Chinese Labour Corps | 23 Aug 1916

Chinese Labour Corps

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

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

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

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

E.S. Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

Herbert Sulzbach

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

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

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

Henri Desagneaux

Another intermittent missive from Captain Henri Desagneaux.

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

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

Ruth Farnam

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

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

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

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

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Taking stock | 31 July 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme is one month old. It’s been a long bloody month. I think I’ve said about all that can possibly be said about July on the Somme. Let us just round it off with a couple of observations from the big bosses. Interestingly, both General Joffre and General Haig are doing the same thing; they’re hectoring a subordinate.

Joffre is primarily concerned for the prospects of future cooperation with the BEF. He’s been getting a lot of messages recently from Generals Foch and Fayolle, repeating the earlier themes of the English amateurs who simply don’t know what they’re doing. The men on the spot are both angling for an independent attack to capture Peronne and its road and rail junctions. In strict strategic terms it is probably the correct decision, but Joffre must also consider politics and the need not to offend allies who they will need next year

The fundamental intention of the Somme offensive must continue to be supporting the British attack in the north. Our offensive in the south must remain secondary or subordinate to the results obtained in the north.

It will, of course, be much easier for Joffre to organise another big push to coincide with Romania’s entry into the war and the next battle of the Isonzo (of course that’s coming) if it can be presented as “we all attack together!” rather than “you get on with it, and we’ll get on with it”. There’s a big conference being planned at a chateau near the Somme. King George V and President Poincare will be attending, and there will of course be a spectacularly gluttonous dinner, no small task when General Joffre’s appetite is in town.

Haig and Rawlinson

After a month of falling short of objectives, General Haig is writing an extensive position paper. It would probably be slightly unfair to call it an extended bollocking for General Rawlinson. That’s not all that’s there. But there is plenty of it there.

To enable us to bring the present operations (the existing phase of which may be regarded as a ‘wearing out’ battle) to a successful termination, we must practice such economy of men and material as will ensure our having the ‘last reserves’ at our disposal when the crisis of the fight is reached, which may—and probably will—not be sooner than the last half of September.

The first necessity at the moment is to help the French forward on our right flank. For this we must capture Guillemont, Falfemont Farm and Ginchy as soon as possible. These places cannot be taken, however—with due regard to economy of means available—without careful and methodical preparation. The necessary preparations must be pushed on without delay, and the attack will be launched when the responsible commanders on the spot are satisfied that everything possible has been done to ensure success.

He also includes explicit instructions not to attack anywhere else…but they are allowed to conduct prepatory works for another offensive. I smell loophole. Watch that space. We’ve also got some instructions for Reserve Army, instructing them to attack only to capture Pozieres windmill.

The operations outlined above are to be carried out with as little expenditure of fresh troops and of munitions as circumstances will admit of, but in each attack undertaken a sufficient force must be employed to make success as certain as possible, and to secure the objectives won against counter-attack. Economy of men and munitions is to be sought for, not by employing insufficient force for the objective in view, but by a careful selection of objectives.

If only winning a battle were as simple as ordering the Army commander “Don’t fuck up” and leaving him to get on with it. These are not easy orders to follow. It’s like cooking for Goldilocks. Hurry up, but not too much. Prepare properly, but don’t dawdle. General Rawlinson is left to hold a conference to make some sense of these orders. I’ll not hold my breath.

Haig’s diary, meanwhile, is fabulously dull. There’s then a little space, and then an additional note, apparently added not too long afterwards.

OBJECTIVE
The war must be continued until Germany is vanquished to such an extent as to be obliged to accept whatever terms the Allies may dictate to her.

As far as we know, this has simply occurred to the Chief in his thoughts. As far as I know, this is the first time since 1914 that anyone has considered what “victory” might mean, and what it might look like. What a way to end one of the bloodiest months of the war.

Max Plowman

The engine of war continues ticking over. Max Plowman is training in the Bull Ring at Etaples, which by law I must refer to as the “notorious” Bull Ring.

We are on our way to the Bull Ring: two hundred of us, officers who have not been to the Front and are therefore due for a course of intensive training till some battalion of our regiments shall require us. Here we are, slogging along under the command of a captain, back in the ranks again, carrying rifles. This appears to be an indignity to some of these fellows; but it does not trouble me, for I have no gift for the assertion of authority, and find it easier to obey army orders than to give them. The responsibility of command is an effort which diverts thought from what are much more natural, if useless, channels.

These huts to our right and left are hospitals. And what is that, looking like an ungrown hopfield? A British cemetery, Lord! How many have died already! The ground is smothered with wooden crosses.

We march on in the heat till we come to a great open sandy arena. Out on to this plain we file, and now we are put through physical jerks by officers who have risen from the regular ranks; and now are drilled by sergeant-majors who have been chosen for this duty presumably by virtue of the harshness of their voices and the austerity of their manners. It is hot work, and there is a fierce, vindictive atmosphere about this place which makes its name of “Bull Ring” intelligible.

