Lord Kitchener | Brusilov Offensive | 5 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

The Entente’s summer offensive is finally underway. We’ve been building up to this for at least six months. There have been a couple of probing infantry attacks yesterday, but this is the start of the big Russian push. The Brusilov Offensive has called for just 24 hours of artillery preparations before tthe men go over the top en masse. Four Russian armies are attacking four Austro-Hungarian armies over a front about 200 miles long, from Czernovitz in the south to Sarny in the north. They’re aiming to thrust back into Galicia, north of the Carpathians.

Casualties are, of course, horrendous. The attack is huge and sprawling. When your front is hundreds of miles long, there will inevitably be failure. The Austro-Hungarian official history takes refuge in the defensive successes, the heroic efforts of individual brigades and battalions in holding off the attack. There are a lot of those. Hundreds and hundreds of Russian battalions hard-pressed to make it through No Man’s Land, quickly getting bogged down, fighting with grenades and hand-to-hand over individual trenches and strong-points.

Then there’s the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army, the most northerly of the four to be attacked. It’s currently defending a sector of front centred on Lutsk, which today is in north-western Ukraine. They’ve had a particularly hard time of it. Here the Russian artillery fire has suppressed the defenders extremely effectively. Entire companies and battalions are being captured or killed in their dugouts, the attackers quickly moving through the first trench system, into the second, and then all the way into the third. It’s just one division among many that’s given way, but Brusilov’s plan is flexible enough to account for this.

As the evening wears on, Russian reserves are already rushing to the aid of 8th Army. The Austro-Hungarians, with almost no general reserve, can’t be so flexible. Every attack has to be responded to. Just about every division in their army group is shouting for reinforcement, and every army is committing its own reserve. Their attacks at the Battle of Asiago are stalling, being repelled by fresh Italian troops. Something is going to have to give. There’s not enough men to do it all.

Mission to Russia

Good news, then, is waiting for Lord Kitchener at the end of his just-beginning journey to Russia. After lunch with Admiral Jellicoe at Scapa Flow, his lordship is in no mood to be delayed by footling concerns like “horrible weather” and “heavy seas”. Jellicoe attempts to persuade him to delay sailing by 24 hours to wait out the storm, knowing Kitchener’s sea legs aren’t the best. When that fails, he reroutes the convoy to the west of the Orkneys to offer some cover from the heaviest seas.

Hey, remember those mine-laying submarines that went out before the Battle of Jutland? Remember how most of them came to grief, but U-75 succeeded in laying a line of mines west of the Orkneys? The Germans were hoping that it might catch a dreadnought, or a battlecruiser. At 7:40pm, in high winds and heavy seas, the minefield catches only an armoured cruiser. But the armoured cruiser is HMS Hampshire, sailing for Russia. The seas are so heavy, and the explosion is so violent, that the ship’s lifeboats are thrown against the hull and broken into pieces.

Fifteen minutes later, the ship is sinking. 662 people were aboard. 12 survived. 655 went down with her. And Lord Kitchener was one of them. In Britain we don’t really have war heroes any more in 2016. It’s all but impossible to explain the impact the news will have when it breaks in London at noon tomorrow. The only thing I can think of to compare it to is the death of Princess Diana in 1997. And the Admiralty was just starting to contest German control of the post-Battle of Jutland narrative, too. Once the news breaks, it’s going to completely take over the British news cycle.

Battle of Verdun

The fight for Fort Vaux grinds inexorably onwards. With only one underground tunnel available to gain entry into the fort, the Germans now decide to assault the fort’s courtyard, which offers access to two For the defenders, the night passes in absolute agony, listening to mysterious noises and muffled voices drifting into the fort from outside. And then the nerves of the barricade sentries crack; the Germans rush up with flamethrowers; the hand-cranked fans roar back into action, and once again the flame is blown right back on its wielders.

Then Fort Souville opens up with some artillery support. Using light-calibre guns, they target the roof of the fort with shrapnel. The shells aren’t heavy enough to damage the fort itself, but they’re more than deadly enough to take a brutal toll of dead from the Germans on the roof. As they scatter, a weakened roof falls in and completely blocks one of the passages into the fort.

The other passage barricade is held, only just. In command, Major Raynal decides that it’s an untenable position and his men pull back slightly. On the positive side for the Germans, they now have a way in. On the negative side, the way in leads directly to the latrines, now in a condition so awful that mere words no longer suffice. On the third side, the French are now entirely out of water and the men don’t have anywhere safe to take a dump. If tomorrow’s latest relief effort doesn’t go anywhere, that might just be all she wrote for the defence of the fort.

Battle of Mont Sorrel

Now it’s clear that the Germans were only interested in Mont Sorrel and Hill 61, General Plumer tells the Canadian Corps to kindly get him his hill back, please. There’s no rush, just get the hill back. General Byng in turn gives the job to one Major-General Arthur Currie, commanding the 1st Canadian Division, of whom much more later. Currie and his staff immediately begin studying the tactics which brought success at The Bluff, back in March.

