Delville Wood | Longueval | 26 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

General Rawlinson is not particularly happy at the moment, having presided over a gigantic wet fart of an offensive on the 23rd. Something must be done, so he’s thought back to the Bazentin Ridge offensive. The Chief is still very annoyed that Delville Wood and Longueval have not been taken. It’s a very small area, barely a square mile. The successes of Bazentin Ridge came from more artillery and a narrower front. This time, he’s going to take as much artillery as was firing between Bazentin and Delville Wood last time, and turn it all on Delville Wood and Longueval for an hour tomorrow.

Between shrapnel and high explosive, over the course of that hour, there will be one shell for every 25 square yards of ground. It will be theoretically impossible to stand in the same place for that hour and not get hit by something. Of course we know it doesn’t work like that; there will be a few lucky souls who survive, because there always are. But, ye gods, a much smaller weight of shell saw the South Africans off last week. I’d say “nothing exceeds like excess”, but I rather suspect that this kind of excess is in fact the new normal.

Meanwhile, the brutal shelling continues at Pozieres. The ANZACs can’t last like this forever. They need food and water at least, to say nothing of ammunition or reinforcements. (The 2nd Australian Division is now moving forward to replace the 1st.) Sergeant Preston of the 9th Australian Battalion has volunteered to take a party back to the rear and find something, anything, to bring back to their mates.

Big shells were falling thickly. We could see them like black streaks coming down from the sky just before they hit the ground. Often times we were thrown to the ground with concussion, great clods of earth showering us and making our steel helmets ring. One member of the party, Private Fitzgerald, was partly buried, but was quickly dug out and left in the nearest trench to await the stretcher bearers. Eventually we reached Contalmaison, got some water in benzene tins, and made our way back to the front. The water, as can be imagined, had a strong benzene flavour.

On the way we passed Fitzgerald, badly wounded, but still alive.

I do quite sincerely doubt whether anyone complained about the taste of the water.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien is back up the line. This time he’s gone to Beaumont Hamel. Which brings us, incidentally, to an important change. General Haig has finally got round to deciding what should be done about that fucker Hunter-Weston and VIII Corps. The BEF is exceedingly short on good candidates for corps command at the moment. (An uncharitable person might suggest they’re pretty short on good candidates to clean the latrines, never mind corps commanders.) Sacking Hunter-Weston is, apparently, not possible; and if he were sacked, he might very well end up in Sir John French’s gossip factory in London, making mischief.

However, what can be done is to transfer his corps to 2nd Army and send them to the Ypres salient. The implication will be quite obvious, and it will also be simple enough to keep bouncing him away from any future offensive. Hunter-Weston himself will soon be writing a letter to his wife, protesting far too much that he most certainly isn’t being confined to the kiddie pool and made to wear armbands and use floats. But I’m not buying that, and I sincerely hope that this is the last time I have to type his stupid double-barrelled name.

Anyway, so Tolkien’s corps is now in VIII Corps’s place, and his battalion is now up the line for the third time. Tolkien has been elevated from company to battalion signals officer, a role for which he’s almost completely unprepared. The new role is almost entirely managerial; deciding where things should go and who should do what duty. There’s plenty to do, and no senior officer to help. One suspects he might have spent a lot of time asking his senior sergeant “so, how would you arrange things?” and then letting him get on with it.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler is feeling rather better, and this time manages to make it all the way to an observation post, by way of a colleague’s position.

I visited Maclean and his lonely howitzer at dawn. He had been slightly wounded in the neck, but was carrying on; they all looked very red and blistered about the neck, having had their gas-masks on for seven hours during the night, besides encountering tear gas the rest of the time. The aroma round that spot is really remarkable. I counted thirty-eight men and fifteen horses lying dead between their dug-out and the gun. Being near the main road to Longueval, that spot is continually shelled, and passing units never have enough time to clear up any mess.

I heartened them with a promise to send up a sack of [chloride of] lime to sweeten the place. I spent the rest of the day in Hardecourt. The village had been taken originally by [French colonial troops] after desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Judging by the state of the dead, they are certainly rather messy fighters.

I’m pretty sure that if your hand-to-hand fighting goes off without mess, you’re probably doing it wrong. And if the people you killed two weeks ago aren’t a mess by now, they’re probably zombies and then you really do have a problem.

Oskar Teichman

The tension at the Suez Canal continues ratcheting up; but all medical officer Oskar Teichman is being bombarded with right now is paperwork.

The following mobile column order was issued:

“Attention of [Officers Commanding] is called to the following:
1. As the number of sand-carts and cacolets is limited, great care should be exercised that they are only indented for when absolutely necessary. An indent should bear the signature of a responsible or medical officer.
2. As it is probable that the troops will be fighting without their tunics, OCs will take steps to ensure that when this occurs all field dressings are extracted from the pocket of the tunic and pinned to the breeches.
3. All ranks are reminded that when dressing the wounds of a comrade the field dressing belonging to the wounded man should be used, and not that of the man who is dressing the wound.

With regard to order 2, I was very against this, and strongly advised that our men should continue to wear their tunics in order to avoid sunstroke, and also in order to make it possible to wear the cavalry equipment, which it was difficult and painful to carry without shoulder straps. Eventually this was agreed upon, and our men fought in their tunics and preferred it.

During the afternoon an “aviatik” dropped a message asking us to mark our hospital tents more clearly.

