Chinese Labour Corps | 23 Aug 1916

Chinese Labour Corps

The story of hired Chinese labourers in the war is about to officially begin. The French government has spent the better part of 18 months working on a scheme to recruit men from China to do labouring work, and so free up French soldiers for duties closer to the firing line. However, in order to preserve the appearance of Chinese neutrality, they’ve used a deeply convoluted cover by which various private companies do all the official business of recruiting. Both governments can then claim that this is a strictly private arrangement and nothing to do with the war effort.

This of course is bullshit. It’s also led to some dangerous infighting; the French Foreign Ministry has organised one effort, the Ministry of War another, and the Ministry of Works a third. Inevitable disagreements will follow between the various government departments as to who will be in charge of the men and who gets to put them to work. When the French trade unions find out, they too will protest against job losses for their members. At one point there had been grand plans to bring over at least 100,000 men; the final figure will be barely a quarter of that.

Meanwhile, at the end of last month the War Office performed a remarkable about turn. Having been utterly opposed to the hiring of Chinese labourers before the Battle of the Somme, it’s now clear that the manpower situation has entirely changed. This could be a war of attrition, and minister of war David Lloyd George has just authorised the opening of negotiations, on an absolutely top secret basis. So it is that the British Empire, and not the French, will become by far the most extensive hirer of Chinese labourers in the war. More to follow.

There is an interesting footnote on this subject, by the way. A couple of days ago we caught up with Colonel Northey’s Rhodesians in German East Africa. They’re just approaching Iringa; and apparently they found in the town 100 Chinese labourers who’d been working there for the Germans. An explanation of how they got there (beyond the obvious “on a boat?”) has, unfortunately, defeated my limited research abilities.

E.S. Thompson

Walking accident E.S. Thompson continues blundering around Kondoa Irangi. They’re having a concert party tonight to keep morale up, but will he make it there?

Steak and tea for lunch. Cleared away the bush over my head, and then caught a thorn in my finger which poisoned it and made it swell up. Had a shave. My guard from 4pm to 6pm. Stew as usual for dinner. Went to the concert on the square with Wackrill. Electric lights were on poles but were too dim. A piano was on a transport wagon and there was a big log fire burning. The colonel presided.

The concert opened with a violin solo, during which the seat on which Captain Meser, Lieutenant Newton, Captain Tucker and 2 or 3 other officers were sitting collapsed, much to everybody’s amusement. The next thing was ‘Bandalero’ followed by ‘Keep the home fires burning’. Sutcliffe then sang ‘Perfect Day’. Corporal MacMaster recited about some Yiddisher gentleman, then imitated an Indian juggler, chiding the colonel about too much building, poor rations, etc.

Had to get back to do guard from 8pm to 10pm. Time did not seem so long as we listened to the music in the distance.

Amusing as it is to think of these soldiers enjoying a Lou Reed song about heroin, Sutcliffe is almost certainly singing “A Perfect Day”, a popular standard of the time.

Herbert Sulzbach

Lazy gunner Herbert Sulzbach has not only been given a little more work to do, he seems grateful for it.

Thank goodness, I was given another tour of duty with my infantry friends, occupying our observation post and sharing quarters with Sergeant [R.] of 315 Trench Mortar Section. At the same time the French began to give us another good going-over with trench mortar shells, and we had a fair numbers of casualties. We returned the fire, lobbing 250 heavy-calibre jobs. We hear in the meanwhile that the Bulgarian offensive in Macedonia is making progress, and that the [Brusilov Offensive] has come to a halt.

Two firm “eh, sort of” pieces of news from our German correspondent here. Jean Bonhomme across the way is probably being told that the Bulgarian offensive has been arrested and the Russian offensive continues marching on. Both are reasonable descriptions of parts of the offensive.

Henri Desagneaux

Another intermittent missive from Captain Henri Desagneaux.

In the evening, a huge din. Flares sent up all along the line. A barrage starts up and lasts until 2am. The cause of it all, a German [raid] and the panic of the 23rd Company on my right, which lost a man taken prisoner.

The word used by the translator is “patrol”. The BEF at the time differentiated between a “patrol”, which only involved going out into No Man’s Land, and a “raid”, which involved entering enemy trenches. If the Germans took a prisoner, this was almost certainly a raid.

Ruth Farnam

Ruth Farnam, American agent of the Serbian Relief Fund, crosses the Channel and heads for Paris.

Every one of the several hundred passengers kept as sharp a lookout as if he were personally responsible for the safety of the ship. However, we landed at Le Havre unharmed, and after endless formalities were allowed to proceed to Paris. Such a long journey! We seemed to stop at every barn and cottage on the route and arrived at dead of night, hungry and cross, as if our troubles and discomforts were all-important. But just as we finished the short examination at the station gates, a train-load of wounded French soldiers came in and the first men were carried past us on their stretchers to the waiting ambulances.

We stood ashamed of our peevishness when we saw the glowing eyes shining in the dim light and heard the feeble voices shout “Vive la France.” The men about me took off their hats and the grossest, most cantankerous woman of us all, who had made the journey even more uncomfortable than need be by her constant grumbling, ran forward weeping and tried to kiss one pathetic lad whose blanket lay hideously flat where his legs should have been.

She’s a practical woman, mind you. She’s seen this sort of thing before. Anyway, she’s succeeded in getting into France; now she must get back out again.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Mouquet Farm | 14 Aug 1916

Mouquet Farm

The march towards Mouquet Farm continues for the 4th Australian Division at the Battle of the Somme. They’ve almost done their job too well at this point. They’re butting into the trenches that directly defend the farm. Over the last four days they’ve worked their way a mile down from the Windmill Hill at Pozieres, and irritated General von Gallwitz so much that he’s going to go into the trenches at Warlencourt and have a look for himself at the ground. As befits an Army Commander, he’ll be a respectable distance behind the front at Warlencourt, but more-than-theoretically within the range of the BEF’s heaviest guns.