Meanwhile, at the sharp end, the Sunny Subaltern has been ordered forward into the new front trenches. The trenches themselves are wrecked, with German artillery giving them a regular pounding, and there are no communication trenches. In fact, nobody’s quite sure if there’s anyone left holding the line. They’ve been unable to contact the units they’re supposed to be relieving. With no idea what they might find, they set off forward.

In extended order across shell-swept ground we started over an area pitted and potted by shells, with here a clump of scarred trees, or there a few gaunt stones, the remnant of a building. On we went in the gray of the early morning, past verdant stretches of fields, rank with ungarnered crops, which were besprinkled with scarlet poppies. We clambered through hedge-rows of hawthorn in bloom, the smell of which mingled with the sweet sickly odour of tear gas shells. We dodged shell holes or climbed in and over the remains of trenches, all the while drawing nearer, nearer the ceaseless rattle of musketry, the rhythmic rip of machine guns.

The psychology of a soldier in the brief moments of an attack or counter-attack, is something beyond my ken. In retrospect, I come on the thought I had as I saw that line move forward: that line of my men, the men whom I worked over during months of training, the men, who with me, had laughed and laboured, cried and cursed for many moons, slowly advancing to we knew not what. A picture of a green sward in Canada months before came back, and I recollected my exhortations on keeping a line and steady pace.

The order to fix bayonets passed along: this done, the clicking of bolts, to ensure that every magazine had its quota of cartridges, sounded.

Eventually another officer finds them, redirects them. The battalion is getting mixed up with the survivors of other units. There are no more orders. The Subaltern struggles to keep control of the situation. The men all find such holes as suit them, and try not to die.

Battle of Asiago

Our new Italian correspondent Emilio Lussu has just arrived at the Battle of Asiago, right as the tide is…well, maybe it’s not turning, but it’s congealing a bit. And, gentleman that he is, he’s gone straight to a funny story. He’s been detailed to take a platoon and go forward to see if they can find out what’s going on.

On the edge of the Asiago plateau, it was pure chaos. We’d arrived there under the tightest security measures, because it wasn’t clear where our guys were and where the Austrians were. In the basins around Asiago, a number of [enemy] field artillery batteries were moving around in plain sight. A bridge, destroyed by our side, had been rebuilt in a few days. All our artillery had fallen into enemy hands.

The sun had already gone down when, just north of Stoccaredo, I ran into a battalion of the 301st Infantry. It was under the command of a lieutenant-colonel who I found out in the open, sitting at a makeshift table made of tree limbs, a bottle of brandy in hand. He greeted me warmly and offered me a glass of brandy. “Thanks,” I said. “I don’t drink liquor.”
“You don’t drink liquor?” the [officer] asked me, concerned. He pulled a notebook out of his pocket and wrote, “Met a lieutenant who didn’t drink liquor. June 5th, 1916.” He had me repeat my name, and added it to the note.

After an extended recce/piss-up, the colonel lets Lussu go with some insightful comments about how maps are dangerous things. “In the mountains, maps are only intelligible to people who know the region, who were born and raised there. But people who already know the terrain don’t need maps…” Lussu celebrates by promptly getting his platoon lost looking for an ill-advised short cut. Meanwhile, another company takes a prisoner and has politely given him a cigarette and chocolate before the light of said cigarette reveals him to in fact be from the same regiment…

Haig’s personal intelligence

General Haig is taking a moment today to ensure he’s as well-informed as possible. He’s kept up a prudent correspondence with Lord Bertie, the British ambassador to France. Let’s just go to his letter, it explains what he’s trying to do.

…It is a great help to me in my dealings with the French over military plans to know how you gauge the political situation in Paris. My policy is briefly to:
1. Train my divisions, and to collect as much ammunition and as many guns as possible.
2. To make arrangements to support the French…attacking in order to draw off pressure from Verdun, when the French consider the military situation demands it.
3. But, while attacking to help our Allies, not to think that we can for a certainty destroy the power of Germany this year. So in our attacks we must also aim at improving our positions with a view to making sure of the result of campaign next year.

I do wonder how much of this is a genuine representation of his thoughts, and how much of this is for public consumption in Paris, particularly regarding Point 3. As the blokes come to learn more about the Big Push, well, let’s just say that some of them are being told the exact opposite. More soon.

Oskar Teichman

Preparations continue for an attack on the Suez Canal. Medical officer Oskar Teichman is in an ideal place to observe.

Machine guns had now been mounted round our camp. We were inlying regiments for the day, ready to move out in case of an alarm. In the evening we walked round some of the trenches and posts protecting our camp. The trenches were well revetted in the loose sand. Special orders were issued as to procedure in the event of an aeroplane attack. The evening Intelligence report stated that enemy concentration was rapidly proceeding at El Arish.

An “agent” reported one German aeroplane made of gold! The Germans had apparently given this out in order to impress the natives. These agents were generally Bedouin, employed by both sides as spies.

Welp. None of this sounds good.