Point 3 has been an Army principle as long as anyone can remember, and still is today. You use the casualty’s stuff because you may well need yours in a few minutes’ time. A cacolet is an entirely hilarious construction, two stretchers nailed to each other and then mounted on the back of a camel or donkey.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has a defining moment of his war. He’s finished his infantry gun training and is now back in the trenches with his squad.

At daybreak the sentry who was watching the periscope, which was hidden behind a high clump of grass, signaled me frantically to come up. I looked in the mirror and was stupefied to see a German’s head reflected in it—a neck like a bull’s, a big square head, a thick red mop of hair, a bestial look—all enough to give you nightmares. This apparition was coming out of the earth, barely four or five meters from us, into our own barbed wire which surrounded our outpost, without the slightest shovelful of disturbed earth to indicate that there was any sort of trench or excavation around him.

Evidently this was not a mirage; the Germans must have dug a subterranean passage, carrying back to the rear the dirt they removed. The sentry took a grenade and was about to toss it at this intruder, looking at me for approval. I held his arm. I will always be faithful to my principles as a socialist, a humanitarian, even a true Christian, even if they cost me my life, of not firing on someone unless in legitimate self-defense.

And was it in our interest to break the neighborly relations which existed between our two adjoining outposts? “If this lascar is poking his head up only out of curiosity,” I said to my comrades in a low voice, “that’s all the same to us. If he is coming to check out our position in order to send over a couple of grenades, we’ll open our eyes so that he doesn’t show us his big square head again, or we’ll make it round for him.”

The incident goes off without violence. “Lascar” is a word that in other languages refers specifically to sailors and marines from east of the Cape of Good Hope who were hired to crew European-owned ships. In 1914 the British merchant marine alone employed over 50,000 such seamen on extremely, ahem, cost-effective terms.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has a less-than-promising report on the BEF’s morale, and the shock news that ANZAC soldiers like a drink.

The people in the villages tell me how fed up they are, and how they wish the cruel war were over. On the fields and in the farmyards the women do the work; I have not seen one able-bodied Frenchman between 16 and 60 anywhere.

The tradespeople, especially the inn-keepers, are, however, reaping a golden harvest. Anxious to be able to say later on how they have “seen life,” our wealthy Australian soldiers are consuming oceans of citron a l’eau, which the shrewd peasantry sells at six shillings a bottle, labelled “champagne!” The British Tommy does not indulge in such riotous living, but occasionally he orders and solemnly consumes a bottle of “vinn rooge,” a reddish syropywater-concoction [sic] slightly vinegared.

In the afternoon we had two parades to make up a draft for the Front. It needed three men to complete its numbers; when the Regimental Sergeant-Major asked for volunteers, one man out of about 400 stepped forward. So the missing two were picked out at random and ordered to go.

Citron a l’eau I do believe is Mugge’s Franglais for “fizzy lemonade” (the French call it, and other carbonated drinks, “limonade”, even though a lemon is a “citron”). I’m not entirely sure I buy that story, but I am reminded of the story from 1914 about the Tommies who confiscated some apparent bottles of champagne and then found they’d been hauling litres of mineral water around…

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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Footballs on the Somme | 29 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

This, of course, should have been Z Day, but due to the bad weather, Z Day’s been put back to the 1st of July. Instead, the bombardment continues, and Private Eversmann of the German Army, far underneath Thiepval, gives a short but arresting description.

Shall I live till morning? Haven’t we had enough of this frightful horror? Five days and five nights now this Hell concert has lasted. Hell indeed seems to be let loose. One’s head is a madman’s; the tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth. Five days and five nights, a long time, to us an eternity. Almost nothing to eat and nothing to drink. No sleep, always wakened again. All contact with the outer world cut off. No sign of life from home, nor can we send any news to our loved ones. What anxiety they must feel about us. How long is this going to last?

Still, there is no use thinking about it. If I may not see my loved ones again, I greet them with a last farewell.

The barrage continues lifting every so often. Sometimes it starts again after only a few minutes’ pause. Sometimes it goes a little longer, and yet more trench raids are launched. The prisoners being brought back are looking worse than ever, many of them unable to resist, completely shell-shocked. There are routes through the German wire for the raiders.

At this point, we find General Rycroft, in command of the 32nd Division, which will be attacking Thiepval, watching the fifth day of bombardment with his brigadiers. Perhaps we can forgive him for an oft-quoted observation, screaming to be heard over the roar of the guns. “My God! All we’ll find in Thiepval when we go across is the caretaker and his dog!”

Footballs

Now then. The same idea has occurred to quite a few officers up and down the Somme. Football is a popular rear-area pastime, of course. Most often mentioned here is a company commander, one Captain Nevill of the 8th East Surreys. His men have much further than the maximum recommended distance of 100 yards of No Man’s Land to cross when they attack. This will mean being out for some minutes in No Man’s Land. Captain Nevill is understandably worried that the men’s morale might crack.

So, in order to give the men something to focus on as their wave approaches the German line, he’s been given permission to issue footballs to the men. They’ll be thrown over the top, and the men will be encouraged to kick the footballs forward and follow them. It sounds a bit silly, but if it works…

A mile or two to the rear, our artillery friend Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler has more serious matters on his mind.

“Y2” Day. A cloudy day, but as no more rain has fallen, the country is drying up fast. The only outstanding incident in the day was a smoke discharge on a seven-mile front, preceded by a very intense bombardment of one hour. It was a wonderful sight. Every smoke candle was lit simultaneously, and as far as the eye could see, a solid wall of smoke about 50 feet high moved over the Hun trenches. The night passed with two more gas discharges. Both were accompanied by the usual barrage.