Later we climb up among the sand dunes on the other side of the road, and there practise firing rifle grenades and throwing those small egg-shaped cast-iron missiles known as Mills bombs. Here too we learn more of the methods of gas attack and defence, and practise the art of shoving our heads quickly into the clammy flannel bags that are dignified by the name of PH helmets. We finish the morning’s work by running obstacle races over a prepared course back on the arena.

In other times, all signs of our activity banishe’d, these sand dunes must make a place of delightful holiday. Even to-day one’s eyes wandered instinctively toward the blue estuary that lay below us, where the tiny white sail of a yacht moved slowly up-stream.

Yes, he actually wrote “banishe’d”. It’s funny; when he’s pleasing Columbo and giving us just the facts, he’s got a real talent for this “memoir” lark. Then he starts trying to write Literature and he sounds like a massive, massive berk, and I just want to poke fun at everything he says. He is right that in peacetime, Le Toquet is a well-to-do beach resort of considerable reputation, mind.

The PH helmet, by the way, has now of course been superceded by the Respirator Small Box. However, like the steel helmet, the modern respirator is issued as trench stores only, left up the line by units who are going back to rest for the next lot who are following them. There aren’t enough spare for people to train with them.

Neil Tennant at Basra

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the Royal Flying Corps has now arrived at Basra. On the way, he’s not been surprised to see a steady stream of hospital ships sailing the reverse route to India. He starts, of course, by whinging about the heat, and quickly moves on to whinging about everything else.

The place is famous at least for its climate; the humid heat hangs heavy on the lungs, everything is saturated, ink runs on the paper, and matches will barely strike. Endure the day, but the night brings no relief. There is no freshness in a Basra summer, and the ravages of prickly heat, mosquito, and sand-fly combine ‘to shrivel all impulse and desire. The town and its surroundings are intersected by canals and lagoons, and densely sown with date palms.

I had an interview with General Sir Percy Lake, and was generally busy learning the situation. The staff at GHQ looked tired and washed out, the result of long office hours in the hot weather. The strength of the RFC at this time in Mesopotamia was one skeleton squadron at the Front, and an Aircraft Park at the base. There was also a Kite Balloon section of the Royal Naval Air Service under Commander Wrottesly.

Here such arrears of work had accumulated that it was hard to know where to begin, and the men who were left had little life in them. It was only possible to work in the hours of dawn, for by nine o’clock the sun was getting up, and any remaining energy was necessary for bare existence. A large percentage of our staff were sick, the hospitals were overflowing, and very few reinforcements arriving in the country ever reached their units, but went sick at Basra, taking up valuable room in hospital that was needed for men evacuated from the front.

Lack of labour was seriously holding up the unlading of stores urgently required by the force up river; coolies were few and difficult, and troops were not to be spared from drafts for the fighting forces, fifty per cent, of whom had gone sick. The congestion of shipping in Basra harbour, as a result of this, was serious at a time when all the Empire’s resources in tonnage were necessary to fight the submarine menace. Some ships had been lying in harbour for months, and it was said that others had returned to India, having only cleared a portion of their cargo in order not to waste time when there was any space available.

Nine new aeroplanes which had been waiting a month to be unloaded were not got ashore till several weeks later. The base at Basra seemed to be congested with stores of every description, yet owing to lack of labour and shallow draft river transport, the fighting force were hard pressed to maintain themselves.

But it seems like he’s still justified in moaning. If things are like that now, imagine what it must have been like at the height of the Siege of Kut! Ye gods.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson still has no official orders to move, so takes himself off to find some entertainment, visiting an abandoned Schuztruppe position outside Kondoa Irangi. Of course, where one finds bored soldiers, one also finds bad life decisions…

Saw the observation post and the splendid look-out it held, also the well-dug trenches. Pieces of our shells were lying all over the place and there were many big holes which they had made. Saw the first howitzer shell that was fired and didn’t burst. Picked up a good many shrapnel balls then started back for home. Took some time to pick the black-jacks out of my puttees. … Hassett got hold of some kaffir beer and, after imbibing some, got very excited so we had a sing-song in his tent. In the middle of the proceedings the tent nearly caught alight amid great excitement.

This is beer is brewed from millet, known to the South Africans as kaffir corn because it’s what the black Africans grow. Oh, those loveable cheeky self-immolating racist chappies! If only all racists could be so obliging.

Incidentally, they haven’t heard the news, but after just about riding his horses and his men into the ground, General van Deventer is now at Dodoma on the Central Railway. They’re all horribly tired and unfit, and two men and a dachshund could probably have captured the entire South African Horse. However, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s men have been forced to scatter to avoid their advance, and they’re off in the middle of nowhere trying to get themselves back into some kind of order, having just been pushed off their railway. As long as the South Africans can get some supplies forward and they don’t all starve, which is far from guaranteed, this is a major coup.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Let us now have a last horror of war to see the month of July out. It starts well enough; they’re being relieved. Unlike the life of an infantryman, full of marching up the line and back from the line and up the line again, a gunner stays in his gun-pit in the same area of country for months or more at a time. In a hot sector like the Somme, Fraser-Tytler’s men have been working hard with very little respite since the New Year. Aside from the odd week’s leave, this will be the first time since January that they’ve had any real guaranteed rest.