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is back up the line in front of Fricourt, where nothing of importance is occurring. He’s just been off on a working party, repairing barbed wire.

I went outside again, and walked along Park Lane until I came to the Lewis-gun position just this side of the comer of Watling Street. The sentry was standing up, with his elbows on the ground level (there was no parapet) gazing alert and interested at the continuous flicker of our shells bursting along the enemy’s trenches. Lance-Corporal Allan looked out of the dug-out and, seeing me, came out and stood by us. And together we watched, all three of us, in silence.

Oh hey, they’ve got a Watling Street too. As I mentioned earlier, there’s more than one Watling Street back in Blighty, and the longest one is 250 miles long, so.

“This is all right, sir,” said Lance-Corporal Allan. He was the NCO in charge of the Lewis-gun team.
“Yes” said I. “The artillery are not on short rations to-night.” For always, through the last four months, the artillery had been more or less confined to so many shells a day. To-night at any rate there was no curtailment. “I believe this is the beginning of a new order of things,” I said, half musing, to myself; “that is, I believe the Boche is going to get lots and lots of this now.”
“About time, sir,” said the sentry.
“Is there a push coming off?” said Lance-Corporal Allan.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “But I expect we shall be doing something soon. It’s quite certain we’re going to get our three weeks’ rest after this turn in. The Brigade Major told me so.”

Three weeks’ rest would send them back up the line just in time to go over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Corporal Allan smiled, and as he did so the flashes lit up his face. He was quite a boy, only eighteen, I believe, but an excellent NCO. He had a very beautiful though sensuous face that used to remind me sometimes of the “Satyr” of Praxiteles. His only fault was an inclination to sulkiness at times, which was perhaps due to a little streak of vanity. It was no wonder the maidens of Morlancourt made eyes at him, and a little girl who lived next door to the Lewis-gunner’s billet was said to have lost her heart long ago.

To-night I felt a pang as I saw him smile.

Of course, if he really were 18, he shouldn’t be in France at all. But he is, and Mr Adams should really be warned about the possible consequences of getting a crush on his soldiers. I guess Maximilian Mugge was right about the dangers of promiscuous intercourse between officers and men, hohoho.

Seriously, though. Praxiteles was a Greek sculptor who made a load of statues of naked male satyrs. Satyrs are extremely hypersexual creatures. Hopefully someone can arrange a cold shower for the poor lovelorn subaltern next time he comes out of the line.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Brusilov Offensive

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

Brusilov Overture | Fort Vaux | 4 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

The great summer offensive plays its overture today. Today is given over entirely to artillery barrages. The Austro-Hungarian generals remain unconcerned; if this really is the prelude to an attack, the Russians will surely make like they did at Lake Naroch and precede it with a multiple-day bombardment. Surely. It stands to reason. Another drink? Why not, indeed. Nothing to be concerned about just yet!

As it happens, here’s another thing General Brusilov’s staff has figured out. Not only is there a point past which artillery barrages start bringing in sharply diminishing returns, they’ve also realised that it’s far more feasible to use these bombardments at least partly to suppress the enemy, then cross No Man’s Land and capture them in their dugouts and shelters before they can open fire. The battle proper opens tomorrow. Which is convenient, because today is seriously stacked with other news.

Battle of Verdun

Another French attempt at sending fresh men into Fort Vaux fails miserably. On the other side of the hill, the Germans have sent fresh flamethrowers forward to deal with the situation. Fire and smoke rips through the confined tunnels, and inevitably their defenders retreat. For a moment it seems as though the Germans will follow the fire right into the rest of the fort, but the French have access to the most unlikely of weapons. The fort has a few portable hand-operated fans, in case the natural air circulation breaks down. When the flamethrower attacks come in, someone keeps enough about them to crank up the fans.

And the fire blows right back on the Germans. More vicious fighting. More horrific deaths. One of the access tunnels has caught fire. The other is re-occupied in the nick of time. Some thinking follows, and that tunnel is then blocked and blown up and generally made completely inaccessible. They can’t get at the other tunnel, though, owing to the fire…

Then follows another blow, this one much more critical. The fort has run out of water. The meticulous records insist that they should still have enough water for a little while yet, but as it turns out, some of the men who previously occupied the fort did not care much for accurate paperwork. The records they handed over to Raynal were completely inaccurate. They’ve gone from being able to hold out for a long time to come, to being on the verge of dying of thirst. Anyone who isn’t still fit to fight is to leave, and Raynal is desperate to establish communication with Fort Souville by signalling lamp, the only means of communication left to him.

Mamahatun Offensive

Baack to the Mamahatun Offensive in the Caucasus, which we’ve unfortunately been short-changing due to sheer lack of information. The Ottoman Third Army has been attacking tired and disorganised Russians for the past week, with quite a bit of success. Had there been plentiful reinforcements to throw in, they might have kept up the successes and forced a major retreat towards Erzurum, possibly splitting General Yudenich’s main body apart from the men at Trebizond.

