von Knobelsdorf | Iringa | 21 Aug 1916

Nyasalanders in Tanzania

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Nyasalanders’ campaign in the south-west of Tanzania is proving to be rather a curate’s egg. In engagement after engagement they’ve forced the enemy Schutztruppe back, caused casualties, taken few in return. In theory they should now be well-placed to march hard to Iringa, and complete a grand encirclement. In theory. Unfortunately, that’s just slightly beyond their capabilities, especially as they’re now at the end of a 200-mile supply line, surviving on half rations, their numbers worn down by disease.

So what we’ve got here is just another load of men marching a very long way to very little practical effect. They’ll make Iringa in a week, and then General Smuts is going to have to seriously re-assess this campaign. There’ll be no quick six-month victory, and no grand pivot of resources to another theatre just yet.

German command structure

There is an important German command change today. As chief of staff of the German 5th Army (officially commanded by the Kaiser’s son), General von Knobelsdorf (no sniggering) has played a key role in the Battle of Verdun. He’s the poor sod who’s been trying to achieve General von Falkenhayn’s wishes, and also to figure out what they are, which is not an easy job. He’s been advocating for continuing attacks even despite the Battle of the Somme.

This is an unwelcome opinion, and today he’s been called away from the battle. There are two pieces of news. First, he’s been awarded the Pour le Merite, a major German decoration. Yay! Second, he’s been re-assigned to the Eastern Front as a corps commander, a clear demotion. Boo! The knives are well and truly out in Berlin at the moment. This will not be the last change of command before the end of the month. Every option is on the table, and the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, has now fully taken up lobbying for the supposed dream team of von Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Over the last couple of weeks, both the Chancellor and von Hindenburg himself have been bombarding Kaiser Wilhelm II with letters on the subject of von Falkenhayn’s many inadequacies. The Kaiser, however still appears to be listening to von Falkenhayn, who’s been firing back with both metaphorical barrels. So today Bethmann-Hollweg goes to Pless Castle, where the boss has his headquarters. He’s going to spend the next three days personally trying to browbeat the increasingly-indecisive monarch into actually taking a decision. More soon!


The current arrangements in Britain for tank design and production have both advantages and disadvantages. We’ll hopefully recall that Bertie Stern is now in undisputed control of the Tank Supply Department of the Ministry of Munitions. This gives him plenty of opportunity to drive things forward and use his own authority to drive design and procurement decisions. He doesn’t have to refer to the War Office or to GHQ in France before doing things. Today he uses that authority to do something both useful and unwise.

He’s convinced that when the tanks finally go into action, their potential will be obvious and there’s going to be an immediate request for as many machines as possible, as soon as possible. This can’t be done as simply as snapping one’s fingers, of course. Skilled workers have to be recruited. Supplies of steel, fuel, and other raw materials have to be earmarked. Guns, engines, caterpillar tracks, and all kinds of other components have to be manufactured. Factory space needs to be available for the manufacturing process.

Therefore, on his own authority, he today authorises the construction of an extra 1,000 machines of a similar type to the Mark I tank. (They won’t have to be identical, mind you, and two upgraded Marks are already being designed to improve on the Mark I design.) Unfortunately, he’s done so without informing anyone in the Army. He reasons that he has the support of David Lloyd George, now Minister of War; that should be more than enough support. This is deeply politically unwise. More soon, alas.

Robert Pelissier

The tone of Robert Pelissier’s correspondence has just taken a rather unhappy turn. On the Hartmannswillerkopf there was plenty of time to think and to describe daily life. Now he’s arrived in the Somme sector; and his latest letter to a friend in America, where he taught before the war, well…

We are not very far from your English cousins. They and we are bombarding with a continuity which quite beggars description. There is a canopy of steel over our heads just about day and night. We are so used to the constant reports and hisses that we don’t pay any attention to anything that falls not in our immediate neighborhood. You have had plenty of thunderstorms this year. Well, a barrage is like the most furious thunderstorm you ever heard, only it goes on and on by the hour and when it turns to ordinary bombardment it’s like an ordinary storm. (Living in New England is fine preparation for war.)