I lunched with Peter Fraser-Tytler at his battery, and then went to see Victor Walrond, who commands a battery in the same division.

This will be the last time our correspondent sees his brother alive. On the 3rd of August, he’ll be killed by counter-battery fire near Montauban, somewhere close to the positions that our man is just quitting. He returns to his battery, but. Weak stomachs and large animal lovers should probably look away now.

Just as I reached the road behind my position, three passing gun teams were done in by a single big shell. I finished off as many of the horses as I could with a revolver, which I took from a very erratic-shooting subaltern. … An orderly bringing a message had come up with two horses and was holding them beside one of the gun-pits. I was just thinking of sending them away, when I heard a close shell coming and jumped for safety into the mess at the bottom of the 12-inch shell-crater. As soon as the shell had burst, I looked out just in time to see a red lump rising out of a red pool.

It was the horse-holder. I pulled him into one of the dugouts and got a party to clean him and then report damages. He was practically untouched, and he told them that he lay down with reins in hand when he heard the shell. It must have burst on the back of one of the horses, as there was no crater. As soon as the shelling stopped, we began to clean up, finding one head, three legs and one hindquarters at distances up to a hundred yards. The remainder of the two horses was in small fragments over the whole position. It was indeed indescribable.

The horse holder seemed quite unshaken, and having been fitted out with clean clothes, went back on foot. The rest of the afternoon did not pass with the same good luck. Captain Stevens, Officer Commanding the next battery, got knocked over by a big shell. Although apparently untouched, he died of shock an hour later. Then a few minutes later, Gibbs, commanding the battery in front of us, was fatally wounded while trying to get his teams out of the position.

I am the only battery commander left out of the five neighbouring batteries. I remember I always used to say jokingly that crawling about with a telephone in No Man’s Land was safer than staying at the guns.

And so ended July 1916. May we never see its like again.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Africa | Longueval | 27 Jul 1916

Africa

The Prime Minister of South Africa, Louis Botha, has just arrived in German East Africa to find out first-hand why his crony Smuts’s grandiose predictions of victory have not, as yet, come to pass. On the face of it, there’s plenty to be optimistic about. Mind you, Botha would probably be less than totally willing to give the proper credit to the Indian Railway Battalions in theatre. However, their role is by far the most important of any military unit right now. There’s a narrow-gauge railway that’s fast approaching Kondoa Irangi. Other men are working flat out to restore the Northern Railway to working order. Let’s have a map again.

Not to any kind of scale; red and green lines denote areas now under theoretical British & Belgian control

Not to any kind of scale; red and green lines denote areas now under theoretical British & Belgian control

So, on the face of it, all’s going well. Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to it. In theory, there are four separate forces converging on the Schutztruppe (including the Rhodesians coming up from off the south-western edge of the map. In practice, there are only two who are close enough to possibly worry Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck. And they’re both operating at the end of grossly over-stretched supply lines, and facing an enemy who once more is demonstrating absolutely no willingness to stand and fight. His opposition may now be disdainfully calling him “von Lettow-Fallback”, but he’s just trying not to lose.

Once again, every battalion in service here is a battalion that can’t be used anywhere else. Right now, there are approximately 21,000 British Empire men in theatre, including sick and wounded (which is still, for most units, in the region of 50% to 70% of their strength). Many of them would have been needed to police the Empire in Africa, but they all need to eat, and they all need uniforms, and they all need ammunition, and so on. Anything short of a total defeat in this theatre is a net gain for the German Empire.

Battle of the Somme

Another day, another attack, another butcher’s bill. This time we’re at Delville Wood and Longueval, where, as we mentioned yesterday, we find the BEF’s artillery trying to turn everything into a glutinous paste, and mostly succeeding. By the time they’re done, the “wood” is a messy collection of mutilated stumps, and Longueval is a few stubborn piles of randomly-positioned bricks. There are still quite a few Germans still alive in there after they’re finished, but when the men go over the top at ten minutes past seven, almost none of them are in any position to resist.

But the bombardment has not gone unnoticed by the Germans. And here’s the problem with such gigantically overwhelming bombardments. They destroy everything. Including the enemy’s trenches. Which means that when your infantry advances, they have nowhere to hide from the enemy’s retaliatory bombardment. Neither do the men have anywhere to hide when trying to get back to the rear with messages, or forward with supplies. This is, ahem, a less than desirable state of affairs.

And so, when the inevitable counter-attacks arrive, they manage to shove back into a small part of the wrecked wood, again at horrendous loss of life, and they’re still disputing control over one of the piles of bricks that was once part of Longueval. Let’s have a word from a man described only as “Schulze”.

The shells plunged into the bodies of the British who were lying to our front. Together with the acrid fumes of the explosives, the stench formed a stinking cloud over the trenches and took your breath away.

When not under fire, the blokes take the chance to conduct an informal resupply exercise, courtesy of their dead opponents.

It was well known that the British have some pretty good kit. Also, it would have been a pity to leave their binoculars, razor blades, and other shaving gear to disappear in the mud.

Here we see further evidence of the Blockade of Germany tightening its grip. The best of everything that can be had is being strictly reserved for the use of the Army, but more and more items are becoming scarce even for them.