His bosses, at least, are certainly very determined to show the Germans everything possible, so that they won’t be able to reason “Aha, Tommy did not let off smoke earlier, this must be the real thing!” Well, with one exception, of which more later, but you take the point, I hope. This barrage is far more subtle than just “FIRE ALL THE GUNS AT ONCE AND DON’T STOP”.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White has had his orders to go forward and prepare to attack.

I scribble my entry for the day, while my servant waits to pack up this little book in my valise. We go up this afternoon, and this book must not go too.

His last letter to Evelyn Southwell is now on its way.

Oh Man, I can’t write now. I am too like a coach before the Bumping Races or Challenge Oars.

So, Man, good luck. Our New House and Shrewsbury are immortal. which is a great comfort.

The Challenge Oars is another rowing competition at Shrewsbury that White and Southwell would have coached crews in before the war. He spends the night moving up into his jumping-off trench.

Battle of Verdun

Has Henri Desagneaux been relieved from the front lines at Verdun yet? No. Has Henri Desagneaux been killed in action yet? Also no. Is his eloquence finally beginning to suffer after a fortnight of Hell?

Our 14th day in this sector. The bombardment continues, our nerves make us tremble, we can’t eat any more, we are exhausted. Yet still no relief.

Little bit, yeah. At least he wasn’t attacked today. As it happens, there is going to be another French attack to retake Thiaumont tomorrow.

Haig and Hunter-Weston

Today is a rather interesting day for General Haig’s diary. Quick reminder: he kept daily hand-written diaries throughout the war, which he then sent home to his wife for safekeeping. The diaries were then typed up for posterity; and initially, the typed diaries were presented to history simply as “Haig’s diary”.

This is troublesome, because on quite a few occasions he took the opportunity to make amendments to his original thoughts. It would be unfair then to accuse him of trying to systematically amend history to his benefit. In fact, I’d rather have it this way. He was of course not the only man to do this. Sir Ian Hamilton published his type-written diaries. Rawlinson was happy with simply polishing up his diary, as Haig did, in type-written form, and leaving it among his personal papers.

As long as the original diaries survive (which they have), this means we can compare his less considered, immediate reactions with the reactions he would have apparently preferred to have had. This is one of the few entries where he decided his original thoughts needed supplementing. He’s now arrived at his advanced HQ at Beauquesne, about 13 miles behind the front. Close enough to be in touch, far enough away to not get shelled. In theory.

General Hunter-Weston came to see me and stayed to lunch. He seemed quite satisfied and confident. I gave him a kind message for his Divisional Commanders. I told him that I fully realised all the difficulties and hard work which they had had in training their divisions, and in preparing their trenches, etc, for attack. Also that I have full confidence in their abilities to reap success in the coming fighting, etc.

After dinner, my Commander Royal Artillery (Birch) came to report on his visit to VIII Corps [Hunter-Weston’s] today. The conclusion I came to is that the majority [of their officers] are amateurs, and some thought that they knew more than they did of this kind of warfare because they had been at Gallipoli. Adversity, shortage of ammunition, and fighting under difficulties against a superior enemy, has taught us much!

Those were his original thoughts. Worryingly, he later decided that much more specific criticism was required, both of junior officers and of Hunter-Weston and the senior men. This is not promising.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien has just joined his battalion, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, in the middle of an intense round of last-minute training. They’re probably not going over the top on Z Day, but there’s always the chance of a last-minute change of plan; and they’ll almost certainly have some fighting to do as July wears on. This is, to say the least, not the ideal time to join a new battalion and make friends.

He’s also struggling with the strict social separation between officers and men. He may have come from Oxford University, but his early years were not always comfortable and privileged. In many ways, he feels that he’s got more in common with the men than with his brother officers.

The most improper job of any man is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

He’s not at all happy; he now knows that his friends Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith will both be attacking on Z Day.

Mount San Michele

The Battle of Asiago is at an end, but of course Conrad von Hotzendorf simply cannot leave well alone. The Austro-Hungarian army has for the last few months managed to obtain and stockpile some gas, apparently a modern chlorine/phosgene blend. So now they’re going to try to use it on the Carso, while the Italian Brains Trust is still distracted with the Asiago plateau, and drive the Italians away from Mount San Michele once more, ideally all the way to the River Isonzo itself. It’s a bold plan. And the Italians only have basic mouth-pad gas masks, completely ineffective against phosgene.

With a lot of Italians still on the Asiago plateau, it might even have worked; and it would have been a major kick in the dick if it had worked. Unfortunately, about an hour before the gas is due to be released, the wind drops to almost nothing. Without any experience of this sort of thing, the Austro-Hungarians release the gas anyway, and a day’s brutal fighting follows.

When it’s over, the attackers have occupied a significant number of enemy trenches, and then been unceremoniously evicted again. The situation is unchanged, except now the Italians are sure they’ve got gas and know they need better masks. Oh well.

Emilio Lussu

Meanwhile, Emilio Lussu has another extensive, confused, and extremely aggravating tale of a wholly unnecessary attempt to attack the new Austro-Hungarian defensive line on the edge of the Asiago plateau. Officers fall quickly, Captain Canevacci one of the first. The enemy has dug down and supplemented their digging with solid stone breastworks. After several hours, Lussu takes himself in the rear to call in some artillery support against a pesky machine-gun. He passes another battalion…

The whole place had an air of confusion and terror. The major in command was standing against the trunk of a fir tree. I knew him well. I had eaten at his mess many times. Red in the face, he was shaking his hands at someone I couldn’t see. He looked really upset. “Hurry up! Hurry up or I’ll kill you! Give me the brandy! The brandy!” He was screaming at the top of his lungs, in a tone of command. He said “brandy” in the same voice he would have used to say “battalion in column!” or “double column!”

