Kowel | Pozieres | 24 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

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

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

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

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

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

Madibira and Malangali

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

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

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

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

Battle of Kowel

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

Oskar Teichman

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

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

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

E.S. Thompson

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

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

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

Oswin Creighton

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

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

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

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

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

Maximilian Mugge

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

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

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

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

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

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Italian Front | Self-propelled guns | 22 Mar 1916

Italian Front

The Italian Front is apparently settling back down into business as usual. General Cadorna’s headquarters in Udine is quietly picking up the pieces and preparing, in God’s good time, to launch the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo as Italy’s part in the grand Entente summer offensive. It’s the very picture of gentlemanly calm and careful, considered prosecution of the war. War may be hell, but it isn’t here. There’s no cause or need for alarm. Everything is under control. What they don’t need is some gobby opinionated army commander shooting his mouth off with defeatist predictions of a major enemy offensive.

The culprit is one General Brusati, commander of the Italian 1st Army. Brusati has the easiest, but also arguably the most vital job of anyone. Imagine the shape of modern-day Italy; a large boot with two wide shoulders at the top. The Italians currently have three armies stuffed into the eastern shoulder. Two are on its very eastern edge, on the Isonzo front. The other is guarding the line of the Carnic Alps and the eastern Dolomites. Then there’s Brusati’s 1st Army, guarding the central Dolomites in Trentino.

This is why he has an easy job; his army is as far from the Isonzo as it’s possible to get and still be in the war. But it’s still vital. If the enemy were somehow to launch a heavy attack here and break out of the mountains, it’s only 60 miles from Asiago to the Adriatic coast at Venice. In theory, this could result in three entire Italian armies being cut off from the rest of Italy. By the scale on which General Cadorna now reckons, you might as well suggest he advances to the moon as advances 60 miles. But, on the scale that the Central Powers reckoned during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive on the Eastern Front, advancing 60 miles in a week is entirely reasonable.

Such an attack would be far from a sure thing. It would doubtless require great feats of human endurance and ingenuity in logistics, and come at hideous costs in human life But, by this point, are there any readers who are now surprised that Conrad von Hotzendorf has been planning exactly such an attack, the Trentino Offensive, since the New Year? It could have been tailor-made to appeal to his sensibilities. General Brusati’s concerns are well-founded. He’s spotted the signs of an Austro-Hungarian buildup. And nobody at Udine is interested. He must be mistaken, and that’s an end of it.

They’ll never know quite how close they came to being attacked in spring. Conrad’s orders had been to begin operations on the 10th of April. However, it’s been snowing without a break all through March. After another two weeks, the invasion routes and supply roads will be under seven feet or more of snow. Even Conrad, the same man who ordered the Carpathian offensive in 1915, will see sense and postpone the offensive under those conditions. But it’ll be only a postponement, not a cancellation. More soon!

Self-propelled guns

The problem of displacing artillery forward to ensure that an advance maintains support has not been ignored in the bowels of the War Office. Horses need far too much food and remain depressingly un-proof against bullets and shrapnel. Walter Wilson, one of the supervisors of tank construction, has been talking with the engineer John Greg about this problem, and they’re now starting to develop a tracked machine capable of carrying a large howitzer or heavy field gun across broken ground; it’ll eventually become the Mark I Gun Carrier.

This is an important, if considerably unsung, development. The concept of a gun with an engine that can drive itself about instead of having to be towed is rather like that of the monoplane. It’s going to be critically important in wars to come, but the technology is too immature for the current times. However, the Gun Carrier itself will still have an important effect on this war…but again, more soon.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian is still snowed in at the same village as yesterday, though it’s thawing fast and they’ll be back on the road again tomorrow. That’s about it.

E.S. Thompson

Good news for E.S. Thompson. The enemy has exited stage left, so he won’t need to be doing any more fighting for the next little while. It’s victory at the Battle of Kahe; but General Smuts is far from content with the situation. Anyway.