Oskar Teichman

At the Suez Canal, Oskar Teichman’s cavalrymen are still waiting for the order to advance, and they’re starting to get mildly peeved.

We were all now getting very impatient, as the Turks were steadily advancing and no orders were received to attack. A few weeks ago we had been told that the Katia waterbelt district must be held at any price, as it was considered a jumping-off place for the Turks before attacking the Canal; and now, directly the Turks advanced,all these places (with wells made by our engineers) were evacuated.

Intelligence. – The Turks are now at Hod Es Sagia, a point midway and well in front of the Oghratina-Mageibra lines.

Teichman is presenting anything marked “Intelligence” as an actual extract from the Comic Cuts daily intelligence briefing. Whether they’re what they claim to be, I don’t know, but the style sounds right. It’s certainly possible that he could have copied extracts, or kept the documents after the intelligence officer was finished with them.

Neil Tennant

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the RFC has now taken ship from India, alongside 1,600 sepoys, 40 British officers, and a large number of goats. He’s sailing for Basra.

We called at Muscat, a god-forsaken looking spot on the south-east coast of Arabia, and an old headquarters of piracy, slave traffic, and gun-running. It was an important Portuguese naval station early in the seventeenth century, but attained its greatest prosperity under Arab rule two hundred years later.

Abdul Rezak left on record here in 1442 that “the heat was so intense that it burned the marrow in the bones, the sword in its scabbard melted like wax, and the gems which adorned the hilt of the dagger were reduced to coal. In the plains the chase became a matter of perfect ease, for the desert was filled with roasted gazelles!” Muscat is picturesque and mediaeval, with its watch towers and large fort commanding the bay, but, as usual, no shade or vegetation to be seen anywhere.

Here we left a de’tachment of the 108th Native Infantry, as, although nominally independent, the Sultan had appealed to the British for protection against the Turk and hostile tribes, to whom his Hinterland was exposed. There had been fighting here in 1915, the Indian garrison having defeated and driven off three thousand Arabs. Little did the British public, more immediately affected by the greater wars, realise how forgotten British officers were dying in nameless fights, or rotting with fever in distant outposts, “unknown, uncared-for, and unsung.”

Muscat has risen again in the world since 1916 and is currently the capital of Oman. The size of Oman had contracted significantly after the mid-19th century, and when Tennant arrived, the British Empire was very much calling the shots at arm’s length. It does have some oil, but their economy is much more diverse than that of other modern Arab countries. What our friend neglects to mention is that Muscat sits right at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, one of the most strategically important locations in the world. It therefore pays to be on the right side of the Sultan, regardless of how oppressive (very) his regime is.

“Abdul Rezak”, meanwhile, is almost certainly best-known in English today as Abd-al-Razzaq Samarquandi. (Transliteration is fun!) He was an ambassador for a Timurid ruler of Persia and journeyed from there to Calicut/Kozhikode in western India, via Muscat and many other places.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is away from his quiet sector and on the march, heading south, towards the Somme by way of Grand Rullecourt, where he’s been before.

We led on quickly by the north gate and out at once, so as to avoid dawn on the Open Road. But it was daylight when we got up and out, though the mist prevented any harm resulting from that. It was only about 5 miles, and as always, thank God, I recovered completely and gloriously with the dawn. So much so, that I had to embark on a needless and vehement row with K.P. over the breakfast question in the big billet. This was silly: but less so was the fact that I decided to get my own (and not make people cook) in the village.

A day of tremendous heat. It was always hot, hot; and strange thirst, for most of the men, caused a good deal of discomfort and a few fall-outs. We had a long halt for dinner somewhere near Hauteville in a field, and I dis covered again the merits of the Army stew on a hot day. But we were all very distinctly tired, I perhaps rather particularly, after pulling by his rifle an acting corporal, who had got rather done up by the heat.

And so the Big Push, as it rapidly diminishes into the Half-Arsed Push, captures him as it did his Man.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge, on permanent base duty at Balinghem, is watching a lot of men going forward. Plenty of men in 1915 and 1916 went to the front with an entire battalion, an established unit, with all their mates. Now the profile is rather different. The Army is not increasing in size half as fast as it had been through 1915. More and more new men are not being sent to France with a battalion; they’re going to the base until they’re called forward as part of a reinforcement-draft. And they could be sent to any unit in the Army. Even wounded men aren’t guaranteed a return to their old battalion.

Thousands and thousands of boys are being rushed to the Somme. Many drafts are wanted for the “Great Push.” Despite our newspapers with their paraphrase of Caesar’s “pauci de nostris cadunt,” the long grey hospital trains move silently and slowly through our station, by day and by night, yet most of the boys who leave us go as to a dance, cheering and singing. Before they are put on a draft, they are grousing like the others, and nobody wants to go.

Once they are chosen, they bow to the inevitable, whether it is their first venture into the Unknown or a return to the Hell they left but a short while ago. The fine English bull-dog spirit asserts itself and with laughter and with riotous songs they march out. We, the old crocks, the “permanent base men” who cannot go, and others who are not yet chosen, are lining the roads and shout “Good-bye!” to the clamouring throng that passes out. Everybody shakes hands; “Good-bye, Billy!” ” So long, Jimmy!” Platoon after platoon passes. Here and there a grim set face, but the overwhelming majority make merry.