Rather more depressing for the Germans is the intelligence they’re gathering from prisoners taken around Pozieres about now. They’ve discovered that the 4th Division is far from a load of hardened Gallipoli veterans; there’s a few in there as a stiffener, but it’s mostly “inexperienced replacements”. A British skeptic might look at the last few days and see a lot of mud and guts and six inches towards Berlin. The Germans at the time are looking at this, and seeing they’re being pushed off ground by raw recruits, and they can’t take it back.

That’s not good for morale, or their intelligence’s assessment of their own fighting quality. As ever, the picture of the Battle of the Somme is far more complex than just blokes walking at machine guns and getting mowed down.

Communication

General Haig’s “Ineffectual Burblings 1916” tour continues with a visit to II Corps’s HQ.

I impressed two points on General Jacob. … 2. Information from divisions frequently reaches HQs of Corps, Armies, and GHQ very slowly. Too slowly! So I desired Jacob to see that intercommunication between [brigades and lower] in a division, and Divisional HQ, was efficiently kept up. I further pointed out that Staff officers must be able to explain the plans of their General, as well as to see that the actual orders are carried out.

Well, yes, it’s a point in his favour that he is trying to solve the problem. However, it’s not unlike trying to solve the problem “the river keeps flooding” by going out in a boat and and shouting at it in the middle of a flood.

Neil Tennant

Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Tennant has decided that the best way to ginger things up after taking command of 30 Squadron RFC in Mesopotamia is to lead a raid, immediately.

Time was allowed for the Turk to have his supper and get to sleep; he had never been bombed by night before, and we hoped that the surprise of
this little jaunt might further its effect. Just after eleven Captain de Havilland left the ground with a cheery wave and was gone in the darkness; a
few minutes later came “Contact, sir!” from my mechanic, and I was away. Our course took us over the desert west of the river, which shone like quicksilver in the moonlight far to starboard.

A strong head-wind made progress slow, but it was pleasant to be up in the cool vastness of the night above that strange country. It seemed ever so long ago that I had left England. A series of flashes in the distance ahead dispelled reverie; D.H. was attacking. Gliding slowly with engine off, I arrived short of the aerodrome at a height of 400 feet, when suddenly there burst a storm of heavy and concentrated rifle fire from what must have been at least a thousand rifles under well-directed control.

It had been my lot during the war to come under fusillades of varying intensity, but this reception was perhaps the warmest up to date: the sound was like the tearing of a piece of calico. After dropping the bombs on the hangars,my speed downwind gave the Turks small chance. The results were unknown in the uncertain light and dust of the explosions; time would tell.

The evening finished with a cheery supper by the Tigris at 2 a.m. off sardines and coffee with the lads who could not sleep for sand flies. The sand flies at Sheikh Sa’ad defied description, and mosquito nets were of no avail, the net specially designed against these pests entailing a mesh so small as ‘to make ventilation impossible ; the expedient of emptying ‘the kerosene from one’s “butti” (lamp) over bed and body gave relief for perhaps an hour till it had dried off, and the torture started again. In those days men sold their souls for kerosene.

In the Army, the officers send the men off to die in the mud. Navy officers and men all go off to die together on a giant torpedo magnet. In the Royal Flying Corps, the men cheerily wave their officers off to go and die, and then they go back inside and drink tea or have a wank, according to preference. Nice to see at least one branch of service getting things the correct way round.

Once again, I remind the reader that these people are flying aeroplanes made out of plywood and fabric. Mad as March hares, the lot of them.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman has now seen the Leaning Virgin of Albert. He’s also come under fire for the first time, sort of.

We have moved another step forward. This field by the cross-roads, where we sleep in the open, is called Belle Vue Farm, though I see no farm. As to the belle vue, that has been spoilt. The town of Albert, which lies below us to the north, has been raked with shell-fire and looks half ruins. Some chimney-stacks still stand. They sway beneath the gilded figure of the Mother and Child. That figure once stood triumphant on the cathedral tower; now it is bowed as by the last extremity of grief. Troops still occupy the cellars of the town, but shells drop into the place every day.

I woke just now to an eerie watery sound, followed by a long whizzing rush, and then a thud: shells falling behind us. I did not recognise them at once, their watery gurgle through the air as they passed overhead seemed so slow and tame.

Time for the big boy breeches, sunbeam.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach is still the laziest arse in the German army.

We hear from the Italian front that the town of [Gorizia] has been occupied by the Italians. I still have duties in Noyon now and then, and these outings make a nice change. You can actually go to a military club, what they call a “Kasino”, and have a meal at a table with a cloth on it, as though it were peacetime.

I’m sure there are plenty of lazier slackers in the army than him, but I guess they were too lazy to write a memoir.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still reviewing the situation in which he finds himself. Don’t worry, his outrage is going to come out of neutral and into first gear soon enough.

At present the “Bing-boys” are either drilling and learning the elements of military routine or they are engaged on camp fatigues. We, the former expeditionary force men, are shedding our formidably dirty and picturesque rags and are putting on new uniforms, whilst we tease the young NCOs, and wait for our service leave. The new “Bing-boys” here as far as the “Hun Section” goes may be divided into three classes:

(a) British born. Parents either naturalized British subjects of German descent or actually Germans resident in Great Britain. Usually only father “tainted.” These boys, almost without exception, pure English type ; in speech, character and appearance. Facial contours interesting proof of maternal preponderance. (Vast majority of English mothers.) [WANKY GREEK WORD]

(b) Naturalized British subjects:
1. Perfectly acclimatised specimens ; appearance often, language almost always pure English. Absolutely loyal.
2. Imperfectly acclimatised specimens. Speech usually more or less “tainted” or even broken. Sympathies now often wavering; result of persecution.