There were not plentiful reinforcements. The men who attacked were the plentiful reinforcements. They were supposed to be the core of the new Third Army, and now they’ve been fighting, taking casualties, tiring themselves out. They’ve now been mostly fought to the stop by equally plentiful Russian reinforcements. Another fresh division has dodged a lurking German U-boat and landed near Trebizond. This is deeply worrying; the offensive is called off, having mildly worried the Russian commander-in-chief. Vehip Pasha’s staff now begin trying to work out whether they can do anything to oppose Russian control of Erzurum.

General Yudenich, meanwhile, has already turned his opinion to “what do I do next?” The offensive caught him somewhat by surprise, but now the situation’s back under control. Planning begins for the next major offensive. It’s not particularly complicated; Yudenich intends to shove a lot of men down the Erzurum-Erzincan road and split Third Army in two. Annoyingly, he’s timetabling it to begin on about the 2nd of July, when something else a bit bigger might be going on.

Battle of Jutland

I like to imagine a large transparent box sitting in the Admiralty’s operations room. The assembled admirals, as they sit in their latest conference, are all trying very hard to ignore the box. Inside is Winston Churchill, returned from the trenches, snoozing quietly. There’s an IV drip in his arm, administering a careful flow of Pol Roger champagne to keep his blood alcohol level just so. There is a sign on the box. It reads “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS”. And this is not just an emergency; it’s an emergency that requires an exceptional public speaker.

There is, however, no hammer. A minion must be sent out to get one. But they’ve now broken the glass, given Churchill everyone’s reports, and instructed him to please do something about this damned German narrative. It doesn’t take him long to figure out the obvious interpretation. The Grand Fleet might have lost a few ships more, and considerably more men, than the Germans. But the battle ended with both fleets exchanging fire and the Germans running the fuck away very fast. That is not, traditionally, how the winning side marks a great victory.

Churchill’s analysis pushes that angle as hard as possible. However, it does offend the British newspapermen. They’re all horribly offended that a politician (and a failed First Lord of the Admiralty at that) has been given access to secret documents and they have not. They all remember the political machinations on the Western Front in 1915, the Shell Crisis, the wrangling over the Battle of Loos. If the Army can attempt to cover up the scale of a major loss, and the reasons for a loss, why shouldn’t the Navy? What the Admiralty needs now is a few clear days to push their angle hard and without distractions.

Lord Kitchener’s mission

Maybe now is a good time to be out of the country. In Russia, Lord Kitchener will surely have to field fewer damn fool questions about Jutland, if nothing else. With a little luck, he might even be able to see the Russians winning a major victory, and find out how it might be done. Maybe they can work out some deal to send the Russians more supplies, somehow. Nobody in the Cabinet seems to like him any more. So, very quietly, he leaves London today by sleeper train, heading for Thurso, and eventually for Scapa Flow. We’ll pick the mission up if anything ever comes of it.

Tanks

Colonel Swinton of the Tank Supply Committee currently has the unenviable job of trying to train the first tank crews with precisely one machine; the prototype, Mother. The good news is that Mother’s engine is working fine and crews can now start learning how to move a tank about a battlefield. The bad news, a minor flaw I’m sure, is that Mother has no sponsons (she had them at the trials; they were probably removed to be used as templates for the manufacturers) and no guns to fire from them. By the end of the month they will have five whole tanks, but still no hint of sponsons…

Georges Connes

A long way from all this, Georges Connes has just been ordered to march about 25 miles to Stenay. Fortunately, Connes’s group includes one Commandant Mercier. Mercier may not have much left after being captured, but he still has his dignity, and he evidently is an accomplished bullshitter.

Speaking firmly, he states to the German officer that we are too tired to walk. He further argues that the French transport German officer-prisoners by car (how does he know this?) and demands the same treatment. His request is immediately fulfilled. Five or six peasant carts arrive, each one led by a soldier, and we board as we like. Personally, I believe that the German officer from whom we requested something reasonable and easy didn’t see any reason to refuse. As for the privates, they will walk. No carts for them.

[In Stenay] I spent dismal days, the most sinister of my captivity. The joy of knowing we won’t be killed doesn’t sustain us for very long. One soon gets used to no longer dying. Already I can forsee where our main suffering will come from. We will suffer more because of one another, being crowded and without privacy, than from our guards, who we rarely see. German authority seems to be represented by a vociferous officer who walks about the courtyard yelling all the time. He is typical of those barking officers who constitute the major strength of all the armies of the world.

Damn, I really wish now that he’d written memoirs about the first part of his war.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has finished moving to wherever it is in France he’s going. It has a town and some docks. I’ll let you know where it is once I work it out.

After a long and weary railway journey lasting several days we have arrived in a “hutted” camp. Why a journey which in peace-time would have taken not more than eight hours should require four days, passes my understanding. I am glad the journey is ended. Last night, for the first time since Tuesday morning, I put off my clothes. What a relief ! And no more climbing of hills with that kit-bag on one’s back. After half-an-hour of it I always feel like Sinbad the Sailor must have felt when he carried the Old Man of the Sea. The THING grows heavier and heavier.