Caesar was fighting a campaign in Gaul at the time; the translation is “Few of us will die”. Hardy-har-har.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Fort Souville | Contalmaison | 11 Jul 1916

Battle of Verdun

Time to assault Verdun again. Let’s have the map for this.

This MSPaint tomfoolery is, as ever, not to any kind of scale

This MSPaint tomfoolery is, as ever, not to any kind of scale

This is just about the last German throw of the dice. General von Falkenhayn is even now drawing up an order for his men to transfer to a defensive stance, whatever the outcome of the next couple of days of fighting. Here at least is something that General Joffre was dead right about. His enemy can’t maintain the constant offensive pressure on Verdun and bail the Austro-Hungarians out again on the Eastern Front and fight for every metre of ground on the Somme. Verdun, as an offensive battle, is the obvious choice to de-emphasise in favour of other concerns.

But that’s for tomorrow, and tomorrow. Today, up goes the gas, over go the men. No new tactical innovation, no new clever strategy. Just men in holes trying to remove other men from other holes. Again the Germans are at the walls of Fort Souville, and Souville’s machine-guns shoot them down. The attack towards Fort Tavannes comes as a mild surprise, and they get to within a few hundred metres. An inconveniently-placed wood, still there despite the artillery’s best efforts, stymies an attempt to get around Souville and encircle it. Can the Germans keep going for one more day’s fighting?

Battle of the Somme

Good news! Another Day 1 objective, Contalmaison, or at least what’s left of it, is now British, and its last defenders are fleeing back to the Second Line. July 14th is Bastille Day. Suddenly it’s looking more likely, if Mametz and Trones Woods can be secured in the next day or two, that General Rawlinson will be able to attack then, again in concert with the French. It would be a nice propaganda moment. Of course, first they need a good plan, preferably one that involves a strong attack with heaping helpings of artillery all round, and massed battalions all going over the top at once, like on the 1st.

As it happens, General Rawlinson is actually trying to do quite a bit more than that. The Royal Flying Corps is supplying excellent photographs of the Second Line; as each preliminary objective is reached, more of his guns are able to properly range themselves on those trenches. He has far fewer guns in total than in the original bombardment. However, since his orders only require him to attack one trench line, and he has restricted the attack to a section of the Second Line two-thirds shorter than on Day 1, the concentration of artillery will actually be much greater.

And it seems also that he’s been reconsidering his earlier conviction that a breakthrough battle is impossible. This, let’s not forget, is the phase 2 that Haig envisaged all along, just shifted a few miles further to the right. Montauban has convinced him that under the right conditions they might just be able to do more than bite and hold. There is, however, one severe disadvantage that the BEF will have to cope with now that they didn’t on Day 1. Most of the men will have to advance a full mile over open ground before reaching the Second Line, when doctrine recommends they should have to go no more than 150 yards.

Rawlinson and the Second Line

This is clearly a large problem. Possibly even a large crisis. And, as the great strategist Captain Blackadder tells us, a large crisis requires a large solution. Fortunately, Rawlinson’s solution is rather more wide-ranging than two pencils and a pair of underpants, although it may well be as radical. He is proposing a major night march, something which in British Empire hands has had a success rate in this war of just about 0%. (Let us pause and remember the blundering that occurred this time last year on Gallipoli when night marches were involved.)

It won’t be an attack, as such. The men will simply creep out of the trenches under cover of darkness, walk and crawl in silence (and while carrying heavy kit, being occasionally shelled, tripping and falling, et cetera) up to within 100 yards of the German trenches, lie there in silence until dawn, and then suddenly spring up out of the grass and charge the Second Line. It’s a shockingly radical plan. If it goes wrong, it will at best be a repeat of Beaumont Hamel and Serre. It is a major, major, major risk. But if it works…

We can only imagine General Haig’s facial expression as he reads this plan and begins to work out what’s being suggested here. His steady, bite-and-hold, limited-objectives subordinate appears to have turned into a fire-breathing thruster. He begins his diary entry in the most British way possible.

I am not quite satisfied with Rawlinson’s plan of attack.

For those of you who do not speak British, I shall translate. “This is the most ridiculous idea I have ever seen, and the idiot who brought it to me should be taken to the stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables.” Haig raises all the obvious objections, double-checks with chief of staff General Kiggell to make sure he’s not missed anything obvious, and then drives to go and see Rawlinson and tell him so in person. There then follows a long game of musical chairs.

Haig bollocks Rawlinson! Rawlinson asks what he should do instead! Rawlinson takes Haig’s proposed change to his corps commanders! They insist to a man that Rawlinson argue the point! Rawlinson argues the point over the phone! Haig tells him, politely, to get stuffed and do as he’s told! Rawlinson has another meeting and then calls Haig up again after dinner to push his Good Idea! Haig cracks and agrees to sleep on it and get back to him! It’s all back and forth and hilariously opposed to the dynamic when they first did the planning, when Haig was the optimist and Rawlinson the pessimist.