A breathless soldier appeared with a bottle of brandy in hand. The major was holding a pistol in his right hand and a sheet of paper in his left. He threw the paper to the ground and went over to the soldier, still screaming. He grabbed the bottle and, with a lightning move, sealed it to his mouth. He looked paralyzed, like he was dead on his feet. The only signs of life came from his throat, guzzling down the liquor with gulps that sounded like groans.

Lussu tries to get some help; the man is beyond reason, and waving his pistol dangerously. Lussu takes the pistol and confiscates the bullets for everyone’s safety. The major grins at him. Lussu tries to find someone else. Most of the officers are dead. There will be no help here. Nobody knows where the artillery is. Out of options, he heads back to his men.

[As I left, I] passed by the command post. The major was standing there motionless, in the same spot where I’d left him, pistol in hand, and he was still smiling.

There follows a brief period of calm. Lussu’s battalion has only three officers left now, all of them lieutenants. There’s nobody left to carry out the generals’ orders. So further attacks will have to wait for a while until reinforcements can be brought up. More in a while.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Hunter-Weston | Serre | 27 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

Not everyone in the BEF is entirely content with the plans for the Battle of the Somme. General Hubert Rees will be in charge of one of the left-most attacking BEF brigades on Z Day. Working under General Hunter-Weston, it will be his brigade’s job to capture the fortified village Serre. Now, before we have his thoughts, I do want to point out that they are not representative of all the brigadiers at the Somme, and not even representative of all the brigadiers north of the Albert to Bapaume Road. They are rather well-known, but it’s important not to treat them as definitive. Nevertheless, they are important.

One of my criticisms of the general plan of operations was that the time allowed for the capture of each objective was too short. I had a severe argument with Hunter-Weston before I induced him to give the an extra ten minutes for the capture of an orchard, 300 yards beyond the village of Serre. I was looked upon as something of a heretic for saying that everything had been arranged for, except for the unexpected, which usually occurs in war. The short space of time allowed for the capture of each objective made it essential for the whole of my brigade, with the exception of three companies, to advance at Zero hour, otherwise they would not reach the positions assigned to them at the time laid down.

In twenty minutes, I had to capture the first four lines of trenches in front of Serre. After a check of twenty minutes, I was allowed forty minutes to capture Serre, a village 800 yards deep, and twenty minutes later to capture an orchard on a knoll 300 yards beyond. My criticisms on these points are not altogether a case of being wise after the event, I did not like them at the time, but I do not profess to have foreseen the result of these arrangements should a failure occur. A great spirit of optimism prevailed in all quarters.

There are quite a few similar statements about ludicrous over-optimism before the Somme to be found in various oral histories of the war. My untrained, unscientific eye thinks that a worryingly high number of them appear to be coming from men serving with Hunter-Weston’s VIII Corps. This might well just be my own selection bias, and the selection bias of the books I happen to have in easy reach at the moment. I’m not quite sure what the takeaway is just yet, whether it’s a comment on Hunter-Weston, or historians, or both, or neither.

At any rate, here’s something from someone who was with XIII Corps, due to attack Mametz Wood on Z Day, well to the south of Hunter-Weston. This is Sergeant Ernest Bryan of the 17th King’s Liverpool Regiment. No, I’ve looked and I can’t easily find out who this offending brigadier was; most orders of battle list only divisional and not brigade commanders.

I asked the Brigadier if it was possible to put our equipment on his brigade-major, and he said certainly. I got two Lewis gun privates to put everything on him. Bombs in the pockets, sandbags, spade, kit, rations, extra ammunition round the neck, all of it. Then I said “how do you feel, Sir?” and the major said “It’s a hell of a weight.”
So I said, “You haven’t started yet! You forgot the rifle, you’ve got to put that up. And how are you going to carry it? Slung over your shoulder? You can’t, you’ve got to have it in your hand ready for action. You can’t take it in your left hand because in that you’ve got a pannier of water which weighs 46 pounds…”

This lecture goes on for some considerable time.

“There’s a farm field at the back of here that’s just being ploughed. Try walking 100 yards and see how you feel. And that’s a playground to what we’ll all have to go over.”
He said, “You feel very strongly about this.”
I said, “Wouldn’t you, Sir? Wouldn’t anybody?

Better writers than me have successfully drawn portraits of a group of senior officers before the Somme who are making assumptions that do not appear to have been grounded in battlefield realities.

Haig and the cavalry

With most of the important details sorted out, General Haig is attending to a last-minute question. The BEF has ended up creating a vast reserve formation of six divisions (three infantry, three cavalry) which is now being called Reserve Army. It’s under the command of thrusting cavalryman General Gough, a man so optimistic that even Hunter-Weston (in a letter to his wife) is commenting that he perhaps lays it on a bit thick. Once the Z Day fighting goes well, it will be Reserve Army’s job to move up, assist with breaking the German Second Line, and then send the cavalry up the Albert to Bapaume road to exploit the situation. Haig pays visits to Gough and General Rawlinson today, as his staff arrives at his Advanced Headquarters.