I presume the action of the Government in forming this “regiment” was partly due to the existence of a few doubtful individuals in Class B2, but I am convinced that the number of such doubtful individuals has been at least quadrupled by the stupid policy of “Isolation.” Many a good man from B1, must have become in respect to his feelings, a B2 man. We, the former “Expeditionary Force Men,” however, have nothing to do with all that. We volunteered to fight for England and we all object to being “concentrated” with conscripts.

The younger men are very bitter that they were recalled from France, and will never forgive the Government.

I do wish I knew what that Greek word was.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Sixth Isonzo | Gorizia | 8 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

Hopefully you’re not still chewing on your knuckles from yesterday. The irony here really is painful. The Italian Army has spent a long, painful year learning to be careful and cautious, to limit its objectives, to discourage junior officers from using their initiative. Now that’s exactly what they need to do. Junior officers feeling able to use their initiative today might just have dislodged the entire front. The message coming from high command early in the morning, is to do the exact opposite. Hard-learned caution reigns among the Brains Trust.

Meanwhile, at the sharp end, half a company of the Italian 28th Infantry has discovered a supply tunnel leading under Podgora towards the one intact bridge leading back to Gorizia. Here there is a rear-guard with the remaining machine-guns and ammunition; a particularly fearless lieutenant seizes a flag and uses its pole to steady himself as he fords the river, showing the men the safe way across. Some are washed away by the tide, but more follow him. The artillery’s observation posts watch the flag crossing the river and calls in fresh shelling to support it

By afternoon, the Austro-Hungarian rearguard is fleeing for the mountains, having done its job and bought the army time to fall back. To the south, on the Carso, opportunity is still knocking. General Cadorna has been told of the capture of Podgora, and quite reasonably he begins now to commit his reserves, pouring them in to follow up the success. In theory, they might just be able to turn south from Gorizia and get into that Austro-Hungarian second position before the defenders can get there.

They’ll be ready to attack in force tomorrow…but it’s going to be a day too late. On the other side of the hill, General Boroevic has already ordered the retreat to take place tonight, under cover of darkness. The western edge of the Carso is cut off from the main plateau by a deep, wide, dry valley, the Vallone Doberdo, often in this context simply called “Vallone”. Since time immemorial it’s been a natural boundary between Italians and Slovenes, and today it forms the border between modern Italy and modern Slovenia. (At one time there was a river there.)

By lucky hap, it’s also a first-class place to put some defensive works in a trench war. The positions are ready, and the artillery packs up and leaves by day. During the night, the infantry almost evaporates into thin air. It’s far from an easy march in pitch darkness over rough ground, but there’s nobody to interfere with them…

Battle of the Somme

Guillemont. Loud explosions. Men over the top, advancing nearly a mile just to reach the German trenches. Intact barbed wire. German advance posts out in shell-holes, lying concealed, waiting for men to advance past them before shooting them in the back with machine-guns. Strong German artillery fire, not enough BEF counter-battery fire. Horror, blood and death, and all of it of a kind we’ve seen before.

Still. Maybe something can be achieved somewhere else? With Pozieres in hand, some brave people have been right up to the top of the ridge, looking down towards Thiepval. Various HQs have been guilty over the last month or so of assuming rather blithely that to capture Pozieres is automatically to make Thiepval untenable. Let’s have the map again.

This map is for educational purposes, not navigational purposes.

This map is for educational purposes, not navigational purposes.

The problem here…the main problem here…one of many problems here, is that the Germans have put two large redoubts into the Second Line behind Thiepval. They’re linked into a large agricultural holding, Mouquet Farm, which has now been thoroughly fortified. It’s also sprouting a series of newly-dug trenches at right angles to the First and Second Lines. These now defend Thiepval against an attack from the direction of Pozieres. Hmm. This needs some serious thinking.

Meanwhile, General Haig is entertaining his King.

The King came into my writing room, and I explained the situation, etc, to him. He then spoke a great deal about a paper which Winston Churchill had written, criticising the operations in France, and arriving at the conclusion that nothing had been achieved! … [George V] also said that Sir John French had been very nasty and that he was “the most jealous man he had ever come across”. I said that these were trifles and we must not allow them to divert our thoughts from our main objective, beating the Germans. I also expect that Winston’s head is gone from taking drugs.

Miaow! Saucer of milk for the Commander-in-Chief! It’s also not entirely clear whether that was a private thought, or whether he actually said it to the King. Nobody should be surprised that in the typed version of his diary he altered this to the rather less bitchy phrasing “I expect that Winston’s judgement is impaired…”.

He’s also just sacked one General Keir, a corps commander at Arras, whose general lack of offensiveness has thoroughly offended his army commander General Allenby. Not moved to a quiet sector, mind you, sacked outright. And he didn’t even get a chance to preside over any horrendously bloody slaughters like Hunter-Weston, who still has his job, chateau, gluttonous meals, etc. Interesting, that. No wonder Keir is making a massive row, and openly threatening to go home and join Sir John French’s bitching society.