Paraded at 9am doing proper garrison work. Flour and baking powder issued in place of bread, so made some batter cakes in bacon fat. Suffered from pains in the stomach a good deal. Found some potatoes so boiled them and had them with our stew. Saw a good few wounded chaps come in on motors amongst them bringing Duffie Anderson who had a flesh wound in the thigh. It is reported we have captured their big Konigsberg gun.

The soldier’s lot remains much the same as it was before the advance.

Edward Mousley

Speaking of which, Edward Mousley came to the Siege of Kut to get bombed and play chess. Sadly, the enemy is far from being out of bombs.

Square-Peg developed a spasmodic sprint of extraordinary alacrity every time anything happened or the plane gong rang out, and dressed downstairs. This proved such a nerve-racking ordeal that I proposed to have my tea in my room and then go below. The shells were thumping on the houses just behind us, and I took the precaution to shift over the thick wall side of the room which left just space enough for my servant Amir Bux to miss the doorway.

Then suddenly there was an awful roar and splitting crash. The room was filled with smoke and dust and plaster, and a terrific thud shook the wall just behind my head. Two segments of shell had flown through the doorway and embedded themselves in the opposite wall. That excellent fellow Amir Bux suddenly asked, “Master thik hai?” And on my assuring him I was all right he pointed to the embedded segment and smiled, muttering “Kismet!”

“Thik hai” is one of the first (and possibly only) pidgin-Hindustani phrases that every white man learns in India; it means “all right”.

On inspection I found that a Windy Lizzie had crashed through the slender wall of the upper enclosure around the roof on which my room opened (there was no door), and about half the fore-end of the shell had struck the thick wall of my room a few inches behind my head and had gone halfway through the plaster. Another foot and it would have got my scalp precisely.

Tomorrow is a chess day, and has a good funny story. Hair considerably raised, Mousley sets off towards it.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach’s days continue passing without much incident.

The French are getting cheeky. One day a whole staff of them appeared on a wall in the Utteche-Ferme, and I shooed them away with a well-aimed salvo. In the trenches they don’t hesitate to go digging, between five and twenty men in broad daylight. There seems to be a new regiment there which hasn’t a notion what war is all about. Meanwhile it has been raining hard, and walking along in the trenches means sinking nearly up to our knees in the mud.

It seems that it’s not just Captain Cros-Mayrevielle who orders his men to go on working parties in dangerous spots.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier is still on top of the Hartmannswillerkopf, and still calling the Germans “Dutch”.

We are about forty feet from the Dutch, whom we can hear cough and putter around. We are hoping they all get bronchitis.

We have been bombarded very violently two or three times, but otherwise life is uneventful. We look at the Dutch with a periscope, they do the same to us. It’s now five weeks since we have been in a town and we “need washing.” Hope to go down next week, but can never be sure of anything.

No sooner has Pelissier given the letter to his rationer to take back to the rear than he receives orders for that hoped-for relief, to take place tomorrow. Tres bon!

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams recently lost three friends, all killed by individual shells. He is now attempting to come to terms with this, and takes refuge in what appears now to be some mild homoeroticism.

“So this is War”, I thought. I realized that my teeth were set, and my mouth hard, and my eyes though full of sleep, wide open. For of all men in the battalion I loved Davidson best. Not that I knew him so wonderfully well, but..well, one always had to smile when he came in; he was so good-natured, so young, so delightfully imperturbable. He used to come in and stroke your hair if you were bad-tempered. Somehow he reminded me of a cat purring; and perhaps his hair and his smile had something to do with it! Oh, who can define what they love in those they love!

And then my mind went back over all the incidents of the last few hours. Together we had been through it all: together we had discussed death: and last of all I thought how he had told me of the funeral that was to be at 9 o’clock. And now he lay beside them. All three had been buried at nine o’clock.

He’s still up the line, but he’s found a reverse slope where he can climb out of the trench and lie and walk about the grass as he thinks.