To-day is a rest-day. To-morrow I presume will see us hard at work. Loading, unloading, road-making? Went with John and Fair into the town. Found it awfully hard to walk on cobbled pavements or on flag-stones. Whenever we encountered a slope in the rather undulating streets of the older town, we began to move about in all directions like a crowd of drunken roller-skaters.

The trouble is his brand new boots with hob-nailed soles. I’ll lay very good odds that he’s never worn hob-nailed boots before in his life.

Bernard Adams

Nothing of importance is happening for Bernard Adams at the Bois Francais. He continues going in and out of the line, preparing for the Battle of the Somme. They’ve recently thrown a very good concert party for the men in Amiens, and been visited for the occasion by the music-hall star Basil Hallam. They’re due back up the line tomorrow, but now is the time to eat, drink, and make merry. They’ve even invited the grizzled old sweat Captain Jim Potter of the quartermaster’s department round. Captain Potter, in the tradition of senior Army quartermasters, was commissioned from the ranks after winning two medals in the Boer War, and therefore is a most entertaining dinner guest. After dinner, they sit around talking about this and that.

“A good entry tonight in Comic Cuts”, I remarked. “‘A dog was heard barking in Fricourt ad 11pm.’ Someone must have been hard up for intelligence to put that in.
“A dog barking in Fricourt”, said old Jim, marked. “What’s that, Corps stuff? I never read the thing. That’s what it is to have a Staff. A dog barking in Fricourt!”
“The Corps officer didn’t hear it. It was some battalion intelligence officer that was such a fool to report it.”
“I’d like to meet the fellow. The first fellow I’ve ever met yet who has a just appreciation of the brain capacity of the Staff. You or I might have thought of reporting a dog’s mew, or roar, or bellow. But a dog’s bark we should have thought of no interest whatever to the, er, fellows up there, you know, who plan our destinies.” And he gave an obsequious flick of his hand, to an imaginary person too high up to see him at all. “The Staff”, he went on, with the greatest contempt. “I saw three of them in a car today. I stood to attention. Saluted. A young fellow waved his hand, graciously accepted my salute, and passed on, leaning back in his limousine. The Brains of the British Army, I thought. Pah!”

This is the best entertainment that Jim Potter can offer, so Adams and his chums continue winding him up. Do you think there might be a push soon, Jim?

“Of course there will be a push. The Staff must have something to show for themselves. ‘Shove ’em in!’, they say, ‘rather a bigger front than last time. Strategy? Oh no, that’s out of date, you know. Five-mile front. Frontal attack. Get a few hundred thousand mown down, and then discover the Boche has got a second line. The Staff. Pah!” And no more would he say.

More drink is taken. The young men round the table begin arsing around and engaging in small doses of High Spirits until the wee hours. At great length, the drink runs out, and they eventually retire to bed.

As I opened the door of my billet, I heard a strafe getting up. “In” tomorrow, I thought. I lost no time in getting into bed, and yet I could not sleep. I could not help thinking of the jollity of the last few hours, the humour. Most of all I thought of old Jim, the mainspring somehow of it all. And again I saw the picture of the concert a few nights ago, the bright lights of the stage, the crowds of our fellows, all their bodies and spirits for the moment relaxed.

And lastly I thought of Private Benjamin [one of his snipers], that refined eager face, that rather delicate body, and that warm hand as I placed mine over his, squeezing the trigger. He was no more than a child, really, a simple-minded child of Wales. Somehow it was more terrible that these young boys should see the war, than for the older men. Yet were we not all children wondering, wondering, wondering? Yes, we were like children faced by a wild beast. “Sometimes I dislike you almost,” I thought. “Your dullness, your coarseness, your lack of romance, your unattractiveness. Yet that is only physical. You, I love really.”

And in the darkness, I buried my face in the pillow, and sobbed.

And the war goes on.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Mamahatun Offensive
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Brusilov Offensive

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

Battle of Kondoa | 9 May 1916

Battle of Kondoa

Today should just be a formality. Sure, we’ve seen a load of different times in this theatre when a numerically superior force goes blundering into inadequately-scouted enemy positions and gets a damn good kicking. But this is Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck’s big chance to attack. His men are operating on home turf. A few of them have been garrisoning the town for months, or years. The boss himself has that new map that the civilian administrator drew for him. If ever there was a time for an attack in Africa to go differently, it’s tonight at Kondoa.

For the defenders, the day goes much the same. A quiet morning, mostly taken up scavenging for food. At 4pm the enemy guns open up for the Daily Hate. They’ve also spent the past week frantically digging trenches, and when it comes to this kind of manual labour, the prospect of impending explosive death is a marvellous motivator. So, at least they’ve got something when the Schutztruppe askari come charging down from the Burungi Heights towards them.

The fighting goes for hours, with wave after wave of attacks falling on the 3,000 South Africans who are still barely fit enough to hold a rifle and shoot. The 11th South African Infantry’s defences were organised by a Major Humphrey, who stood proudly upright in the shallow trench, head and torso well above the parapet, for four hours. Just before midnight an enemy sniper finally manages to pick him out in the moonlight. A lieutenant, seeing the need for inspirational leadership, stands up in his place, muttering “Get down, you have no brains” to any of his men who are too inspired and stand with him.

