Haig and Rawlinson | 22 Aug 1916

Haig and Rawlinson

It seems that the rule among the BEF’s high command at the moment is “if in doubt, shout at General Rawlinson”. While General Melchett might have approved of this man-management strategy, he’s about the only one. To be sure, General Haig has every reason to be peeved about the performance of his 4th Army commander, and has told him so in no uncertain terms.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from the repeated failure of attacks on Guillemont is that something is wanting in the methods employed. The next attack must be thoroughly prepared for in accordance with the principles which have been uccessful in previous attacks and which are, or should be, well known to commanders of all ranks. …

In actual execution of plans, when control by higher commanders is impossible, subordinates on the spot must act on their own initiative, and they must be trained to do so. But in preparation close supervision by higher commanders is not only possible but is their duty, to such extent as they find necessary to ensure that everything is done that can be done to ensure success. … It is not interference but a legitimate and necessary exercise of the functions of a commander on whom the ultimate responsibility for success or failure lies.

Oh, physician, why dost thou not heal thyself? You’re right, General. It is indeed both legitimate and necessary. So why are you, personally, so incapable of doing it? He goes further when describing to his diary Rawlinson’s latest plan for taking Guillemont.

I disapproved of…his plan because the whole advance would be under the Enemy’s machine gun fire from Guillemont Ridge. Numerous shell holes afforded excellent cover for his machine guns. In fact I thought the scheme doomed to failure.

So why didn’t you make him un-fuck it before allowing him to attack again, you hopeless pillock? It’s enough to make anyone want to scream.

JRR Tolkien

Tolkien and his friend G.B. Smith are doing some soul-searching, just as hundreds of thousands of other men are, who’ve so recently seen their mates die in a dubious cause. He and his school-friends declared years previously that they were destined to do great things in the world, and now it’s uncertain whether any of them will survive the war. Smith offers his grieving friend some high-minded words of encouragement; Tolkien comes to the conclusion that if only one of them lives, that one might achieve greatness on his own.

As they try to eat together for the last time before Smith has to go back up the line, their rear-area billet is shelled and they have to dive for cover. Tolkien’s course is ending; he’ll be back in the trenches soon. And this will be the last time he sees Smith alive.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman, meanwhile, has been wounded. Sort of.

Castlereagh, bright lad, has made me a drink of tea, which I am thankful to accept even from his mess-tin. But while drinking it, I feel a smack on the neck and look round to see who is throwing earth about. No one looks guilty, and putting my hand up I find my neck bleeding; and there at my feet lies an inch of shrapnel I had not seen before. Luckily it must have been the flat side that hit and split the skin. Hill ties me up and we laugh over our first “casualty.” Then Rowley comes along and, brushing my ridicule aside, insists that I must report to the Medical Officer.

He’s passing this off with a stiff upper lip, but he was very possibly only a few inches from death. The side of the neck instead of the back, the carotid arteries; or a sharp edge breaking through to the spine or the brain…

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley continues trying to make the best of a bad job.

I attempted a long walk, permission having been obtained for a party of us to go. The direction led me over hills towards some pine woods—a considerable climb for those in our condition. An extraordinary phenomenon common to almost all Kut people, young and old—but more especially to the young who had starved on account of enteritis troubles—is their sudden huge girth expansion. One’s figure protrudes like any Turk’s. The fatty foods and weak state of the stomach are said to be the cause of this.

The next day I actually turned out to rugger for our house, as left wing three-quarter. The delight after all one’s sickness in feeling one’s legs really attempting to run was so encouraging that one Brabazon and I, for dinner, divided a bottle of German beer. This is to become a custom. We played three spells of ten minutes each, and quite enough too, with a ball stuffed with wool, as we had no bladder. Kastamonu is totally hilly, and the footer ground over a mile away, is uneven and stony, but the best we can get. Correct collaring is barred, but we go croppers just the same.

I have had some rough chessmen made out of bits of wood, and am settling down to discipline my mind again to some sort of methodical thinking. One feels that some such effort as this stands between us and oblivion.

He seems quite determined to portray Kastamonu as the world’s worst CenterParcs resort. And I can only imagine the fun had by anyone who did not grow up in England, trying to decode the sentence “Correct collaring is barred, but we go croppers just the same”.