“Dead. Dead,” said a voice within me. And still I did not move. Still that numbness, that dullness, that tightening across the brain and senses. This, too, was something new. … “Strength.” I answered the voice. “Strong. I am strong.” Every muscle in my body was tingling at my bidding. I felt an iron strength. All this tautness, this numbness, was strength. I remembered last night, the feeling of irresistible will-power, and my eyes glowed.

Then, even as the strength came, I heard a thud, and away on the left a canister blazed into the air, climbed, swooped, and rushed. And the vulgar din of its bursting rent all the stillness of the night. A second followed suit. And as it, too, burst, it seemed a clumsy mocking at me, a mocking that ran in echoes all along the still valley. “Strength,” it sneered. “Strength.” And all my iron will seemed beating against a wall of steel, that must in the end wear me down in a useless battering.

He thinks of Davidson, and of his own actions. He faces up to the certainty that when he calls in mortar or artillery fire, he is doing exactly the same thing to the Germans across the way as the Germans did to Davidson. This is a level of responsibility that the ordinary soldier will never face, and the NCO only obliquely. Most likely, while they will have to consider the consequences firing a rifle, or firing a gun, or stabbing, or swinging a shovel, they will never have to consider what it means to be the one who orders such things to happen.

And then, at last, the strain gave a little, and my muscles relaxed. I went back and took up my helmet. “Dead” the voice repeated within me. And this time my spirit found utterance:
“Damn”, I said. “Oh damn! damn! Damn!”

As the Army bureaucracy would see it, nothing of importance has occurred. But everyone in the war who goes on service at the front will have to face some moment like this. Louis Barthas has had it, and vowed never to kill except as a last resort. So did Harry Patch, the “last fighting Tommy”, who spoke in his last years about agreeing with his fellow machine-gunners to aim only for the legs.

Some are killed or wounded before they can have it. Many will find it easier than Adams has to come to terms with seeing death, and with dealing it out. Plenty will find it harder. Some never will manage it. And the war goes on.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
Lake Naroch Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 goes on sale in less than a week!

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.)

The bird in Mansell Copse | 17 Mar 1916

Kahe

So, as we saw on the 14th, there’s a major problem for the men in German East Africa at Kahe. They’ve had a pause of a few days while General Smuts has sent out his scouts, and now the reports are back in. They’re not very promising. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is planning to make a major stand here, with yet more well-prepared defensive positions. Not only have they concentrated their field artillery, they also have one of the guns from the Konigsberg to provide long-range support.

I’d try to build this up to a “well, there are two options…” assessment, but Smuts’s personality means that in fact there is only one. That’s to attack again as soon as possible, and drive the Schutztruppe out of Kahe before the rains begin in earnest. “As soon as possible” is tomorrow.

The bird in Mansell Copse

Time now for a small vignette from the Somme sector. Private Albert Conn of the 8th Devonshires is stationed near Mametz.

A small bird sang on a stunted tree in Mansell Copse. At the break of dawn we used to listen to it and wonder that amongst so much misery and death a bird could sing. One morning a corporal visiting the fire posts heard the bird singing and, muttering, ‘What the hell have you got to sing about?’ fired and killed it.

A couple of the lads told him to fuck off out of it. We missed the bird.

Gee, I sure do hope that isn’t some piece of morbid foreshadowing before the battle to come.

Grigoris Balakian

Early in the morning, having been told of the caravan, girls from Jane S. Wingate’s American school in Talas arrive with food and a friendly ear. They’ve had a whip-round so that the deportees won’t run out of money; when she sees their situation, Mrs Wingate immediately heads off to get some more. Many of the deportees have also had a vital chance to tell their stories, so that via Jane Wingate they might be able to get out into the wider world. And then…

[The Talas Jandarma captain] suddenly entered and [bollocked] our Jandarma, loudly reprimanding them for letting the American teachers and girls talk about our plight and what we had seen on the way. This was the reason they didn’t want to take us into cities; they didn’t want us to communicate to anybody the truth about the massacres.

As punishment, the captain ordered that we prepare to depart in a few hours. He forbade us even to rent beasts of burden to transport out possessions. We had no choice but to divide up our small bundles among ourselves and then set out toward evening for Tomarza.