And the battle goes on. It’ll be well into tomorrow before we’ve got a result.

Dreadnought issues

About that German navy plann from yesterday? Big throw-down in the North Sea? It’s going to have to be delayed. Several of the Kaiser’s very finest battleships are having trouble with faulty engine condensers. It’s a relatively simple repair, to have them ready by the original 17th of May date is a bit optimistic. The date has now been pushed back to the 23rd, which will at least allow for a little more planning.

Lord Kitchener

The campaign to get Lord Kitchener to go to Russia and sell them more weapons is gathering momentum. David Lloyd-George is firmly in favour of it, and he spends a quite a while today trying to convince Colonel Hankey to go there as well and use his organisational skill to knock some heads together. Of course, Hankey in his memoirs has all kinds of really well-argued reasons why he shouldn’t go and freeze his knackers off, up to and including “I have a note from Mater”. The situation rumbles on.

Petain on strategy

General Petain, newly-empowered to have Opinions on the wider conduct of the war and to have them listened to, has also recently given General Joffre his assessment of the summer offensive. He’s not opposed to the basic theory; clearly, something must be done. However, he’s deeply concerned that the plan looks suspiciously like the plans for attacking in autumn 1915, at Second Champagne and Third Artois. He therefore predicts that the Battle of the Somme will last months and result in the capture of only a few kilometres of ground.

Instead, he proposes a series of limited offensives, both at Verdun and elsewhere; offensives in which the BEF should not play a major part, if it plays any part at all. He’s deeply worried about the political consequences of seeing the British Army suffer losses comparable to those of the French Army in 1915. Man, that irony thing sure is ironic sometimes. I need a brandy.

Louis Barthas

Still Louis Barthas waits for the call to go to Hill 304, which remains in German hands. Just about. Mind, he does have more pressing concerns.

For the past two or three days I’d been doubled over with terrible pains in my belly. I made my way to sick call. Without even looking at me, the medical officer gave me an opium pill and asked me not to come back, saying that he too had a bellyache and continued to do his duty all the same. As I insisted that I hadn’t been able to eat hardly anything for three days, he generously had me swallow two pills instead of one and sent me off with the word “Go!” which signified that I was not to return.

Yeah, this sucks, but I guess reading about the suffering of the men at Kut or in Tanzania, day after day, kind of hardens one. Three whole days of twisted guts, O grognard? At least you’re still in France. At least the medical officer still has medicine to be so free with. Could be worse. Chillax.

Edward Mousley

Speaking of which! Here’s Edward Mousley.

The Turkish authorities seem determined not to send any British officer back if it can be helped. More than one who was rejected by the Turkish medical officer as not sufficiently ill to warrant exchange has succumbed. A poor fellow in the next ward who has been groaning for days died yesterday. One is not likely to recover on Turkish biscuits at this stage. I was ordered by Colonel Brown-Mason to translate for the Turkish doctor who knew German and a little French. This I did for several officers, but we were all rejected, although about six of us had been told we were certain to go.

Four were selected in all, by no means the worse of the cases, while men with legs in splints, smashed thighs, and shot backs, one of whom could not sit or stand up, were rejected. Kut was deserted and lone. General Aylmer, we heard, had retired to Amara. We expect to leave every day for Baghdad. How the men have fared we don’t know, but from time to time terrible stories reach us.

Those four are lucky indeed; as already mentioned, the vast majority of the men to be exchanged will be Indian sepoys.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge takes a break from stories of camp life. He’s seen something in the newspaper that is highly relevant to his interests.

The “Daily News,” reporting a libel action, states that summing up, Mr Justice Scrutton said it had been the pride and boast of the British Constitution that its judges and juries alike were above prejudice and did justice to everybody.

Recalling a remark by Sir John Simon, asking if it were a libel to call a man a German after he had become naturalized in this country, His Lordship said that he was sorry to hear an ex-Home Secretary and an ex-Law Officer speak of naturalized certificates in the way he did. Much had been said about Germans treating treaties as “scraps of paper,” but he did not like the idea of treating English statutes in that way.

By Act of Parliament aliens were entitled to the privileges and rights conferred on them by naturalization, and he hoped that Sir John Simon did not mean that, in spite of naturalization a man German-born should be treated as a German.

Nice to see a judge with some backbone in the face of nationalist hysteria. Hopefully this means good things are in Mugge’s future. He just wants a chance to get his brains blown out for Britain, the same as any other man!

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Kondoa

Further Reading

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

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

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

Ructions in Paris | Lafayette Escadrille | 28 Mar 1916

Fun and games in Paris

So, that conference I mentioned the other day? Colonel Hankey, secretary to the British War Committee, would dearly like you to believe that it was rather dull and unremarkable. “There was a great deal of talk and froth…and not much beside.” Perhaps, but what froth! For some reason, the French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, has rather offended Wully Robertson when talking about Salonika. (Which, let’s not forget, is Briand’s pet project, and something Robertson would far rather see wound down to nothing.)