Ruth Farnam

Ruth Farnam has now gone from London to Southampton to catch a boat. She lived in Southampton for a while before the war, and has heard that one of her old household staff has been wounded in France and is now in a local hospital, so pays him a visit.

When I saw poor Mursell, my faithful gardener of happier days, on crutches and heard that he had been wounded in the legs, he seemed to think that I ought to have an explanation. As he is only five feet four inches in height he was, for a time, ineligible for military service, but after a while “Bantam Regiments” were formed and he was among the first to join and was the tallest man in his regiment! “Yes, madam,” he said, “I caught a shell-splinter in my legs. Why, a man six foot four could have been wounded there.”
He was quite cheerful and happy, in spite of the pain which he was suffering, to have “done his bit” in the great war.

On my way to dinner in the town, I remembered that my presence at the police station was required, so I went there. The sergeant on duty asked my business.
“I’m an alien and am here without an identity card,” I said. “Are you going to arrest me?”
“What for, madam?” he asked.
“Oh, I just thought you might want to,” I replied.
“Wouldn’t think of such a thing. And I didn’t know you was a h’alien, madam.” This courteously.

I looked surprised and he laughed and said he remembered often having seen my husband drive with me down the High Street when we lived near Southampton and he ‘ad h’ always supposed that I was H’english, though he knew that Mr. Farnam was a H’american.

I do henjoy seeing someone take note of the peculiar speech patterns hof the workin’-class British man who is puttin’ on hairs, on haccount of bein’ in a position of hauthority.

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

Eland | Florina | 19 Aug 1916

Battle of Doiran

The Serbian Army has been forced to give up the town of Florina, near Lake Ostrovo. Happily for them, there happens to be a rather large ridge between the town and Lake Ostrovo. If the Bulgarians First Army can push all the way through to the lake, they’re going to have a secure flank and will be extremely difficult to dislodge from their current position.

Africa

In the south-west of Tanzania, one Sergeant Maker of the South African Mounted Rifles has just seen something truly jaw-dropping. They’ve just seen off a small Schutztruppe detachment, and Maker is leading a patrol through the very middle of nowhere, near the banks of the River Ruhudje.

As we approached the river, just about dawn, something caused me to stop dead still, which also brought the patrol to a halt. There was no talking allowed, so everything was done by signs. Nothing happened. The signal was given to advance, and at that moment, the whole countryside appeared to move! As far as one could see, there were eland; males, females, and calves. They slowly moved off, up the river. … I often wonder, with the advance of civilization, if a sight like this will ever be seen again.

An eland is a kind of antelope. They’ve briefly slipped from Michael Redgrave narrating The Great War, and dropped into David Attenborough narrating Life on Earth.

JRR Tolkien

Tolkien’s battalion is still dodging shells in the trenches near Beaumont Hamel. The man himself has once again been excused trench duty, though. All battalion signal officers in the division have been recalled to headquarters for a week of urgent remedial training. By day he’s being bollocked by someone who ranks as high as any on the Divisional staff (please read that in the accent of Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian). By night, though, it turns out that his friend GB Smith has just moved into rest billets near him, and they’re able to spend a lot of time together.

It’s not entirely happy. They’re both struggling with the loss of Rob Gilson, rather as Evelyn Southwell and thousands of other subalterns are struggling with similar losses. More family friends have died since then, for both of them. More will die as the war continues.

Persia

General Baratov’s Russians are now installing themselves on the Sultan-bulak pass; and here the situation in Persia finally congeals for a good time to come. Ottoman commander Ihsan Pasha (not to be confused with the other Ihsan Pasha, who was captured at the Battle of Sarikamis) has never been entirely sure about Enver Pasha’s grand design of advancing clean across Persia to make trouble in Afghanistan for the British Empire. He’s at the sharp end of a 370-mile supply line and has no intention of getting his men slaughtered on the pass. Here they stop; here they will stay for the forseeable future.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is not enjoying his time at war. He’s on the Somme, currently occupying reserve positions near Montauban and Pommiers Redoubt, in what used to be the German First Line.

We seem to have been here for weeks: actually we have been here three days. It has been what is called “a soft time,” too, for the only casualties in the battalion have occurred in the company behind us, and there they have only had about half a dozen killed and wounded. We hear the batteries have suffered heavily, and small wonder, for so far the shelling has never stopped. This afternoon, frayed out with the incessant noise, I went to see Captain Rowley in his miserable little dug-out for the sole purpose of asking him whether shelling ever did stop.