Off they go again.

Louis Barthas

Private Louis Barthas and a new pal have been awoken at night by the people who are billeting them for an urgent assignment.

If he wasn’t already a priest, my neighbor was training to be one. Steeped in devotion, he had little to do with us except the most strictly indispensable relations and conversations. He spent his free time in the company of the battalion’s curates, monks, and seminarians. Galin was his name. But what was this peaceable duty we were recruited for? There was no enemy outpost around here to be raided.

It was simply to lend a hand to a cow who was having a hard time calving. Modestly I confessed my inexperience in these matters. The abbé Galin’s inexperience was no less than my own, but as a true disciple of Christ he couldn’t refuse to help his fellow man.

After much effort they succeed in birthing the calf, but too late, and it soon dies.

These good folks wanted to thank us nonetheless for our troubles, and they invited us to drink a bowl of mulled wine. I accepted with pleasure, but Galin refused. Thinking that he didn’t like wine, they offered him a little glass of excellent rum, but he refused it quite obstinately. These people were dumbfounded. For a poilu to refuse a glass of wine was extraordinary enough, but to turn down a glass of rum, that went beyond anything a Picard could imagine.

But once Galin had left, I explained that, he being a priest, and the next day being Sunday, the day of communion, he couldn’t risk his soul’s salvation by swallowing even a drop of water, midnight having been rung a few moments before. The farmers were astounded to learn that they had recruited a clergyman to help their cow to give birth. They felt a vague remorse at having tempted a minister of God and placing him at risk of mortal sin.

The blokes have also now had time to consider where they might go next. Verdun is the obvious answer. Only time will tell whether they’re right.

The Sunny Subaltern

I wonder if our anonymous Canadian friend the Sunny Subaltern has any more cavalier remarks about the trenches?

Here I am again in hospital. It seems as though I never get out of the bally spot.

Goddamnit! Get out of there!

Nothing serious, you know, just crocked up with a deuce of a cold and a very sore heel. The heel comes from endeavouring to break in a new pair of shoes and started with a blister which, like Finney’s Turnip, grew until the length, breadth and depth thereof was some thing to marvel at, and the pain in keeping with the dimensions. Talk about exquisite torture, but I sure feel that the methods of the Inquisition have nothing on this.

However, she is fast healing up and we will go back to finish the breaking in of the new shoes. This breaking in stuff is no joke and I have not yet discovered whether it consists in moulding the boot to the shape of your foot or vice versa, but I think it is vice versa.

My heart bleeds. The reference is to a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (of “Paul Revere’s Ride” fame, among others). It’s about a really, really, really large turnip. Apparently he wrote it at age 9, and in that context it’s quite good. Private Baldrick would have approved, at least.

Edward Mousley

The siege of Kut drags onwards in banal fashion. Edward Mousley is still looking for new ways to stave off boredom.

We had an extraordinary breakfast of kedjereed tinned salmon Square-Peg brought with him. Cockie’s temperature is increasing and ought to be diminished. I played patience a little, which I can’t stick for long. There are not many books circulating.

“Patience” is the traditional British name for one-person card games.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

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.)

Lukuga | Greece | 2 Dec 1915

Quick note: the gap back to the 28th should be filled in by tomorrow. It’s been a busy week. Anyway.

Lukuga

Back to Lake Tanganyika! When last we checked in here, Lieutenant-Commander Spicer-Simson’s ridiculous expedition was just settling into their new home at Lukuga, trying to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, you can only keep so low a profile when hundreds of men are hauling two boats across Africa, and Captain Zimmer (a naval captain), the local German commander, is deeply suspicious that something is going off. He’s not sure what it is, so has been trying to find out. His biggest concern is that this might be where the Belgians are assembling their own IKEA flat-pack steamer, Baron Dhanis, to challenge Goetzen for control of the lake.