I thought [Gough] was too inclined to aim at fighting a battle at Bapaume, forgetting that it was at the same time possible for the Enemy to attack him from the north and cut him off from the breach in the line! I therefore insisted on the offensive move northwards as soon as Bapaume has been occupied.

I told [Rawlinson] to impress on his Corps Commanders the use of their Corps cavalry and mounted troops, and if necessary supplement them with regular cavalry units. In my opinion it is better to prepare to advance beyond the Enemy’s last line of trenches, because we are then in a position to take advantage of any breakdown in the defences. If there is a stubborn resistance put up, the matter settles itself.

If cavalry is in fact completely obsolete in this day and age, then the Chief has just convicted himself of being a hopeless donkey. If only it were that simple. More soon.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Anyway, let’s get a bit closer to the sharp end; it is “X” Day for Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler.

Cold, with heavy rain all day. Hunland is changing aspect very fast under the intense bombardment. All the little well-known woods are disappearing. The Hun trenches have become merely one vast shell-ploughed field. Artillery gets curious targets nowadays. I spent three hours in thinning a blackthorn hedge round a rather important spot. It proved a tiresome and difficult shoot.

Plenty of strips of land up near the German First Line are now transforming into the desolate, dead landscapes that popular culture associates with the Somme battlefields.

Emilio Lussu

Let’s duck out of the Western Front for a moment. Something else is happening to Emilio Lussu; all I have to say about this is “why couldn’t it have come a month later when things are less busy?” Another patrol has gone out; this one has ambushed and killed an enemy patrol. Captain Canevacci is nowhere near the general and he’s just killed some of the enemy. He is very happy, and very well-refreshed with brandy.

He stopped next to the body of the [enemy] corporal, and he said to him, “Hey, my friend, if you had learned how to command a patrol you wouldn’t be here right now. When you’re out on patrol, the commander, first of all, has to see…

Before he can warm to his theme, there’s an interruption. Voices nearby? The company sidles over to get a look at the source of the sound.

Two squirrels were jumping along a tree-trunk. Quick and nimble, they chased each other, hid, chased again, hid again. Short little shrieks like laughter marked their encounters each time they launched themselves against each other. And every time they stopped in a circle of sunlight on the trunk, they stood straight up on their hind legs. And, using their paws like hands, appeared to be offering each other compliments, caresses, congratulations. The sun dhonr on their white bellies and the tufts of their tales, which stood straight up like brushes.
One of our sharpshooters looked over at the captain and muttered, “Shall we shoot?”
“Are you crazy?” the captain answered. “They’re so cute.” [And he] went back to the line of dead bodies.

“The patrol commander must see and not be seen…” he said, continuing his sermon to the Bosnian corporal.

Mental.

Henri Desagneaux

Here now is Henri Desagneaux with your daily reminder from the Battle of Verdun of why the French have been so desperate for their allies to launch that sodding battle up on the Somme.

The men who left to fetch the food last night haven’t come back. 4:30am, first attack on Thiaumont and Hill 321. 9am, second attack. All around us, men are falling. There are some only five metres from us in shell-holes, yet we can’t help them. If you show your head, you get a burst of machine-gun bullets. Incessant firing. The Boches counter-attack; we drive them back by rifle fire and grenades. My company is rapidly diminishing. We are about sixty left now. In the evening, we are really at the mercy of an attack. Still no relief.

“They have taken the bridge and Second Hall. The Watcher in the Water took Oin. We cannot get out.”

JRR Tolkien

Lieutenant JRR Tolkien has finally been called out of Etaples to join his battalion, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. They will begin the Battle of the Somme in reserve, which means they can expect to wait a week or so before going into action. He spends the day travelling forward towards Rubempre, the rear-area village which is currently hosting these men of Kitchener’s Army. In their last stint of front-line duty they suffered badly; they have a new commander, Lt-Col Bird, and four other junior officers are leading small reinforcement-drafts forward to them.

Robert Pelissier

As some men suffer in the heat of battle, and others prepare to face it, still more, like Robert Pelissier, are quite happy to be getting out of it for a while.

We’ve left Alsace, for good probably. We left the trenches about midnight, sneaked our way in the dark to a safe place where the machine guns couldn’t get us, then climbed over the Vosges, reaching the highest point about 9am, then kept on: pretty tired and wet (poured great guns) and hungry but pretty glad to be in France once more and away from the yaw-yaw and nicks-nicks of the Alsatian patois. Then we came down the French side of the Vosges and paraded in grand style through one of the summer resorts of the region. Summer resort minus the squash bugs, aeroplanes being fond of the place.

Away from the great battles, the rhythms of Army life carry on.

Oskar Teichman

Away from the European theatres, see previous point. Oskar Teichman is having mandatory fun in Egypt.

Enemy aeroplanes approached during the morning, but were driven off by our scouts. A large boxing contest took place at night between the Fifty-second Division, Fifth Mounted Brigade and the Scottish Horse Brigade. In the evening the General Officer Commanding Third Section distributed the prizes.

Jolly good for morale, what?

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
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Siege of Medina

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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

Serre | Beaumont Hamel | 21 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

There are eight days to go until the Battle of the Somme. Today sees Lieutenant Malcolm White’s final day of hard work near Beaumont Hamel. His 1st Rifle Brigade, and all the other battalions who are due to attack on Day 1, are about to be given a short period of total rest.

A real June day; but I seem to see nothing at present but a feverish and tired phantasmagoria of wagons, sand-bags, ‘materiel’, copies of orders, men and horses.