I do sometimes suspect that tales of Robertson’s bluff, plain-speaking manner are slightly exaggerated by the aristocrats and toffs with whom he was forced to associate. Slightly, mind you. It is very easy to believe that he would have been less than impressed with Briand’s expansive rhetoric on the subject of Salonika. It’s equally believable that he would have stated his opposition in rather blunt and undiplomatic terms, and refused to back down simply for the sake of leaving feathers unruffled.

Robertson and Lord Kitchener have been trying to get the French to let them take men away from Salonika for some time. The French have no intention of letting this happen. Add a little of Wully’s attitude and a little of what the British delegation might have called Continental emotion, and we find Briand saying words to the effect of “We have lost plenty of men; now it is time for the British to play their part.” Hardly a glowing chapter in the annals of cross-Channel diplomacy!

Lord Kitchener’s takeaway from all this, incidentally, is a rather odd suggestion to General Haig, along the lines of “the French wish to focus on Salonika and you may not have any support on the Western Front”. Perhaps that’s what the government might want, or prefer, but as long as General Joffre’s dining table is still at Chantilly, Kitchener’s concern is unfounded. Incidentally, in less frothy news, the British Fourth Army’s staff under General Rawlinson are just about to complete their initial proposals for the British contribution to the Battle of the Somme. Watch this space.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian and his band of buggered are now heading downhill, and morale is, for a short time, about as good as it could be.

The resurrection of nature was so marvellous, we almost forgot that we were headed towards Der Zor, or death. A few of our most energetic and patriotic youths sang in trembling voices. … As they sang, the Jandarma reproached us. “What a carefree nation you are! We massacre you, we exile you, and yet still you sing songs!”

We reached a small village. In some deserted huts, we tried to get through the night while waging a full-scale war against armies of lice attacking us from both sides.

The night brings a cruel wind.

James McConnell

The Lafayette Escadrille is beginning to swing into action. Their flying training is about to begin, and James McConnell has just heard some excellent news.

[We were] to fly the Nieuport, and hence would be a fighting unit. The Nieuport is the smallest, fastest-rising, fastest-moving biplane in the French service. It can travel 110 miles an hour, and is a one-man apparatus with a machine gun mounted on its roof and fired by the pilot with one hand while with the other and his feet he operates his controls. The French call their Nieuport pilots the “aces” of the air. No wonder we were tickled to be included in that august brotherhood!

He of course means that they will be flying the dominant Bebe. This is an interesting move by the French; it shows not only that they have at least a little faith in the American pilots, but also that there are plenty of Bebes to go around. Incidentally, many of the volunteers are already good pilots and will need minimal training before being sent forward. More to come.

Maximilian Mugge

Private Maximilian Mugge, for now he is, has been thrown into the deep end of Army life. He’s used to large meals and convivial evenings in London’s minor gentleman’s clubs. Now it’s “tea up!”

We enjoyed the first army meal. A steaming hay-coloured liquid was served out to us in huge metal pails, which were apparently a hybrid species fathered by the London milk churn and mothered by the ordinary water pail. Gigantic slices of bread and cold meat completed the terrific repast.

There are no chairs in Hut 32, which is my abode. We sit on forms. But you must be careful when, sitting down not to wriggle, else they go down like a chapeau-claque.

I think this might possibly be Mugge’s idea of a clever joke. A “form” is a now-archaic word for a long, thin, backless bench (British readers, imagine those benches from primary school). A “chapeau-claque”, meanwhile, is apparently what the French call a collapsible top hat for wearing to the opera. They also call the top hat a “haut-de-forme”. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but I wouldn’t put it past our correspondent to be attempting a Franglais pun on form/haut-de-forme.

A jolly fire is burning in our squatty old stove; on a line above it are towels, socks and swabs that flap about like bunting hung out to celebrate the arrival of the shy, bold conquering heroes. With an eye to mathematical symmetry some artist has placed several brooms and a mighty mop underneath the table, arranged in a rough triangle. The walls of the “hut” are panelled high up with brown wood. There are four windows.

He seems to be rather enjoying himself so far. Of course, he hasn’t yet been properly shouted at by the sergeant. Perhaps that will change his tune.

Edward Mousley

A quiet day at the Siege of Kut; a louder day downstream, as the relief column jockeys for position. Edward Mousley and all the other officers take the chance to play armchair general.

It is a quiet day. On the right bank there is some movement of the enemy downstream. Convoys of camels and mules trek to the Turkish depots. There is considerable Turkish activity all around, and reinforcements are probably being pushed down below, for the enemy knows quite well that we are on our last legs and that a big attempt will be made to relieve us. We are all eagerly awaiting news of our preparation for the big show, and there is much debating as to what would be the best plan of attack. The river is gradually falling.