For the past few days, one Lieutenant Rosenthal, late of the Konigsberg, has been going above and beyond the call of duty. Rosenthal has been nosing around the area in a small boat, trying to sneak up close enough to find out what’s going on. On one occasion he and a seaman attempted to disguise themselves as Africans in order to infiltrate the Belgian camp, an episode about which details are tragically hard to find. On another he captured an unfortunate African member of the Force Publique and a small patrol boat. Just yesterday he took a camera to within 200 yards of Lukuga and by dawn’s light captured several photographs of an under-construction slipway, before beating a hasty retreat as the large Belgian guns opened fire on his ship.

This is not quite good enough for Rosenthal or Zimmer. It’s still not clear exactly what’s going on there, so today Rosenthal goes back. Under cover of darkness, he swims out from the gunboat Hedwig von Wissmann and, dodging the occasional crocodile, makes it to within sixty yards of the slipway. He spends quite a lot of time there, and before too long he’s worked out more or less exactly what’s going on here. He turns to leave, but then finds he’s completely lost his bearings in the dark and doesn’t know which way to swim to get back to his ship…

Gallipoli and Greece

Admiral de Roebeck has just arrived in London, and today faces extensive questioning from the Dardanelles Committee about the situation. This is followed immediately by a Cabinet meeting to take a decision about what to do next. They’re also discussing the situation in Serbia and Greece, and it’s both impossible and unhelpful if we try to consider Gallipoli apart from Greece at this point.

The Cabinet is extremely skeptical about Salonika. The Serbian Army is beaten and will have to be rescued if it can escape to the coast. General Sarrail is retreating to Salonika and the British component of his force is going with him. On top of this, the Greek political situation remains extremely unstable and has now developed into a full-blown constitutional crisis. King Constantine I (no pun intended) has now called for fresh elections in an attempt to stop Eleftherios Venizelos from using his parliamentary majority to pass votes of no confidence in the governments Constantine is appointing. Constantine is clearly no longer acting as a constitutional monarch, as the Greek system requires him to be. Venizelos has now decided to boycott the elections and deny their legitimacy, since he won his majority only in May and is convinced that he still has a mandate to lead. More on that soon.

Intervention in Serbia was a French scheme. It’s never been popular with the Cabinet. If the men currently heading back to Salonika were in fact withdrawn and sent to Gallipoli instead, that would surely be enough manpower to do something useful there at some ill-defined point in the future. (The likelihood of success remains laughable unless a vast amount of British artillery suddenly materialises out of the ether, but that’s neither here nor there for the moment.) So the Cabinet decides that discussions with France about Salonika will be held as quickly as possible, and in the meantime to plan an offensive at Suvla Bay using the men currently in Greece. Ye gods.

General Joffre

General Joffre’s appointment as commander-in-chief of all French forces is made official today. It’s an important month for Anglo-French high command as it renews itself after 1915. This, combined with the imminent rise of Wully Robertson and General Haig in Britain, is making one thing very clear: both governments will be receiving unequivocal military advice to focus their efforts on the Western Front. If the politicians want to put any emphasis anywhere else, they’re going to have to overcome a lot of military opposition to do so.

Retreat from Ctesiphon

General Townshend’s leading elements are now at Shumran, about half a day’s march from Kut-al-Amara, where some thoughtful quartermaster has set up a station for the men to be properly fed before they finish the retreat from Ctesiphon. If only this were the end of things for a while. Meanwhile, General Nixon is well on the way back to Basra, from where he can preside over future events in safety and comfort.

Louis Barthas

On the Western Front, the weather continues getting steadily more foul. I wonder if Louis Barthas might have some anecdote that reflects how difficult it is to keep the trenches in any kind of repair about now?

My friend Ventresque and I benefited from the hospitality of a neighboring shelter, occupied by telephone operators. One evening, we were already dozing off when they came to take us for a work detail. Two hours later, when we came back, we saw with horror that an enormous mound of earth had collapsed onto the very spot where we had earlier been lying. If not for this work detail, we would have been buried alive. They wouldn’t have needed a grave digger to bury us.