Let us now take a moment and consider what’s going to happen when White goes over the top. VIII Corps and General Hunter-Weston is responsible for the very north of the battle front. Let’s have a look at the map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Their job is, on paper, simple enough. First they advance across No Man’s Land and capture the initial German trenches, which no doubt will be child’s play. Then the corps must push on and capture the two fortified villages of Beaumont Hamel and Serre that anchor the German First Line positions in this area. With a little luck, their central division will then be able to move out of the First Line to have a pop at Munich Trench. This is a last-resort fullback line that runs out of Serre to cut the road between Beaucourt and Beaumont Hamel, and prevents an attacking enemy force from quickly marching on the Second Line.

The BEF’s Brains Trust is very much aware that Serre and Beaumont Hamel are among the strongest positions on the battlefield. But that’s no reason to be pessimistic. They’ve thought of that. There is, after all, more artillery than ever before, firing a longer and more intense bombardment than ever before. They’ve also quite deliberately sent VIII Corps here; two out of their three divisions are old Regular Army divisions, still with plenty of old Regular Army men despite the casualties they’ve taken. Those two divisions will be thrown against Beaumont Hamel, the stronger of the two positions. (31st Division, which will attack Serre, is not only a Kitchener’s Army division, it also has a very large proportion of Pals battalions compared to other divisions.)

There’s another complication around Beaumont Hamel; right in the middle of the First Line in front of it is the Hawthorn Redoubt. This is a large trench fortress, laid out similarly to the Hohenzollern Redoubt near Loos which caused such problems there. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. The Engineers have been digging a gigantic mine underneath the redoubt. And, just to cap off all the reasons to be cheerful, VIII Corps has heard of these new French “rolling barrage” ideas, and all their artillerymen are keen to have a go at it.

Even better, Malcolm White and the 1st Rifle Brigade have, through the luck of the draw, managed to avoid attacking either of the two fortified villages directly. Instead, their battalion’s job will be to attack the trenches at a point pretty much halfway between the two villages, and set up a platform from which someone else can hopefully move on to Munich Trench. He’s in a nasty old spot here; but he has managed to find the least dangerous part of it.

Hunter-Weston: from Krithia to Beaumont Hamel

Now then. General Hunter-Weston has had a lot of time to think about his experiences on Gallipoli, and he’s learned a number of things. A while ago, we checked in with him and he appeared to be a born-again convert to General Rawlinson’s church of bite and hold. That, however was a long time ago. In the meantime, he’s been subsisting on a steady diet of extremely optimistic intelligence reports. He’s of course going to have access to a lot more artillery than they could ever have dreamed of on Gallipoli. The terrain here is far kinder and allows for far simpler plans for the advance. He’s even been rather taken by this new “rolling barrage” idea, and all his divisions will be using it in some form. All of this stuff appears to have convinced him that his Gallipoli experiences are irrelevant; the situations are just too different to be compared.

In fact, just about the only lesson he appears to truly have learned from Gallipoli is the attitude practiced by Sir Ian Hamilton. “If my boss says it can be done, then it can be done.” Having committed to this, he appears to have internalised every single positive attitude going. And he’s also allowing for considerable fiddling with details. That rolling barrage, for instance. The French have now standardised them for best effect; the guns begin firing about 50 yards into No Man’s Land, in front of the German trenches, and then advance at a rate of about 50 yards per minute. The men are then encouraged to “lean” on the barrage as much as possible, following close behind to ensure that the Germans can’t get up and out of their trenches before the attack is upon them.

There is a lot of skepticism about this in British circles, particularly the concept of firing into No Man’s Land, where we know that there are no Germans. It is a rather counter-intuitive idea. Hunter-Weston’s subordinates are very worried, and not without reason, that if their men take friendly fire from the barrage, they’ll simply stop advancing. They also think that 50 yards per minute is far too slow. (I imagine a few red tabs strolling slowly over a measured 100-yard distance and finding they can do it quite comfortably in less than a minute.) 100 yards per minute is a much better, and more optimistic, figure. This, I think, is fair enough; nobody in the British artillery has done rolling barrages before, so you can kind of understand the desire to experiment.

Less understandable is Hunter-Weston’s attitude towards the Hawthorn Redoubt mine. He wants it blown in the dark, at 3:30am, so the crater can be seized and used as a jumping-off point to feed men into the remains of the redoubt. Fair enough, except for the part where most BEF experience on the Western Front has shown that it’s hard enough to capture mine craters when there’s daylight to see by. There’s been squabbling over the timing for the last little while, as most everyone else in this attack who’s got a supporting mine is content for it to go off at the exact minute of the attack.

But Hunter-Weston will not be told. In the end, they’ll come to a ludicrous compromise. Hunter-Weston won’t get his 3:30am detonation. But he will get a slight delay; the mine will go 10 minutes before the men go over the top. Which defeats the entire point of detonating the mine early. Nobody now attempts to defend this utterly ridiculous idea. Few try to explain it. One last note before we move on; not all Hunter-Weston’s subordinates are happy with the plan. But we’ve talked about this man enough, for now. That’s a story for another day.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux remains exactly where he was at the Battle of Verdun. Heavy howitzers continue their constant drum-fire, all morning, all afternoon, all evening…

We have been bombarded by 210s for exactly 24 hours. The Germans have been attacking on our right since 6pm. We crouch there, packs on our backs, waiting, scanning the top of the ridge to see what is happening, and this lasts until nightfall. In some companies there have been cases of madness. How much longer are we going to stay in this situation? Night comes and the guns still fire. Our trenches have collapsed. It’s a tangle of equipment and guns left by the wounded. There’s nothing human about it. Why don’t they send the deputies, senators, and generals here?