I cannot give you any details about important things because we do not know what is going on and the papers are stuffed with mere trifles. Will write you at length when we get back to some sane region.

No more lyrical descriptions, or meditations on American foreign policy. He was like this up in the Vosges when things got hot. More soon.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has not only shot an antelope big enough to feed all his mates for a week, he’s also survived his birthday without some near-death scrape. Maybe this is a sign that I can stop poking fun at him all the time?

Fooling about with Bibby. Put my foot on a tree stump and skinned it. Rather painful for a while.

Sad trombone. Sad, sad trombone.

Rather chilly wind sprang up so put on my overcoat and started a letter to Mother. Mossy Green came in to see me, but could not stay long as he is leaving for Kilossa this morning. Started on our rainy season house, getting the zinc from an old blockhouse started by the Motor Cycle Corps. My guard from 2pm to 4pm, after which went to town, but my foot was rather painful.

You don’t say, chief. You don’t say.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is censoring his men’s letters, and provides an excellent cautionary tale against reading too much into the contents of captured letters and diaries.

Some of the men’s letters are very amusing, their comments on the war, their food, the French people, etc. Yesterday a chap asserted positively that the war would be over by November. In a letter this morning another man said he was counting on being home for Christmas, 1925. One very funny letter was written by a man who was most indignant at having been transferred to a kilted battalion. He did not object to kilts per se, but he objected strenuously to “scrubbing his knees every day.” Not one letter that I have read has been anything but confident as to the outcome of the war, and all are cheerful.

I had the experience of wearing a gas helmet the other day and walking through gas ten times as powerful as one is likely to meet in the trenches. I could breathe without difficulty, but found the helmet hot and uncomfortable, which, of course, is unavoidable.

If ever there is a slow day again in this war, I’ll dig out some personal accounts from men who were posted into kilted regiments, and found they actually preferred wearing kilts in the trenches. It barely seems creditable, but I promise they exist.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still quietly ticking over, but I promise some first-rate fifth-gear outrage and sacrasm is on its way. In the meantime, he’s reading the evening paper, and makes a highly interesting observation.

The “Evening News” says: –
“That the Board of Trade is still liable to cling to its old traditions is made evident by the recent appointment of Mr Albert George Holzapfel to the position of British Consul at Rotterdam. We are well aware that Mr. Holzapfel’s father was naturalised in this country and that he himself was born and bred here. We have no word to say against his loyalty, but the fact remains that his name is not one which is calculated to inspire confidence.

A man with German connections, however devoted he may be to the cause of Britain and her Allies, is most emphatically not the man to supervise the blockade of Germany, and the choice of Mr Holzapfel shows not only want of vision but want of common sense.”

So that old oracle Shakespeare was all wrong. There is much more in a name than he dreamt of. If William Shakespeare had been born of German parents 1889 and lived during the War, he would not have said “What’s in a name?”

First, let us issue a hearty “fuck you” to the bloke who writes leaders for the Evening News. Now that’s out of the way, let us examine for a moment what exactly “What’s in a name?” means. It’s from Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2, part of the famous bit on the balcony where Juliet laments that she is a Capulet and Romeo is a Montague and yet she still loves him. “What’s in a name?” is a key transition as she talks the predicament through and decides that his name is irrelevant to her.

There is a very popular interpretation of the play as the story of two bloody idiots, a pair of naive youngsters (Juliet is turning 14; Romeo is not too much older) who think that Love Can Conquer All and tragically find out that it does not. In particular, she thinks that ultimately his name is unimportant, but ends up wrong. I think Mugge has got the wrong end of the stick entirely. “What’s in a name?” is surely an acknowledgement that in fact there is a lot in a name.

But, you know, he’s still doing a hell of a lot better engaging with Shakespeare in English than I’d do with, say, Goethe in German.

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

Kowel | Pozieres | 24 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme is congealing again. Not that it moved very far on the 23rd, mind you. A satirical comedy once described General Haig’s tactics as “yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin”, a quotation that I may have referenced once or twice over the last two years. And, over the last two years, I hope I’ve demonstrated that there is indeed much more to the war than the Blackadder view.