A big shell had fallen onto the shelter a few days earlier, leaving a big crater which filled up with rainwater, which seeped into the ground, causing the landslide. Now the water was rushing into the shelter in multiple streams, and we had to struggle for several hours to dig out our blankets, our weapons, all our gear, and to seek out a slightly drier spot. Another landslide might occur. But where else could we get out of the rain?

Thanks, mate. That’s just what I was looking for.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Krivolak
Retreat from Ctesiphon

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow as long as y’all buy 1914!

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. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

Battle of Es Sinn | 28 Sep 1915

Let’s try to break out from the Western Front a little, shall we? The other theatres of the war have obligingly kept quiet these past few days so we could sweat and bleed and toil with the blokes in Northern France. Now it’s time to expand our field of view once more.

Battle of Es Sinn

Quick recap; in Mesopotamia, General Nixon has launched a rather rash expedition up the River Tigris towards Kut-al-Amara and then, if his subordinate General Townshend feels like it, on to Baghdad. Kut is defended by an extensive prepared Ottoman position a few miles downriver at Es Sinn, and after the better part of a month the British Empire force is now ready to attack.

Technically speaking, the battle started yesterday, with skirmishes and demonstrations to disguise Townshend’s intention to spread out and flank the prepared defences. He also intends to exploit a lack of care when preparing positions that run right up to marshland, launching several pin-point thrusts against the edges of the defences. It’s a fine line between getting at the dodgy sections and sinking in the marsh, and heavy fighting rumbles for most of the day. It’s certainly been a better day for Townshend than any commander on the Western Front who you’d care to name, but when night falls the Ottomans are still in possession of several key parts of their line. The battle continues tomorrow.

Attack on Luvungi

The elderly General Wahle has managed to convince the military commander of German East Africa (today Tanzania), Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, to let him go on another adventure, the failure of the Siege of Saisi notwithstanding. This time it’s a much better bet, aimed at pre-empting any Anglo-Belgian attempt to regain control of the enormous and critical Lake Tanganyika, currently ruled over with an iron fist by SMS Goetzen, the famous flat-pack warship. (Goetzen has, incidentally, just had her armament greatly increased with the arrival of a comedically large gun that’s been hauled clear across the colony by the survivors of the Konigsberg.)

Wahle has rounded up a force of 1,500 men and now intends to use them to drive a wedge between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Kivu. This would effectively split the Belgian Congo’s brutal gendarmerie, the Force Publique, in two. The key Belgian holding in the area is at Luvungi, but due to the manpower problem inherent in defending lands as vast as the Belgian Congo (bigger than France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Spain put together) with about 20,000 men, the current garrison is one FP company of 150.

It should have worked, and on military merits it probably deserved to work. However, by a colossal stroke of good fortune, a battalion-strength unit is currently located only two hours’ march away. When it arrives in the afternoon General Wahle suddenly finds himself facing a force of approximately equal size and battle soon turns to stalemate. He’ll keep ineffectually poking at Luvungi for a few more days before being forced to withdraw due to lack of supplies.

Mimi & Toutou

British and Belgian attempts to regain the balance of power on Lake Tanganyika continue. The Belgians are now attempting to assemble their own flat-pack steamer, the Baron Dhanis, as a direct response to Goetzen. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Commander Spicer-Simson’s entirely ridiculous scheme to man-haul two small motor-boats, Mimi and Toutou, from Cape Town to the lake has reached an important waypoint. This is Sankisia, which happens to have a railway station.

The man-hauling element of the journey is now mostly at an end. The ships are now loaded onto another train for the short journey to Bukama, from where they can be launched into the River Lualaba and given an African seaworthiness trial. They’re reckoning on a two-week sail to Kabalo, and then one final railway journey to Lake Tanganyika itself. About 2,400 of the 3,000 miles of travelling have now been successfully completed.

Battle of Loos

And after all that, it’s back to the Battle of Loos. The chief area of concern for the BEF is now the Dump and the Hohenzollern Redoubt. There’s heavy fighting here, with both sides launching attacks and counter-attacks; and by the end of the day the BEF has once again come off second best, having now been forced all the way back to the Redoubt itself.