Calling his boss to argue the point twice is, it must be said, a significant act of personal character from Rawlinson. In the British Army, once a decision is made, you do what you’re told. To go “yes, but…” twice in one day could quite easily have seen him sacked for insubordination. Last time, Rawlinson gave in, and presided over Thiepval and Serre. Now he’s backing himself, which is to his credit; and Haig is prepared to listen, which is also to his credit. No, don’t worry, I’ll have lots of mean things to say about them tomorrow, but today shows there’s more nuance to these fundamentally boring men than Captain Blackadder would have you believe.

We’ll let the Chief have the final word, in similar style to his first word.

The whole question of the attack of the German second line is a difficult problem.

Indeed. Hopefully, non-British readers will now be able to provide their own translation. By the way, the attack that they’re discussing is generally referred to as the “Battle of Bazentin Ridge”.

Intelligence

The intelligence picture being supplied to both men remains positive. Yes, they might just have been slightly too optimistic over the size of the German general reserve. However, there’s a new detail to their analysis, and this one is more or less dead on the money. General von Falkenhayn’s cretinous order to keep attacking at all costs is destroying the cohesion of any German unit that ventures south of the Second Line. “The line is now held by a confused mass…whose units appear to have been thrown into the frontline as stop-gaps.” 100%, bang on.

They have some of the most favourable defensive terrain in France. They’re fighting an army whose senior generals are exercising painfully low levels of command and control after Day 1. They should be planning a major offensive to throw the BEF back into its starting trenches, not garrisoning the Second Line to be attacked, not bleeding themselves out in piecemeal and ineffective counter-attacks. And yet it’s all going wrong, and von Falkenhayn’s answer is to dump a major command reorganisation on his army in the middle of all this. He’s planning to put it into effect, incidentally, on the night of the 13th and 14th.

It’s still a rosy picture coming out of BEF intelligence. However, hindsight allows me to add in a critical rider to this. The men south of the Second Line are in a hopeless potpourri. However, the reserve divisions who have not been committed to a battle recently, and who have been moving into the Second Line for a week? Mmmm, not so much. They still know who they are and what they’re doing. They’re doing just fine, thank you. The situation is not good, but neither is the German army ready to fall over just yet. Ye gods.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Insulated from all this, Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler is sending spare officers (they have no observation posts at the moment, but that’s okay, Trones Wood is big enough to hit without one) forward to see what’s going on and see what they can see of the Second Line.

I sent Wilson and Macdonald to see if it would be possible to establish an OP in the north end of Bernafay Wood. They had a tough day. It took them three hours to reach even the middle of the wood, hampered as they were by incessant shell-fire, the heavy going, and the impossible tangle of broken tree stumps. While working their way up a sap, they noticed movement in a pile of about thirty bodies, chiefly Hun, and found one of the Manchesters, wounded in five places, who had been lying in that charnel house for three days and nights.

Their journey back, the search for stretcher bearers, and the return to the wounded man, took another five hours’ hard labour. On their arrival they found that the sap had been hit twice again by shells, and a tree had fallen across the man, but luckily without crushing him. He was quite cheery and thanked them. Good luck to him!

Ye gods. Again.

E.S. Thompson

Good news for E.S. Thompson at Kondoa Irangi in Africa. He’s being discharged from hospital, his leg finally healed after he slopped boiling fat down it.

Left in the ration wagon after saying goodbye at about 9 o’clock. Rather crowded on the wagon and somewhat bumped up. Dumped down and lugged my kit across to our camp. Dick met me and kindly carried down my kit. Glad to be back, and others glad. Helped to fill some [ammunition] belts. Paddy showed me a bit of tree with ‘Gott strafe England’ written on it by the Germans on their position. Got my web equipment and Bibby helped me put it together. Bibby and I went to see Smith in the clearing station and got 2 letters and a ‘Sunday Times’. Smith feeling better now.

Went to the military cemetery, which is a very neat one, and then back.

Indeed, his hospital boring life has now been traded in for the healthy private’s boring life.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is so English, he’s learned how to criticise the class system from the inside! He speaks of a notional young, hearty theology student who has now turned into a feeble Church of England vicar.

Now he wrings his horrified hands, sits down (on his crupper!) and writes in the Church Times: “We regret to say that, from all we hear, the language of the troops is terribly depraved. Foul and blasphemous words are common form in camp speech. More plain-speaking from high quarters is desired. After all, much of this indecency and profanity is mere habit. Officers could do much in the way of improvement if they were more restrained in their own manner of speech!”

A lot of canting hypocrites we are. We read the shouting competition given by Aristophanes, and somehow our youthful ardour fools us into the belief that we are better, that “these are the days of advance, the works of the men of mind.” But “we are villains all” the same poet says. Thus we go on with the damnable indifference of the leisured and well-to-do classes paying no heed to the awful state of housing, the inadequacy of education, the curse of private ownership in land; we fool the masses, and allow ourselves to be fooled by diplomatists and financiers!