Unfortunately, satire must be based in reality to be effective. We are now entering a period of the war when it really is going to be a whole lot of witlessly advancing on Berlin six inches at a time. There are a few more penny-packet attacks near Guillemont and High Wood, but the only area of the BEF’s front to still be seeing major action is Pozieres, where the Australians are consolidating. There’s been quite a bit of confusion and inaccurate reports filtering back to the German rear. Generals von Below and von Gallwitz have been squabbling about when they should counter-attack. Mid-level commanders are ordering pfennig-packet counter-attacks in the meantime.

There really are very few people indeed with some kind of responsibility for strategic decisions who come out of the Somme looking at all good. Meanwhile, at the sharp end, the sheer weight of artillery is increasing and increasing as both sides attempt to break up the other’s attempts to move reinforcements into the area. Pozieres is now just a mass of ruins and scattered bricks and trenches and shell-holes. One Private P Kinchington was right in the middle of it.

The heavy shells were falling, so it was estimated, at the rate of three a minute. It was not long before the area became unrecognisable, and as time went on even the unwounded felt sick. Food and water were not too plentiful, and we did not know when any more would be available. After our iron rations had gone we were compelled to fall back upon any that could be found on the dead.

You know, there’s part of me that wants to go “jeez, how horrible”, and then part of me that wants to go “yeah, and Henri Desagneaux survived two weeks under this kind of pressure, suck it up, rub some dirt on it”. Oh, and very few historians have seen fit to mention that the French launched their half of yesterday’s attack today (ahem). Another couple of hundred metres of dead, ruined, barren ground have been liberated for the glory of the Third Republic, but by and large it’s been just as much a failure as their allies’ attempts.

Madibira and Malangali

Time now to nip over to Africa to check on the progress of General Northey’s “ubiquitous Rhodesians”, who are driving north-east from the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. The original thought was that they might be able to quickly encircle the Schutztruppe’s border garrison, but this has soon floundered. The conditions have proven far harder than anyone was expecting; the soldiers are struggling and their local porters are frequently and literally being walked to their deaths. Meanwhile, the enemy is showing a thoroughly unsporting disinclination to actually fight while brutally outnumbered.

Well, for the most part. There’s a particularly defensible position between Madibira and Malangali. The retreating Schutztruppe mean to make a stand here, and they’ve been supported by a small company of reinforcements, a hundred of them former naval men from the Konigsberg. There are even worrying rumours that those men might have brought one of their old ship’s guns with them. But, don’t worry, good news, those rumours will quickly turn out to be untrue.

Bad news: this is because it’s not a Konigsberg gun, it’s a 10.5cm howitzer that arrived on the supply ship Marie. One of Northey’s detachments discover its presence when they’re about 2,000 yards from Malangali. The biggest gun most people with the force will have seen (and heard) before is a small mountain piece; it must have been like spending your entire life in rowing boats and then getting up close to a supertanker in the fog. Somehow the men don’t immediately turn and flee en masse, and most of them continue fighting all day and through the night.

By tomorrow morning, the German commander Captain Braunschweig is retreating again, and thanks to a broken gun carriage, he’s had to leave the offending howitzer behind. Oops! Even better, during the height of the battle, he received a message telling him that the tribal chief whose lands stood right on his line of retreat had seen which way the wind was blowing and come out in support of the British Empire. Back on the road everyone goes, heading in the general direction of Iringa. More soon.

Battle of Kowel

Hi, this is your infrequent reminder that we’re still brutally short-changing the Brusilov Offensive, which has been going on all the while. For two months General Brusilov’s armies have been advancing west towards Lvov, targeting the Austro-Hungarian forces. They’ve lost a lot of men, and inflicted even more on the enemy. General von Linsingen is now ready to oppose the battle with a major counter-attack, which I’ll hopefully be able to make more sense of in time for the book of 1916, where it’ll have its proper weight. For now: it’s underway, it’s slowing the Russians down again, lots of people died.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman and his men get some good advice from the rear.