Eastern Front

A quick note now from the still-neglected Eastern Front. The German-led counter-attack at the Battle of Kowel is now ending; it’s put a massive dent in the Russians’ manpower. Absent any other considerations, the Brusilov Offensive could easily have ended here. But of course, they’re about to bring Romania into the war. The Russian staff has just about given up on taking Lvov back, but a drive to the Carpathians still appeals. If they can get into position to push through into Hungary from the north, as the Romanians advance from the east, it’s not impossible that the Austro-Hungarian army could collapse entirely.

So the offensive continues, slowly and painfully, the combined casualty figures ratcheting relentlessly up past a million dead, wounded and captured. More than the Somme and Verdun put together, you know.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has been on the march for a good few days now, doing more than ten miles per day. Nevertheless, you’ll be pleased to know that he’s still just as much a plonker as he was back in camp.

Road awfully dusty and the country very hot and dry. Camped at 10.45am. Made some tea out of dirty yellow water which made nearly every one in the section feel queer for a while. The boys drew no water and were very dry. Had a rest and aired our feet. Saddled up and moved off at 1pm. A snake was found in one of our ammunition pack saddles and promptly despatched. Camped in an open plain, very dry and tired. Some of the men made a rush for the waterholes, but the colonel stopped them. Smikky, Dick, Bibby and I went for wood and a big branch of a thorn tree fell on me, tearing my shirt a bit.

Total for the day 12 miles. Colonel sick in the motor car as a result of the water, I suppose.

Chortle chortle, tea that makes you feel queer. On a more serious note, there’s enough disease going round at the moment (most units have now lost 60% or more of their men to disease) without this cretin trying to poison everyone.

Herbert Sulzbach

Germany’s laziest gunner-sergeant Herbert Sulzbach is being shuffled about. I wonder if this will mean him having to do any more work?

I move house to the Loermont site, a hillside position which is, if anything, even more idyllic than Evricourt. It is in a meadow at the edge of a wood; there is still a huge amount to be done, reinforcing dugouts and completing the concrete gun-pits. It’s beautiful up here as the late summer days pass. In the evenings we sit at the guns and entertain each other, and in addition we get entertained by our Very light lookout, who sits up a tree on and sings songs. This sentry is up there to keep track of the coloured lights the infantry fire off. The colour codes are often changed, of course, so the French don’t find out what each colour means.

Of course not. The trench mortars on each side get into semi-frequent scraps, but the field artillery remains mostly quiet, conserving ammunition. It’s a lovely war.

Louis Barthas

Let’s keep the mood up, shall we? Louis Barthas spends rather a lot of time describing a particular position where the French hold one part of an old communication trench, and the Germans another, with a small and rather weedy barricade in the middle. Then he wonders how scared some rear-echelon slacker might be if he were forced to garrison this most dangerous of outposts.

Calm and tranquility reigned in this area. Some smoked, others read, some wrote, a few squabbled, without lowering their voices one note. And if these patriots, these slackers, had lent an ear, they would have heard the Germans coughing, spitting, talking, singing, etc., with the same lack of ceremony. Their stupefaction would have changed to bewilderment if they had seen the French and German sentries seated tranquilly on their parapets, smoking pipes and exchanging bits of conversation from time to time, like good neighbors taking some fresh air at their doorsteps.

From relief to relief, we passed along the habits and customs of these outposts. The Germans did the same. Even if the whole Champagne burst into flames, not a single grenade would fall in this privileged corner. It’s certain that a clever command could have profited from this opportunity to gain specific intelligence about the sector: the likelihood of poison-gas attacks, the plans for blowing up mines, or attacks, or various positions. All that would be needed would be a few litres of pinard or a few quarts of eau-de-vie, which the Germans lacked, to loosen their tongues.

But no one would have dared suggest this to our bosses. This would have been admitting the start of fraternisation with the enemy. A firing squad could well have been the response to such a suggestion. It’s as if, in the time of the Inquisition, a poor fellow had confessed that he had just had a conversation with Satan.

Barthas, unsurprisingly, likes this sort of thing, and continues his loving exposition for several pages. I do like to hear about sensible chaps getting along with each other, but I can only do so much writing per day…

Clifford Wells

Lieutenant Clifford Wells is still training at Le Havre, with enough time to make friends with attractive chaps, cough cough, and still write home to his dear mother.

It has been, and is, extremely warm and dusty, and the swim in the sea, which I manage to get in nearly every day, is very refreshing. I can really float in the salt water, so you no longer have the family monopoly of that accomplishment. I am beginning to like salt water for swimming, although I always used to prefer the fresh. What kind of a time did you have in Knowlton this year? I was glad to receive the picture post card of the place.

It seems more than a year since I was there. I am enjoying life here. I have many nice friends among the officers, and am continually running across men whom I have met in one capacity or another since I enlisted. When I first joined up, I knew scarcely anyone in the whole Expeditionary Force. Now I have many acquaintances and friends from all parts of Canada. One of my best friends is a boy named Ford, who recently received his commission. He was at McGill University when war broke out, and is an exceptionally attractive chap.

He is commonly called “Henry” after his famous peace-making namesake, who, as he is very careful to state on every possible occasion, is no relative of his.

Knowlton is a small village on the banks of Brome Lake in Quebec, which has long been a favourite haunt of the wealthiest Montreal millionaires (and their idiot sons). When Princess Anne competed in the Olympics in 1976 and her family all came to Canada to support her, including the Queen, they stayed in a large country house on Brome Lake.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Pozieres Windmill | Battle of Romani | 4 Aug 1916

Pozieres

The objectives on the Somme just keep getting closer and closer. First they shot for Bapaume. Then they shot for the Second Line so they could attack Bapaume. Then they shot for Longueval and Pozieres so they could hold the Second Line. Now they’re reduced to shooting for a little windmill (still at least 40% intact, somehow) just outside Pozieres. The defenders are much less strong than they had been when the ANZACs first arrived at Pozieres; again there’s no wire left in front of their trenches. The OG Lines fall to Australian bayonets, and by nightfall they’re clinging to a series of shell-holes all round the windmill.