He smiled and inquired what I expected, adding that it was “a bit steep,” but we ought to be thinking ourselves damned lucky we weren’t getting it. I was immensely grateful to him, for he was friendly and not in the least superior. I shall owe him something for that kindness as long as we are together.

As dark comes on we are filing out to dig a new communication-trench down in the valley between the front line and our own. Passing a dump, the men draw picks and shovels alternately. It is strange and exciting to be in the open again. The men are extended in line while the tape is being laid. They begin to chatter, too loudly it seems, for half a dozen whiz-bangs come fizzing right among us, glaring red as they burst. The men flop, and I, knowing no better, do the same. Down along the line comes Rowley cursing the men furiously. “What the hell do you think you are doing lying there?”

I get up feeling badly chagrined, and the work is begun.

And he’s not even been right up the line yet. Perhaps this is an act of common sense from the Staff to hold them back for the time being; the 10th Green Howards are still far from full strength.

Flora Sandes

Flora Sandes is acclimatising rather more speedily to life in the middle of an offensive.

In this sort of terrain the shells used to make the most appalling din, bursting on the rocks and scattering them in every direction, whilst the echoes kept up a continual reverberation among the mountains, growing fainter and fainter, but never wholly dying away before the next shell fell and echoes started anew.

For some reason prolonged shelling always made me feel sleepy. The louder the racket the more soundly I slept. One day we were waiting as reserves, while a terrific bombardment was going on just below us. The colonel, prowling round, passed me curled up under a rock fast asleep, and was much amused. “You must indeed be an old soldier if you can sleep through that, and no longer my new recruit,” he said to me afterwards. As there were no trenches, or deep dugouts, all we could do, when we got caught in a place without cover, was to lie flat on our faces, bury our heads in our arms, and grin and bear it.

Of course, nothing is so bad when there are plenty of others quite close to you, all doing the same thing, which I suppose accounts for that fatal tendency, leading men to bunch up together under shellfire, instead of scattering as they should.

A long time ago, I recall Louis Barthas commenting with surprise on his platoon snoozebag, who could sleep his way through even the heaviest shelling. Now we get the story from the snoozebag’s point of view.

Ruth Farnam

Meanwhile. Ruth Farnam is an American who’s just beginning a very similar career trajectory to our Flora; beginning as a nurse, then having to leave Serbia urgently, then returning later as a general do-gooder. She’s officially coming back to the front as a representative of the Serbian Relief Committee, a humanitarian organisation to support refugees. Her mission, which she has chosen to accept, is to visit the American consulates in Greece and smooth over some apparently strained relations.

But, like Sandes, her life is going to take one hell of a left turn at Albuquerque…

It was the third week in August when I sailed. There were no trippers, no gamblers, no “little actresses” and few New York dressmakers or milliners on board. Everyone was going on serious business, mostly connected with the war, which was nearly the sole topic of conversation. Many people then, as they are today, were perfectly certain that “Germany cannot last out another six months.” There were several alarms of submarines and one man was so depressed by the sense of danger that he jumped overboard and was lost.

On our arrival at the mouth of the Mersey, we found ourselves enveloped in a dense fog and were obliged to wait several hours before we could go up to Liverpool. Just behind us, when we at last did berth, was a large ship filled with German prisoners that had arrived that day from the Cameroons. They lined the rail and stared at us curiously, and when two other New York women and I passed near them, one of the younger ones shouted something about “Amerikanerin” and spat viciously in our direction. I saw an English sailor grab him by the collar and there was trouble for a few minutes.

It is of course relatively easy for a sergeant of the Serbian army to return to her regiment and face the enemy guns. For an American civilian, there is a far more pernicious enemy to overcome: bureaucracy. We’ll see how she goes with that.

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

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

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

Delville Wood | High Wood | 15 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

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

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

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

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

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

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

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

Delville Wood

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

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

It’s not easy.

High Wood

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

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

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

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

Ovillers

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

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

Fort Souville

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

Romania

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

Battle of Erzincan

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

Neil Fraser-Tytler

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

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

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

Robert Pelissier

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

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

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

Nah mate, you were right first time.

Actions in Progress

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

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