Our nerves can’t take much more. Can’t move or sleep. There are no more shelters. The front-line troops are so fatigued and jumpy that at every moment they believe they are being attacked and ask for artillery support. Red flares follow, our artillery does its best, it’s hellish.

And yet they’re still alive. As long as they can dig for themselves, as long as there are craters to hide in, some of the men will stay alive, and perhaps some of them will be able to fight at the end of it. It seems that the Germans have found and then flown right past the point of diminishing returns. Hoping for total destruction of the enemy via artillery fire could well be a fool’s errand.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas today proves that even he can say things that set my teeth on edge against him. As we join them somewhere near Chenilles in Champagne, his squad has got lost in the dark for the 3,219th time.

I was at the front of the line, which doesn’t have any particular merit, but which explains my great surprise and terror when two harsh and ominous voices roared out “[French equivalent of ‘Halt! Who goes there?’] And as lightning flashed I saw the points of two menacing bayonets advancing toward my chest. At a second flash I saw two faces as black as the finest ebony, but hardly reassuring. So, there were man-eaters, cannibals, in the Bois de Chenilles, right in the middle of Champagne!

“Comrades!” I cried out. “We aren’t Boches! Please, let us pass!” Ah, yes. Let us pass. That’s all we needed to say to not be skewered on bayonets. But we had to take the long way around. After some discussion among themselves, these blacks who spoke French so well told us that they were from Martinique. There were quite a number of them in the regiment next to ours, and they were able to give us helpful directions for getting back to our shelters.

Our shelters, where each of us had a wire-mesh bunk, an innovation which seemed to us an unaccustomed luxury. The supplier of that wire mesh—yet another one who will make his fortune! The war is not an equally cruel scourge to everyone.

Cor blimey, black people who know what they’re about, slap me vitals, and other such unconvincing expressions of disbelief. I wonder if they’d have let you pass if they knew what you were thinking? Martinique is part of the French Empire, a small island out in the Caribbean, in the Lesser Antilles.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman has a lot to say about today’s desert march. I’ve cut it way down.

At 1 am our little party left the camp, accompanied by the Padre. Our way lay through Hill 40, and passing through this post in the dark was quite jumpy work, as the sentries were very much on the alert and suddenly leapt out of obscurity into the middle of the track with bayonet fixed and gruff challenge. By 2.30 am it was getting light as we arrived at the last fortified camp, known as Hill 70. Here we watered our horses as the sun rose behind the great sand mountain Katib Abu Asab, a landmark for miles around. Up till now we had been following a desert track by the side of our narrow-gauge railway, laid down by the Royal Engineers, but now we struck across the open.

A wonderful mirage appeared in the Bay of Tina, rows of white houses being seen apparently standing in the water; this was evidently caused by a reflection of Port Said, some 25 miles to the west. We now followed a field-telephone wire which would eventually lead us to Romani. … The landscape altered and we had begun to enter the great Katia waterbelt, or the land of Hods. A Hod is usually a depression in the desert, studded with palm-trees and containing water, of a varying degree of brackishness, just below the surface of the ground.

This water can sometimes be drunk by human beings, and horses will generally drink it unless the degree of salinity is very high. When drunk by the former, intestinal catarrhs are apt to follow. The water is usually obtained by sinking a shaft four to six feet deep, revetting the sides with sandbags, and then letting in a cylinder of corrugated iron. It was considered essential that the Katia waterbelt should be held by our troops, as it was the last district the Turks could obtain water from, and thus constituted a jumping-off place for an attack on the Canal.

The first camp was that occupied by the Bikaner and Egyptian Camel Corps. Here we saw thousands of camels, which carried out all the transport of supplies and water to the isolated posts. Romani was, at this time, both railhead and pipe-head. We rode on a mile or two through the various camps, which were very much spread out on account of recent enemy bombing, until we reached Brigade HQ of the Second Australian Light Horse Brigade, situated in a little Hod by itself.

The Brigade was out on reconnaissance, but we found the Staff Captain and Supply Officer, from whom we drew three days’ rations for our men and horses. We also procured the regulation amount of water and a certain number of camels.

They’ve come about 30 miles in 10 hours, and now settle down to attempt sleep.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Blunder at Kondoa | 10 May 1916

Battle of Kondoa

The sun rises over Kondoa Irangi. Anyone know if there’s a word that means the exact opposite of “a pretty sight”? That’s what we’ve got. Bodies are strewn all over the open ground south of the town. 85 are dead and maybe as many more wounded. Another 50 men made it back from the battle and then died of wounds. This is a tiny number by most of the rest of the war’s standards, but they’re casualties that the isolated Schutztruppe can ill afford. Worse, a high proportion of them are white German officers. (The South African defenders have taken just 30 casualties, most of them wounded.)

The fighting lasted until after 3am. And somehow, though this time it beggars belief on a completely different level, once again the defending force has won the day. It doesn’t get any better for Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, this supposed military genius, when we look at why. To the south of Kondoa are the Burungi Heights. Just to the north of those is a line of low hills; and then just to the north of that line is a row of smaller hillocks. On the reverse slope of those hillocks, if “slope” is the right word, is where the South Africans dug their defences.