And then comes the receipt, which doesn’t just come in artillery. The men who attacked yesterday into Fourth Avenue are trying to hold it and to then move into Ration Trench today. On the German side of the hill, the order is “At any price, Pozieres ridge must be recovered”. Sergeant Charles Quinnell of the 8th Royal Fusiliers is well placed to appreciate exactly what this means.

Over this barricade on our right flank came a German with a canister of liquid fire on his back. Squirting liquid fire out of a hose, he burnt twenty-three of our chaps to death. I plonked one into his chest, but he must have had an armoured plated waistcoat on, it didn’t stop him. Someone threw a Mills bomb at him and it burst behind—he wasn’t armoured plated behind, he went down. But at any rate he’d done a lot of damage.

The bombers bombed the Germans back from the barricade. Plenty of chaps were wounded with this liquid fire as well as those that were killed; it practically wiped out Tubby Turnbull’s platoon. Then we got an order from the Captain. I hope I never hear it repeated again. We must shorten our front—so he gave us an order to make a barricade of the dead, the German dead and our dead. We made a barricade of them and retreated about 40 yards back towards my platoon.

Quinnell holds the barricade all day and all night as well, with the aid of a Stokes mortar and rifle grenades firing little chip shots over the barricade and back to where the Germans are being forced to assemble for their counter-attacks. And as all this is going on, General Gough is complaining that it should have been done days ago. (General Haig, meanwhile, is slightly preoccupied with an imminent visit from the King, who is of course trying to get as far forward as possible, in the manner of idiotic leaders everywhere.)

Battle of Romani

The long-awaited Ottoman attack on the Suez Canal is now underway. Our correspondent Oskar Teichman has been expecting action for quite some time, and he’s not the only one. So too has General Murray, in command of the defences, and he’s had more than enough time to develop a strategy. It’s simple enough. The enemy could attack in a number of different directions, but the defenders have plenty of mounted troops available. Murray is betting that he can hold his horsemen in reserve long enough for the Ottomans to commit themselves, at which point he can redeploy and meet them in strength.

It’s a good guess. Here’s what it means for Teichman and his pals.

Casualties now began to occur, and it was necessary to make excursions into various parts of the valley. It was sad work bringing the serious cases up the steep declivity, tied on to their horses; but this had to be done at once, as they could not be left at the bottom. I was forced to abandon my dressing station in the Hod, as in the event of retirement we should never have been able to get the wounded up the hill quick enough.

At the dressing station cases were dressed and placed under shelters formed out of horse-blankets and swords. It was now getting very hot, and the wounded suffered greatly from thirst. Meanwhile the sand-cart problem was getting acute, as none had turned up and many wounded were waiting to be evacuated. However, our Signalling Officer managed to get heliograph connection with Canterbury Post, which communicated with the New Zealand Field Ambulance, and an hour later, much to our relief, the first sand-cart arrived.

During this time we had been heavily engaged, and it was a great relief to everyone to hear that the New Zealand Mounted Brigade, which had left Hill 70 after we had started, was just coming into action on our extreme left. The Somersetshire [Royal Arse Hortillery], attached to the New Zealanders, had already been in action for some hours, and had been putting in some good shooting; this battery, the Leicester RHA and the Ayrshire RHA were wonderfully mobile over the heavy sand with their enormous sand-tyres. As soon as the New Zealanders joined in, the pressure on our left flank was considerably relieved.

“Declivity” is a wanky word, and it’s not even been used properly; it’s a downward slope. By definition you can’t go up a declivity, you have to go up an “acclivity”. (Or, you know, an “upward slope”.) Here also we see the value of arse hortillery when you’re not stuck in horrible trench warfare and having to lay down indirect fire from miles away. “Cavalry was obsolete in the First World War” is such a gross over-simplification that it’s really hard to know where to start.

Teichman has a lot more to say, giving a blow-by-blow account of the day’s fighting. For us, suffice to say that it’s gone extremely well and entirely according to plan. We’ll rejoin him as night begins to fall.

It was a picturesque sight when the fires litup the camp and the motley collection of Turkish prisoners, many of whom were supplied with tea from our dixies. Infantry wearing the enverene hats, brown fezzes or skullcaps, dressed in dark-brown khaki and corduroy breeches (most unsuitable for this climate), gunners in astrakhan caps and blue uniforms, Arab irregulars in flowing garments, transport drivers with red facings to their uniforms and yellow sashes, and German machine gunners in khaki drill and wearing yachting caps.

I had charge of a Turkish medical officer. After he had had some food and tea I told him (in French) that he would be taken over to one of the Field Ambulances, where he would spend the night.He told me that his name was Jahat. On arrival at the Field Ambulance we found a very large number of Turkish wounded, some waiting and others being dressed in a large tent. Three [army doctors]were hard at work, assisted by Red Crescent orderlies. I brought Jahat in and announced that he was going to help them.

After explaining this to him he was very disgusted, but we compelled him to take off his coat and get to work amongst his own wounded. It was evident that he had previously concluded that his work was over after surrendering. Another Turkish medical officer told us that he had been in charge of the Field Hospital in Anafarta Village, which reminded us of our days at Suvla Bay.

Eleven months earlier, this doctor would have been treating the wounds that the Worcester Yeomanry were inflicting. It’s a small war after all. I wonder what other cheery thoughts today has in store for us?