Did we before the War in this country read our British Clausewitz, Lord Wolseley; did we study his military moral psychology? No! “Tommy” is not to be blamed for his language. It is a wonder that it is not worse. Let the parson and the moralist depart unto their tents and shut up, and devote themselves to better education, better housing, and better inter-relations. Then perhaps, when the next War breaks out, Tommy will chirp in the silky accents of a Major-General receiving a lady visitor of importance at HQ.

Yeah, about that.

Lord Wolseley, previously Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, was quite good at his job, though I’m not sure I’d put him on a level with Carl von Clausewitz, at the time unquestionably the most influential military thinker in at least a hundred years. Mugge also refers to Aristophanes’ satire “The Knights”, which does indeed feature a lot of shouting by ordinary people. And a crupper is a large strap that keeps a saddle in place; therefore, if a vicar is on a crupper, he has first ascended his high horse.

Actions in Progress

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

Revolvers | Parapets | 25 Jun 1916

Battle of Verdun

The French are now trying to get some counter-attacks going to push the Germans out of Thiaumont and Fleury, and away from Fort Souville. It sounds nice and controlled from the perspective of, say, General Nivelle. However, from the perspective of Henri Desagneaux…

At 3am, without warning, our own troops attack us from behind in order to recapture the terrain on our right. These troops, without precise orders, without maps, without knowing where our lines were, ventured off. They fell upon us, and the Boches were 100 metres in front, lying in wait. Bursts of machine-gunfire cut them down in our trench. We thus have another heap of corpses, and wounded crying out. Trench! Well, almost every evening we bury the dead on the spot. It’s they who form the parapets!

At 6am, the guns fire furiously and our own 75s fire at us. Terrible panic. Everyone wants to run for it. Agnel and I have to force the poor devils back by drawing our revolvers. Major David is killed by our 75s. Our green flares ask for the range to be lengthened, but with all the dust our artillery can’t see a thing. We are powerless, isolated from everything with no means of communication. There’s blood everywhere. The heat is atrocious. The corpses stink. The flies buzz. It’s enough to drive one mad. Two men commit suicide.

At 2pm, our 75s fire on us again. I send a loyal man at full speed with a report to the Colonel. Luckily he gets through.

Um, so another day I’ll be very grateful for this first-hand testimony of a French officer threatening his men with summary execution. But in the meantime: holy fucking shit. That is all I have to say. Holy fucking shit. With about 50 syllables in it. The battle is congealing in place, and here it will remain for the next little while.

Battle of the Somme

Meanwhile, the British commander-in-chief is having his own quiet, simple church parade, in a small hut next to GHQ in Montreuil. As ever, the Rev George Duncan gives the Chief and a few other congregants simple reassurance that God has a plan for the universe and that they are carrying it out. He reminds the Chief of the Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, kneeling in prayer shortly before sending proud Edward’s army homewards, to think again. At the end, General Haig lingers, and then invites Duncan to go with him in two days to his advance headquarters at Beauquesne.

At the front, the bombardment is being stepped up. There’s barely a British gunner anywhere in France or Belgium who isn’t working flat out. Today is “V” day; the battle to begin on “Z” day. Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler has a full day of trying to deafen himself.

A dull and cloudy day. The bombardment was more intense than ever. On either side of our guns is a French howitzer battery. One can see the projectile from the time it leaves the gun. As a battery we have only a 200-yards frontage of the Hun trenches to fire on daily, and the [field gun] batteries have an even smaller alotted frontage on which to cut the wire. As it was the night of the Bedfords’ raid we reserved fire until the early evening, then fired continuously onto the Hun machine guns. They took one prisoner, and had a very happy outing with no serious casualties.

Here we see the benefit of having the occasional field officer as a correspondent; their wider field of view brings up some interesting topics. Of course, everyone being on top of everyone else is not an ideal situation. It’s no laughing matter having people firing shells directly over your head, and accidents are depressingly frequent. Yesterday’s latrine-dweller Signaller Meneaud-Lissenburg (thank you to his daughter for correcting the spelling of the family name) has some observations on this point.

Immediately in the rear of the battery position a 60-pounder battery, 90th Heavy Royal Garrison Artillery, was positioned and proved more dangerous than anything the enemy offered. Invariably when in action and firing directly over us, a number of shells burst prematurely with frightening effect. In fact, except for the occasional German 5.9-inch, we had more to fear from our 60-pounder friends in the rear. Ever alert, we would rush to earth each time we heard the order ‘Action!’ in our rear.

Still. Can’t cook egg-based breakfasts without violating the sanctity of the protective covering. Or something. I’d make a joke about action in our rear, but I’m still trying to pick my jaw up after today’s Verdun update. Actually, seeing what’s up next, maybe I’ll just let it dangle a while.

Battle of Asiago

The Austro-Hungarian retreat is now more or less at an end, and I’m taking the battle off the “Actions in Progress” list. They’re now sending out skirmishing patrols to slow the Italian pursuit while the infantry digs fresh trenches. Meanwhile, Emilio Lussu’s divisional commander has, sadly, come down from yesterday’s tree and is now routing around with the patrols rather than going back to the rear and doing his job. A couple of patrols have run into enemy fire. Someone has ordered a brief halt while they figure out what’s going on. This does not meet with the general’s approval.

