalent to give him “socks,” i.e., inflict pain on him, chastise, punish him.

Now should it not be possible that the phrase owes its origin to bean-fed soldiers, to men who were overfed with beans, who were ” fed-up” with beans? For a whole fortnight now the only vegetables we have had for dinner were beans. Beans yesterday, beans to-day, beans to-morrow.

Interesting that he doesn’t have any comment on the origin of “socks”. It of course is the more punchy of the two standard responses to the German cry “Gott mit uns!”, which presages some immediate and violent response. “You’ve got mittens? Well, here’s socks!” (The more long-suffering response is simply “Yeah, we got mittens too.”) It’s clearly travelled back to Blighty with the wounded.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to 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

Mother | Hanna | 20 Jan 1916

Battle of the Somme

Today General Joffre pays one of his little visits to General Haig at GHQ in St Omer. You may recall that a month ago, he wrote a long letter suggesting that an area of Picardy around the River Somme might be a good one for an offensive. The British-held part of the Western Front currently extends from the Ypres salient to a point just south of the Somme. If they were to attack there, then French and British soldiers would be able to fight side-by-side, an important propaganda concern.

Whether by accident or design, Joffre has also managed to frame his proposal for the offensive in terms that Haig will be predisposed to approve of. A letter sent a few days later talks extensively of the need wear down the enemy before seeking a decisive victory. Hello, “wearing-out battle!” They’re still working around a rough start date of July 1st for the main push, but Joffre’s also trying to sell Haig on the idea of two major pre-push battles in April and May to wear the Germans down. (A large debate follows among Haig’s staff as to the best way for politely telling Joffre to place this idea where the sun does not shine.)

Mother

Back in Blighty, it’s another important milestone for the development of tanks. In Lincoln’s Burton Park, Mother has been brought out for her first live firing test. It’s worth remembering that this first tank design doesn’t look much like what we now think of as a tank. It’s a large diamond-shaped box with tracks running right up onto the roof and no turret. Instead, the tank’s weapons will be held in two “sponsons” (it’s a silly naval word), forward-facing boxes attached to each side of the tank.

tank

One sponson will hold a machine-gun, but the other will be armed with an artillery piece. French tank development quickly went down the road of “we ‘ave zese soixante-quinze guns, ‘ow do we make one to go on ze tank?”. However, without an iconic gun to adapt, the British designers have ended up trying to shoe-horn a Hotchkiss 6-pound naval gun into the things. There are now some concerns that the gun’s recoil might be too high for the design to cope with. Indeed, original Landships Committee member Thomas Hetherington has a £50 bet with one of the chief designers, Walter Wilson, that the entire hull will collapse under the shock.

And it’s not the best of starts. The first attempt to fire a shell fails to fire. Hetherington and Wilson wander over to inspect the gun, at which point Mother lets off what’s surely one of the most spectacular Bang-Fucks in British history. (So called because when they happen, the gun says “Bang” and you say “Fuck”.) After a long pause while they go off to find the shell, they manage a few better-controlled shots and the machine proves perfectly stable. A drive across some suitable obstacles follows.

Mother is now ready to be demonstrated in official trials; preparations have been underway for some time. Time to accelerate them. More soon!

Mesopotamia

Back to the desert. The best plan that General Aylmer and friends can manage to deal with the Hanna chokepoint is to send as many guns as possible onto the far bank of the River Tigris to shell the Ottoman positions from the side. They’ve got four battalions of infantry across, but “as many guns as possible” has turned out to be one battery of field artillery and half a battery of the Royal Arse Hortillery. The remaining men, also about 4,000 strong, wait on the right bank of the river to charge.

A frontal attack is the only thing possible. On the right the Ottomans’ flank is held firm by a vast marsh. On the left; the attackers may be able to put men across the river, but there’s no way of getting them back over the river to attack the defenders’ rear or flanks. Most of the day is spent launching intermittent artillery bombardments and demonstrations. They have no way of knowing that most of the defenders are quite safe in strong, deep dugouts. They have no means of digging proper jumping-off trenches, as would be done on the Western Front, to minimise the amount of open ground that the infantry will have to cross. No Man’s Land will be some 500 yards wide, five times the width that anyone would have planned for in France.

And yet, if they sit and do nothing, Kut-al-Amara only has so much food. Incidentally, the Ottomans have just made an unsurprising change of command. Colonel Nureddin is removed in favour of Colonel Halil, who will be more willing to listen to his boss.

Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer’s mind is on other things than writing. He spends the day on the march.

Fair, sun, heavy bombardment all day. Post going.

He’s spent the previous two battles in general reserve. That makes him and his fellows of the 1/4th Hampshires the closest thing available to fresh troops. The only consolation is that they will be fighting on the extreme left of the attack, next to the river; the main thrust will be further to the right. The attack is scheduled for dawn tomorrow.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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

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