Sixth Isonzo

Really? Really? Is it time again already? Why yes, it surely is. And, through no effort of their own, it turns out that this is in fact the best time since the start of the war to launch a major offensive. Between the ill-advised Battle of Asiago, the Brusilov Offensive, and the occupation of Serbia, the Austro-Hungarian army is having severe manpower difficulties. The defences on the Carso are weaker than they’ve ever been. The garrisons on the Isonzo have spent months preparing to attack again. The gunners have been stockpiling ammunition. And General Cadorna has finally, it seems, learned a thing or two about reasonable expectations.

He no longer dreams of vast leaps that can easily take Trieste. He’s no longer even hoping to capture Gorizia. All he wants to do is cross the Isonzo and improve their positions on the Podgora hill and Mount Sabotino. Gorizia itself won’t be assaulted until September. On the other hand, the Duke of Aosta, commanding the Italian 3rd Army, has with difficulty convinced his boss to allow yet another slaughter on Mount San Michele. It’s going off on the 6th, in two days time. Blood for the blood god!

Clifford Wells

Last we heard, idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells was still in England, waiting for orders. A couple of days ago, they finally arrived, and he’s now resting quietly at the Canadian base camp in Le Havre, from where he writes to his family.

I did not cable to you when I left England, because I was so busy at the last that I really could not find time to go to a telegraph office, and also because a cable would have given the impression that I was going straight to the trenches, whereas I knew I should be detained here for some time. Beyond the fact that I have left England, there is very little that I can report. I am pleased to be “on my way” at last.

I am having plenty of practice in speaking French, and find it much easier to understand the people here than the Canadian French in Montreal.

Cue outraged spluttering and alleged swearing from any Quebecois readers.

Herbert Sulzbach

Life is still relatively quiet for German gunner Herbert Sulzbach, and he has plenty of time to think and observe.

The second anniversary of the outbreak of war has passed, but you don’t really think any more about our entering the third year of war, and still less about whether and when there is going to be peace again. It would seem that the fighting on the Somme is attempting to decide the outcome of the war. Gallwitz has given his Army Group an order that not a single metre of ground may be lost. I assume that we too will soon be involved in the greatest battle in the history of the world, and that it will be worse than the Champagne fighting eighteen months ago. [Sulzbach talks at length about how outnumbered they appear to be.]

We hear that Hindenburg has taken over the Supreme Command of the entire Eastern Front, including Austrian troops.

There will be quite a bit more to come on the subject German command arrangements this month. What Sulzbach hears is not entirely accurate, mind. In response to the Brusilov Offensive, first General von Linsingen was given command of a number of Austro-Hungarian troops. Now the sector of German control has been greatly increased, from Riga to Lvov, and put under von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Conrad von Hotzendorf has also agreed not to attack anything without German approval first. However, it’s not quite the supreme command that Sulzbach suggests.

However, that might soon be a distinction without a difference. Just as General Joffre has been struggling to maintain political support in Paris, so too is General von Falkenhayn struggling in Berlin. He assured the government that the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive had neutered the Russians; it didn’t. He was full of beans about the prospects for the Battle of Verdun, which has now gone extremely pear-shaped. Now they’re being pushed slowly and surely back at the Battle of the Somme by the damned English. More soon.

Neil Tennant

Having given us a very gloomy view of Basra, Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the Royal Flying Corps is now heading up the Shatt-al-Arab toward the sharp end in Mesopotamia, such as it is.

In the evening we passed Ezra’s tomb: a blue-domed building and haunt of pilgrims in time of peace. Records as far back as the tenth century AD speak of this place as renowned through the country as a spot where prayers were answered. We anchored for the night in mid-stream, for in those days it was unsafe to tie up to ‘the bank. Jackals howled one to sleep.

The following afternoon we crawled into Amarah against a Shamal gale that burnt the eyes in their sockets. Lieut. Kelly, in charge of the RFC advanced store depot, met us here, and we groped ashore to have a look at the place and inspect the mule transport fitting out for the front. The wheels of the carts had all shrunk away from their tyres.

Ezra is a Biblical figure who has at least three separate claimed burial places, although the one near Basra is the best known. A “shamal” is a particularly evil north-westerly wind found around the Persian Gulf. It’s quite capable of making transit over the Shatt-al-Arab and the River Tigris all but impossible for weedy launches like the one Tennant finds himself in.

E.S. Thompson

There is an important little detail in today’s diary entry from E.S. Thompson, easily missed.

Parade as usual, after which made a wrist strap for my watch. Steak for lunch, after which our transport arrived so I suppose we will start tomorrow. Received letters from Doris and Mother mentioning Papa’s accident. Wrote to Mother and Doris in the afternoon and took the letters up to be censored. Stew very nice as it was flavoured with leeks and meat very tender, also pumpkin fritters. Made a raid on Pintlebury’s tent during which we got orders that we are moving tomorrow at 8am. Rations and a full tot of rum issued.

Pintlebury, of course, was the man who raided Thompson’s tent last night. The important point is the excellent stew. This means that the supply lines back to the rear are improving, which in turn means that the railway battalions are making good time as they build that railhead forward from Moshi towards Kondoa Irangi. Without them, General van Deventer at Dodoma would certainly be starving to death. As it is, he and his horsemen are surviving, just about, on half rations.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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Bazentin Ridge | Mwanza | 14 Jul 1916

Mwanza

Back to Africa today, where the Force Publique gets well and truly stuck into Major Wintgens’s defensive positions outside Mwanza, on Lake Victoria. The battle goes all day and through the night; they’re trying to buy time for a promised British Empire force to do an end run around Wintgens and cut off his southern escape route down the Tabora road. On the plus side, they’re nearby with 2,000 men; on the other hand, most of the force is irregulars around a core of King’s African Rifles. Tomorrow, the result.