“Have that man shot this very instant!” the general ordered.
Captain Zavattari was a reserve officer. He was the oldest captain in the regiment. The order to have a soldier shot was an inconceivable absurdity. He left and came back to the general a few minutes later. He had gone and personally interrogated the man.
“Did you have him shot?”
“No, sir. The soldier didn’t do anything he wasn’t ordered to do. He never thought that by shouting “Halt!” he was emitting a shout of fatigue or indiscipline. He was transmitting an order. The scouts had just had one of their men killed. The halt was necessary to give them time to reconnoitre the terrain.”
“Have him shot anyway! We need to make an example of him.”
“But how can I have a soldier shot without any kind of proceeding and when he hasn’t committed a crime?”
“Have him shot immediately! Don’t force me to have my carabineri intervene against you as well!

Captain Zavattari is forced to agree, and disappears, doing some very quick thinking. The dead scout’s body is still nearby. The general hasn’t deigned to go and see the offending soldier in person. Zavattari assembles a squad and orders them to shoot a helpfully-placed tree. The stretcher-bearers load up the dead scout and bring him to the rear. The general is satisfied. Everyone carries on.

E.S. Thompson

The South Africans at Kondoa Irangi have worked out that something odd is going on over on the other side of the hill, and the news now filters back to E.S. Thompson in hospital.

Heard the Germans had started to retire 4 days ago and that we had captured their observation post. Our big guns fired a good deal during the morning but got no reply from the enemy. Very chilly wind blowing and the sky overcast all day. New bandage put on my leg. Watton, who was shot in both feet, is being sent back to Nairobi tonight. Decent lunch but no sweet potatoes. Miserable, dull afternoon.

‘Mac’ Young went round foraging and managed to get hold of a big piece of lovely tender roast beef but slightly burnt. Had a good ‘tuck-in’ and felt satisfied the first time since coming into hospital. Slept well but dreamt that a German shell smashed me on the back, due I suppose to the good ‘tuck-in’.

This is one rumour that, as we saw yesterday, is almost entirely true.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells has got himself onto a three months’ course at the Canadian Military School.

It includes everything an officer should know; engineering, organisation and administration, military law, topography, tactics (my favourite subjects), riding, entrenching, drill, etc., etc. It is really a Sandhurst Course compressed into three months’ space. As a consequence we are kept tremendously busy. We begin with an hour’s squad drill before breakfast, an hour’s riding after breakfast, then lectures for the rest of the morning. In the afternoon, more lectures, or some outdoor exercises, like entrenching.

After the full reports of the [Battle of Jutland] were published, it became evident that it was a victory for our fleet, first in that they frustrated the German objective, whatever it may have been, and second, that they inflicted heavier losses than they themselves suffered. If only the battleship fleet could have cut off the Germans, it would have been an overwhelming victory. Great indignation was expressed by the English press at the misleading tone of the first reports of the battle, which gave our losses and left the impression that the Germans had suffered comparatively little.

One of the leading papers published a very strong article demanding to know who was responsible for the misleading report. The article was headed, “Who is the Idiot?”

Well, since someone asked, [INSERT PREFERRED SARCASTIC ANSWER HERE]. However, I think he might have been dispatched to America to lie low for a while, where he took up baseball and inspired a vaudeville comedy routine.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is still waiting for his number to be called.

Read C.H. Sorley’s poems which Jocelyn Buxton has sent me. [He was] at the King’s Choir School when I was up there…and was killed last Autumn. The bombardment has become more noisy. This afternoon three of the German observation balloons have been blown up. I should have seen one of them go, but when a Rifleman told me about it, all I saw was a straight column of smoke. Hell is really let loose to-night. I have been out to the east edge of the village, and looked over the fields at the murky horizon where the bursts of shell go flicker flacker. It is clear that their gun power is nothing to ours now.

And knots of foul-mouthed men stand about, men who have sat cowering and incapable of retaliation in the early days of Ypres, and now exult over the merciless hurricane that is raging over the Bosche lines. Officers stand about in their calm way and comment on the play, and a little white terrier brushes its way among the corn, which may and may not be reaped. Amid this pandemonium it is surprising to see and hear the ordinary circumstance of trench warfare. Occasionally a Very light goes up, scornful and inquiring, and ‘that’ machine gun gets in a word or two between the bursts.

And I have also been out along the lane to the west side of the village, past the wild roses and the dog-daisies, and looked across the spiky fringe of a battalion of corn at a quiet sunset, with violet clouds that looked like comfortable mountains, and watched a hedgehog trying to heave its way through the undergrowth.

In this collection of poems would have been one untitled one about “when you see millions of the mouthless dead, across your dreams in pale battalions go…” which I appropriated as a title for the book of 1915. And, as White reads it, Sergeant John William Streets of the 12th York and Lancasters is waiting in a different rest billet not too far away, and he is writing about what he sees. On “Z” Day, he will be attacking Serre, less than a mile to White’s left.

In a letter to a publisher, he has said “I have tried to picture some thoughts that pass through a man’s brain when he dies”; and he is now working on the lines that I have taken for the book of 1916. There are a hundred of these unknown spots in northern France that are about, for a few months, to become world-famous.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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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