The Turks were said to be still entrenching, and Intelligence reported that large numbers of machine guns were being brought up. We received orders that while on the move no one was to touch his water-bottle between dawn and sunset, and that even then he was not to empty his bottle until he knew for certain that more water was to be issued.

Water discipline is an often-ignored part of soldiering during battle, but it’s absolutely critical. The Australian veterans at Pozieres would have learned about it the hard way on Gallipoli.

E.S. Thompson

With an advance on Dodoma now underway, there won’t be many more boring camp days in E.S. Thompson’s future, I think. Which is good, because the devil is making work for some of his men’s idle hands.

Attended my first parade this morning since coming out of hospital. Quite enjoyed it although we got some weird orders. Got orders to stand by for moving. Made 3 slices each of toast for lunch which we had with some lovely dripping melted from an ox hump. Started a letter to mother. Went for a most enjoyable bath and on the way back had a game of ‘Crown and Anchor’, coming out even. Nice stew cooked by Rose, the first he has made by himself. Smith and Sterling tried to ‘lift’ a bag of flour and mealie-meal but were found out and after biffing [an African], fled.

Should have stuck to masturbation, boys. Those square brackets aren’t mine, by the way. They’re from whoever edited and published the diary. Anyone want to bet a fiver on that originally being some flagrantly racist word?

Oswin Creighton

Padre and Gallipoli veteran Oswin Creighton is beginning to get indications that he might soon return to the war, this time to France. For now, he’s still at Romsey; he’s just attended a conference of the Student Christian Movement.

I hear from the Chaplain-General that he does not propose to send me out to the Front just yet, but will get me an exchange soon. Then came Bishop Bury’s letter,but I gather the way is not open yet to sending anyone to Germany. I took Captain Band and the boys to the Coliseum, and we had a good laugh. I liked some of the men I met so much. But when I read the casualty lists and accounts of the violent fighting going on, I feel that we all ought to be in it, and really envy the men who are having the worst times. They have no problems.

But I suppose problems will continue after death, and the efforts we make now for their solution will not be utterly in vain.

Here’s a real indication of Creighton’s character. The letter to Bishop Bury was an offer, and I am not making this up, to travel to Germany and be interned in a POW camp so he could minister to the captured men.

Yeah, this is one of those times when I simply cannot react to something. Moving on.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is complaining once again about his book of Serbian folk songs, still not in print. After venting his feelings, he turns to an always-popular theme among the upper-middle-class intelligentsia: complaining that the working classes are not enjoying themselves in an approved fashion.

There is a total absence of real folk-songs everywhere; at any rate, with all the units with which I have come into contact. If the boys are not singing snatches from silly music-hall songs, they are gabbling some incoherent stuff with deadly monotony. Last night my tent-mates were singing for over half an hour, “Wee ahr heere,” “Wee ahr heere.” Nothing but that! Even a solipsist would have believed in their existence, had he listened. “We are here, we are here,” ad infinitum; why! this beautiful motive beats the mere “Here we are, here we are again”!

What a pity the boys were not taught pretty folk-songs when they were at school, or perhaps I rather should say, why don’t they ever sing those few charming ditties they were taught? What’s the remedy? It would be, of course, a gross libel on the men to say that they are singing nothing but monotonous parrotries. What I do complain of is the total absence of such songs as: “Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling,” or “Hope the Hermit,” or “Come Lasses and Lads,” or “There was a jolly miller once.”

I wonder how he would like it if I moved to Germany and then complained that people were wearing jeans and T-shirts instead of lederhosen? Besides, Mugge would do well to do better research before starting the Campaign for Real Folk Music. “Tom Bowling” was written by the proto-music-hall songwriter Charles Dibden in 1788 about his brother, although it does sound convincingly like something that Rambling Syd Rumpo might play. In fact, I bet you’d even find a lot of academics today who’d argue that the soldiers’ songs he’s complaining about have just as much right to be called traditional folk songs as anything else…

By the way: Solipsists are philosophers who argue that any one person can only know for sure that their own mind exists, and “There was a jolly miller once” is more commonly known as “Miller of Dee”.

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

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