Battle of the Somme

So, here we go, then. Time for the attack usually known as the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. But, before we can delve into that, we’ve got to quickly duck out to Trones Wood, which at midnight is far from in BEF hands. General Rawlinson has sold this mildly crackpot scheme to his boss at least partly on the premise that Trones Wood will be in BEF hands by zero hour. And, by zero hour, due to sheer dumb luck, it indeed is. Chance placed one Lt-Col Frank Maxwell (VC) of the 12th Middlesex in Trones Wood at this time.

To talk of a ‘wood’ is to talk rot. It was the most dreadful tangle of dense trees and undergrowth imaginable, with deep yawning broken trenches criss-crossing about it. Every tree broken off at top or bottom and branches cut away, so that the floor of the wood was almost an impenetrable tangle of timber, branches, undergrowth etc. blown to pieces by British and German heavy guns for a week. Never was anything so perfectly dreadful to look at—at least I couldn’t dream of anything worse…

A naturally charismatic commander, through sheer force of personality, Maxwell gathers all the men he can find together and has them advance in line abreast, almost holding hands. German tactics for defending the wood have been entirely based on picking on small, isolated, scared, lost British platoons and squads. For nearly a week fresh men have trickled inside to be broken up and picked off one by one. Today is when Maxwell earns his brigade command by taking Trones Wood and then holding it all day.

Let’s go to the map now to remind ourselves of the plan.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

As befits a critical day, there are all kinds of clever shenanigans going on here in support of the attack. To begin with, there will be no preliminary barrage at all, as we’ve come to understand the term. There has been some wire-cutting artillery fire over the past couple of days, but no concentrated firing for more than an hour or so at a time, what the Germans call drum-fire. Just brief blasts, then lifts, then more blasts, then a longer break, and so on. This is Behaviour Modification, as trialled over the last few months at Ypres, finally pressed into service for a major offensive. There’s another push in the wreckage of Ovillers, and a successful demonstration (without anyone leaving their trenches) at Beaumont Hamel.

The final ruse is one that relies on information gained a few days ago, that the Germans are tapping the BEF’s field-telephone system. Having already given careful verbal orders to the relevant units, shortly before zero hour 4th Army HQ telephones everyone it can think of to inform them that the attack has been postponed. (The order is of course meant for the enemy to overhear.) It’s difficult to say exactly how effective all the individual deception efforts were. All we can say is that the men sneaked out into No Man’s Land almost entirely unmolested, and when they attacked after a final bombardment of only five minutes, they achieved almost total surprise.

The whole world broke into gunfire. It was a stupendous spectacle—the darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes—the flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, followed a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps.

There’s our correspondent Fraser-Tytler; after five minutes, his guns switch to an effective and generously-timetabled creeping barrage. From Bazentin to Delville Wood the defending Germans have almost no answer. Resistance is sporadic, quickly snuffed out with bombs. At 10:30am, Fraser-Tytler is watching cavalry and arse hortillery moving past Montauban and forward towards the battle. There is, for the moment, utter confusion among German high command, caught with their trousers down, right in the middle of General von Falkenhayn’s command reorganisation, literally as the generals are formally handing things over to each other.

There is a gap in the German line, maybe a mile wide, although narrower than had been hoped for. It’s right in front of High Wood, capstone of an important intermediate trench line between the Second and Third Lines (usually referred to as a “switch line”). At 500 feet above sea level, along with Pozieres, it’s the highest point for miles around, critical for observation purposes. The defenders are mostly falling back in disarray. The BEF’s 7th Division waits for orders. Is it safe for them to push on?

On either side of the gap, the Germans are still holding on by their fingernails to the Second Line’s reserve trenches, local commanders feeding in troops via Pozieres and Combles. However, there aren’t, as yet, any orders to garrison the Third Line in strength or to attempt to occupy the switch lines between them. Opportunity is knocking. And then there was a Decision, and lo! it later became a Matter of Some Debate.

High Wood

Here is what happened. In the morning and the early afternoon, several patrols go out from the Second Line to High Wood, reporting it variously as completely empty or else garrisoned only by light enemy patrols. These reports all make it back to higher command. 4th Army then emits a number of extremely unhealthy grinding and crunching noises from under the bonnet, as several people all grab at the gear lever at once, and succeed only in ramming it firmly into neutral several times. The infantry gets orders to wait for the cavalry; advance; wait for the cavalry; do a little turn; and then sing “Knees Up Mother Brown”.

There is no advance towards High Wood until the evening, when the cavalry shows up, at which point machine-guns have appeared in the wood and the German artillery is beginning to recover after rapidly fleeing its positions behind Bazentin. Heavy fighting follows, and the attackers end the day with a solid foothold in High Wood, but when surely there had been a chance for far more. For once we cannot blame imperfect information. By First World War standards, communications with the rear were good enough. Division and corps commanders had about as good an idea of the situation as ever they could hope to have.

Several things got in the way. The first problem is the breakthrough itself. It’s relatively narrow, and the Germans are now hammering the left in particular with stiff counter-attacks from Pozieres. If their position at Bazentin gives way, anyone trying to exploit the breakthrough is in extreme danger of being cut off. So the 7th Division is kept waiting in front of High Wood, watching, cooling their heels until nightfall.

Here’s where we see through the apparent similarities between British “the man on the spot is king” principles and, say, the true freedoms given to subordinate commanders by General von Mackensen in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive. If one of Mackensen’s men had been in charge, he would surely have said “stuff the orders, I’m going to get that wood” and gone after it. A British man on the spot may be king, but he is a constitutional monarch and must first and foremost work within his orders.