Sure, that concealed them somewhat from enemy observation. But the map! That wonderful map! The hillocks clearly appeared on it. They’re also clearly visible from atop the Burungi Heights. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck has just committed possibly the most egregious example of “looked but did not see” in modern history. Even though he personally accompanied an advance patrol down from the heights, he convinced himself that the South Africans must have chosen to lay their defences directly in the town. That second line of hillocks, he completely disregarded. And he marched his men straight into the line of fire.

It’s a blunder to match any committed in this theatre by his opponents, all the way back to the Battle of Tanga in 1914. He’s been severely shaken by the defeat. Now he’s got to work out what to do next. For the time being, that’s “nothing”; today sees only artillery fire.

Enver in the Caucasus

Vehip Pasha, commander of the Ottoman Third Army, is making good progress in scraping the pieces back together. He’s getting his reinforcements, he’s beginning to send patrols forward again, more men are due soon, he’s working out where the Russians are and what their strength is. Now all he needs is a little more time while the rest of his fresh men make the long, slow journey east. He’s also just received the worrying (and accurate) news that a fresh Russian division has just been shipped into Trebizond. Plenty to think about, so if he can just be left to get on with it…

Enter Enver Pasha. He’s come on a visit to Erzincan and is soon asking what Vehip intends to do next with all these fresh men. You know how it is when the boss arrives and wants you to look busy. It’s awfully hard to say no outright to him. You try to hint about big plans, he wants concrete commitments, and before you know where you are, you’re committed to something over-optimistic that you really don’t need to be doing. Isn’t that great? More soon.

Oskar Teichman

That’s right, folks. We don’t have enough correspondents to be getting on with, clearly. Let’s have a new one. Oskar Teichman is another in the long line of people who I’d have picked up earlier if only I’d known of their existence. Despite a suspiciously foreign name, his family is British enough to easily allow him into the Royal Army Medical Corps and to join his local Yeomanry regiment of reserve cavalry. They went to Suvla Bay, where Teichman somehow survived generally serving under General Stopford, and particularly being wounded in the neck by shrapnel.

He’s spent the intervening months recuperating in England; what was left of the Worcester Yeomanry went to Egypt to recuperate after Gallipoli. There’s then been an attack of common sense, and the Yeomanry are to be kept there to defend the Suez Canal, in a theatre where mounted troops can actually do some good. Now it’s time for Teichman to get back to that lovely war.

Off to the East again for the third time in thirteen months; this time it was on the empty hospital ship Carisbrooke Castle, outward bound from Southampton to Alexandria.

A boring eleven-day voyage follows. Don’t worry, he gets more verbose when interesting things happen.

Hunter-Weston

Hey, speaking of people who were on Gallipoli. A while ago we mentioned the possibility that General Hunter-Weston, now back in command of his corps on the Western Front, might have learned something from that experience. Under General Rawlinson he’d apparently become quite the advocate for bite and hold. But don’t worry, General Haig is giving him a pep talk today.

I impressed on him that there must be no halting attacks at each trench in succession for rear lines to pass through! The objective must be as far as our guns can prepare the Enemy’s position for attack – and when the attack starts it must be pushed through to the final objective with as little delay as possible. His experiences at Gallipoli were under very different conditions. Then he landed from ships, a slow proceeding. Now his troops can be forward in succession of lines in great depth, and all can start at the same moment!

Oi. Dumbass on the horse. Yeah, you. Did you, like, stop reading about Gallipoli after the day of the landings? Hunter-Weston was there for months longer. Fought a bunch more battles in front of Krithia along the lines you’re suggesting. They didn’t end well either. He went home. He changed his mind! He changed his mind. And now you’re trying to change it back. Because apparently you know better.

Still, on Gallipoli, Hunter-Weston was also a bull-headed so-and-so who didn’t much like the idea of commanders-in-chief telling him what to do. Maybe he’ll ignore Haig like he ignored Sir Ian Hamilton. I’ve got a bad feeling about this, though. More soon.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is still waiting on the word to go to Hill 304.

At the eve of each day of carnage, they tried using lies to counter the depressed morale of the soldier. According to self-proclaimed reliable sources, and from encouraging notes passed around, the division was going to be relieved; we weren’t going up to the front line; the rationers were giving us only two days’ worth of food; and other tales which bolstered our confidence and chased the anguish from our hearts. But these illusions were short-lived.

They’re there because they’re there, indeed.

Malcolm White

Last we heard from Lieutenant Malcolm White of the Rifle Brigade, he was in temporary command of his company to cover someone else’s leave. He was also bagging on himself very hard for apparently screwing things up during a march. They’re still out of the line. They’re still marching.

Another black day, though it should have been a good one, for I did an interesting Advanced Guard march with the Company and the Company Lewis Gun detachment, which accompanied me for the first time. The country and weather both very beautiful.

And apparently he’s still knobbing things up, and he’s self-aware enough to know it.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is struggling to avoid falling foul of the Army’s stupid rules.

Our huts here in [the crocks’ camp] are more airy and generally more attractive than those [of Mugge’s fighting battalion]. Incandescent lamps. There is one other great and much more important difference. In No. 6 Company we had to tie the string which holds our mattress with pillows inside rolled up together in the daytime, perpendicularly, whereas here it’s done horizontally. I was almost “crimed” over that latitudinarian rule.

Gulliver tells us, a “bloody war has been carried on for six and thirty moons and the reason was that the Blefuscudians and Lilliputians differed about the way in which an egg ought to be cut. Horizontally or perpendicularly?”

For once, the reference is vaguely intelligible to a modern reader. This is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Worth reading for anyone who likes satire, although large parts of it are severely and unavoidably dated.

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