We followed Private Harry Fellows and Captain David Pole of C Company, 12th Northumberlands (a Kitchener’s Army battalion) as they went up (and back down) Hill 70 on the 26th. They’ve since been relieved by the Guards, and the battalion’s survivors have been straggling back to the rear, to their assigned re-assembly point at Vermelles. This is the town that Louis Barthas watched his comrades liberating from the Germans back at the start of the year.

By evening there are enough men to make it worth holding a parade for roll call. There are about 60 men of C Company left. All the platoon commanders are absent from their regular places. The other three companies are barely in a better way. Among the missing from C Company’s parade position is David Pole. However, in his case, this because all but six of the Battalion’s officers have been killed or wounded. Someone has checked the Army List, and passed on the news that he is now acting Lieutenant-Colonel Pole.

After the parade, Private Fellows catches up with him for the first time since before they went into battle. And he hands over the message he’s been carrying all this time, the message that didn’t quite reach Pole before he went over the top.

“The C.O. wishes the attack to be carried out with bayonets in the true Northumbrian fashion.”

I said to him again, “I’m very sorry, sir, I did try to find you.” It was some moments before he looked up and spoke. “It doesn’t matter, sonny, now.”

I never forgot his words, nor the tears that were coursing down his face.

Artois & Champagne

General Petain declines to attack at Second Champagne, and is rewarded by a surprise visit from General Joffre with a “please explain”. Petain subsequently issues a terse and irritable order that his army’s offensive is to continue tomorrow.

Meanwhile, at Third Artois, something odd happens. In the confusion of the night so lovingly described by Louis Barthas (more from him in a moment), the Germans have for reasons known only to themselves decided to retreat up Vimy Ridge. With a fine disregard for the opinions of his superiors, General d’Urbal orders a general offensive, which chases the Germans all the way up the ridge. By nightfall they’ve captured the crest. War, it’s a funny old game. A couple of days ago Joffre and Foch were firmly agreed that Vimy Ridge should be let alone, and now it’s in French hands.

Louis Barthas

Somewhere at the arse end of that offensive we find Louis Barthas. Most of his squad’s day is spent amusing themselves by making friends with the first German prisoners to have been captured (or, more accurately, tripped over) by them. Alas, come the evening they’re ordered forward once more.

Had there been hand-to-hand combat here? Had wounded and dying men dragged themselves to this spot? Whatever had happened, there were numerous bodies of Frenchmen and Germans, whom death had surprised in every conceivable pose: lying, kneeling, crouched down; the boyau was narrow, and we were forced to step on corpses. What a horror that was!

As the men try to process it they’re met by a German counter-attack spewing grenades everywhere, and beat a hasty and panicked retreat in the pitch dark.

After ten minutes, I arrived at the entrance to the boyau. At this point the trench was quite wide, like a sunken road. Our cowardly captain, Cros-Mayrevieille, was there. “It’s shameful, what happened out there,” he cried, “Get back out into the trench.” But nobody budged. If Captain Cros-Mayrevieille had put himself in front of us, we all would have followed him.

You can accuse BEF junior officers of many things, but in the main, you can’t accuse them of failing to lead the attacks that they order.

At this moment, Agussol, an epileptic who for some time had shown signs of mental weakness but whom we had kept with us all the same, lost his mind. Hearing that we were being ordered back into the trench where we had had such a frightful time, he advanced on the captain and swung an empty musette bag at him, by the straps, smacking him in the face and knocking his spectacles off. Then he charged off into the trench, shouting and singing the verses of a battle song:

“The air is pure, the road is wide/The bugler sounds the charge . . .”

He disappeared into the falling night, and then all was silent. The next day we found his body, riddled with bullets, along the trench.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Loos
Battle of Champagne (Second Champagne)
Battle of Artois (Third Artois)

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow as long as y’all buy 1914!

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. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)