This all might have been okay if three cavalry divisions had swept through the gap at, say, 2pm. But at that time, two of them are still knocking around the wrong side of Albert, by now far too far from the battle to play any part today. One division, the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, was sent forward early in the morning, but of course it’s had trouble getting forward. Not all of this is caused by trouble traversing ground broken up by artillery fire, mind you. When General Rawlinson sent it forward he attached it to XIII Corps, expecting the breakthrough to come in their portion of front. But 7th Division belongs to XV Corps, and hours are lost finding the cavalry, re-attaching them to XV Corps, and sending them forward to their new starting points.

I wish now to pause for a moment and reflect on the deep, deep irony of most of the cavalry being held too far to the rear, on Haig’s explicit orders. Commanders-in-chief have, earlier in the war, been overthrown by their senior army commanders for similar mistakes. I do wonder what Sir John French, sitting in his gossip factory on Horse Guards Parade, made of it all when someone told him what had happened.

The Charge of the Deccan Horse

So, in the early evening, we find cavalry coming into action on the Western Front for the first time in rather a while. More errors in getting orders forward sees only one cavalry brigade actually attack. But when they do, it’s a real sight to behold: they’re riding into action, ready for a charge. I’ve got two views of the attack, both from artillery spotters. The first is from Signaller Leonard Ounsworth, spotting for a heavy howitzer battery.

A Morane-Saulnier, a French aeroplane that we had at the time, kept diving down on to the corner of the field on our left front. I saw this Indian cavalry, the Deccan Horse they called them, and this plane was diving down and up again. Suddenly the officer in charge of the cavalry cottoned on. He stood up in his stirrups, waved his sword above his head and just charged across that field—like a shot out of a gun, like bats out of hell. The two outer lots split, so they made a pincer and encircled them—it was all over in a matter of seconds.

The next thing we saw was thirty-four Jerry prisoners, some with heavy machine guns. They were waiting while the Cavalry got a bit nearer—my God, they’d have slaughtered them. The plane was trying to draw their attention, just diving down on top, I suppose distracting these machine-gunners, because a plane coming down close above your head is enough to draw your attention.

And the second is from Lieutenant Beadle, spotting for the field guns. Sixteen Germans have been killed by the lance in addition to the 30 prisoners.

It was an incredible sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying. I’ve never seen anything like it! They simply galloped on through all that, and horses and men dropping on the ground. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight.

Brigadiers and division commanders are all sucked into a vortex of “wait, what do we do now?”, caught between common sense and orders. The cavalry dismounts with a foothold in High Wood and digs in. After a certain amount of shocked staring, a few individuals damn their orders and strike off in support. The approximate position at nightfall:

The switch line at High Wood is now being garrisoned, so it now appears on the map.

The switch line at High Wood is now being garrisoned, so it now appears on the map.

It’s a missed opportunity. How big, we really can’t say for sure. We can only speculate what might have happened if those three cavalry divisions had all got stuck in at once. They might have got lost, got over-enthusiastic, got massacred, got the VC, got to Bapaume, or all of the above.

Reactions

General Haig is quite clear what he thinks of the day’s events. First in his diary.

I saw General Foch at Querrieu. He is very pleased with result of our attacks. French openly said their troops could not have carried out such an attack, not even the XX Corps! [which did particularly well on 1 July]

Foch is extremely enthused by this success, on Bastille Day, no less. He’s been worrying that the perfidious English will be content with allowing the battle to bog down once they learn that the Germans are giving up on Verdun. The two men spend a lot of time today talking over the possibilities for the coming days. There are a number of nasty German strong-points east of Trones Wood; they’re creating bottlenecks for the BEF right and the French left. Joint attacks are planned to free the bottleneck, and General Fayolle will soon get orders to make another big push for Peronne.

Back to Haig, who we now find writing to his wife.

This is indeed a very great success. The best day we have had this war and I feel what a reward it is to have been spared to see our troops so succeessful! There is no doubt that the results of today will be very far reaching. Our men showed that they have the superiority to the Germans in the fighting, and the latter are very much disorganised and rattled.

The best day we have had this war. And the sad thing is, he’s right. Think about that for a moment, if you can.

JRR Tolkien

Today, JRR Tolkien is off up the line with his men for the first time. The battalion halts for a long wait in the shadow of Lochnagar Crater, and then moves on into the ruins of La Boisselle. By nightfall they’re waiting in close reserve, as yet another penny-packet push tries to throw the Germans out of their remaining positions at Ovillers. True to their general’s promise, they are fighting for every inch and look set to fight to the last man if required.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach, the laziest German in France, continues making friends and influencing people.

I still like it best being on observation duty with the infantry. When there isn’t actually any heavy firing, you spend rewarding hours with the company commanders and the men. With time I’ve really found my feet in the infantry world and become fairly independent as well, and I often get together with the infantry leaders to discuss the artillery preparations required for a patrol operation. And afterwards I accompany these friends of mine on their night walks through the trenches, when they are inspecting their sentries.

The way these good-hearted infantrymen, some of them ex-Landwehr, stick to their work and do their duty, is the highest personal fulfilment of one’s task in life, faith incarnate in the justice of our victorious cause! Meanwhile, the second anniversary of the outbreak of war has passed, but you don’t really think any more about our entering the third year of war, and still less about whether and when there is going to be peace again.

Ah, it seems we’ve found the limits of his optimism. The Landwehr is, like the Territorial Army, supposed to be used only for the direct defence of the homeland. Unlike the Territorials, it contains no first-line forces and in an ideal world would never have to fight. But, you know, shit happens.

Actions in Progress

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