[In the afternoon.] A bombardment is proceeding downstream, probably the shelling of Sannaiyat, the formidable position of the enemy on the left bank, a series of trenches on a tiny front of 400 yards between a marsh and a river. In this position the enemy is so deep down and has such excellent cover that the place has so far baffled every attempt to take it. Not the least difficulty is that the intervening ground, which every storming party must cross, is wet as a bog. This has, of course, been worked by the Turks.

That’s some extremely wishful thinking, folks. The relief column is still stuck at Hanna, a week away from being ready for serious action.

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.)

Battle of Latema Nek | Winning by accident | 12 Mar 1916

Battle of Latema Nek

How many times have I talked already about moments when tragedy turns to farce? Ye gods, how many times in the African fighting have I talked about tragedy to farce for British Empire forces? Right since the Battle of Tanga in 1914, being attacked by angry bees, General Tighe getting himself shot in the arse. And when we left the battle yesterday, everything seemed set to follow that pattern. The South African infantry was wrecked and scattered; the South African Horse was heading for an ambush.

Tragedy does indeed turn to farce as the sun rises in the morning. But, for once, the Union Flag will not be the butt of this particular joke. It seems that the incredibly heavy casualties suffered by the 5th and 7th South Africans, and their consequent disordered retreat, have been slightly but crucially exaggerated. Lt-Col Freeth of the 7th hasn’t disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.

In fact, he’s on top of Latema Hill with eighteen of his own men, plus a small assortment of scattered Rhodesians and King’s African Rifles, who against all odds made it up there during daylight and survived long enough to join him. A major and 170 more men of the 7th are up close and personal with Schutztruppe on Reata Hill. The nek itself is still firmly under Major Kraut’s control, but he’s received reports of strong enemy formations fighting hard on top of both hills. With this information, the prudent thing to do is to retreat again, and that’s what he does. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t do it on purpose, but a few hairy-arsed squaddies and askari have managed it by accident.

Furthermore, when this news reaches Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander calls off the ambush against the South African Horse. Instead of inflicting yet more casualties on an exhausted and retreating enemy, the Schutztruppe is soon conducting a general retreat of its own towards Kahe. So it is that when men go forward to sweep up any stragglers at the foot of the hills and get them heading back to Taveta, they instead find Lt-Col Freeth on top of Laterna, watching the enemy retreating before him. Presumably he’s feeling rather smug.

There’s no serious attempt at pursuit today, presumably because most of the men who would have pursued and the officers who would have commanded them are too busy pissing themselves laughing. It’s not all wine and roses for General Smuts, mind, who today issues a spectacularly two-faced declaration that the “first phase” of his campaign is over. In private he’s still moaning about the slow progress of General Stewart to the east, who’s only just crossed the River Sanya, although Stewart’s men are now moving quite a bit faster. Here’s a map: X and Y are British Empire forces, S are Schutztruppe.

Very much a Tube map, not an Ordnance Survey map

Very much a Tube map, not an Ordnance Survey map

Meanwhile, it’s a trying day for E.S. Thompson as he finds out what he missed.

Just before daylight they woke us up and we marched back to Taveta very tired. Noticed the hospital was overflowing with wounded. I am still not in love with fighting and I suppose never will be. The Colonel came in and reported that he and Major Thompson with [inaccurate number of men] respectively had occupied the hills on either side of [Latema Nek]. He told us that our section had worked splendidly.

Mr Lowden, and Archie Cohen are amongst the dead, Douglas Waugh is missing and my second cousin Signaller Thompson is wounded. Went to Mennie’s funeral about 12 o’clock. The ‘Last Post’ was being sounded all day.

Thompson eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and commanded the 2nd Transvaal Scottish (don’t laugh) in the Second World War. One wonders if he ever discovered a love, or anything like it, for fighting.

Paris Conference

The great and the good of the Entente are descending on Paris today. British, Italian, Belgian, Serbian, and Russian representatives all attend to hear General Joffre’s latest ideas. General Haig apparently did not attend, though Lord Kitchener and Wully Robertson did. Perhaps he was too busy moving British GHQ 30 miles south-west, from St Omer to Montreuil-sur-Mer. Those boxes won’t pack themselves, you know!

The need for a massive, coordinated offensive to take the pressure off the Battle of Verdun is confirmed by the conference. Interestingly, the timescale has now been moved up considerably. The BEF has been working to a start date of July 1 or thereabouts. However, it seems that now the Russians will attack on the Eastern Front in mid-May, with everyone else following on the 30th, a full month before the dates agreed by Joffre and Haig for the Battle of the Somme. Hmm.

The conference also spends an inordinate amount of time blethering on about Salonika. The Russians are trying to sell Joffre and Robertson on the idea of attacking Bulgaria, which goes down like a cup of cold sick. Then everyone squabbles about the possibility of removing some men from the Birdcage. After much conversation they’ve decided, again, to do nothing until the Serbian Army is recovered and ready to fight again.

Eastern Front

Let’s now get back to the Eastern Front for a moment, shall we? On the 1st, we found Tsar Nicholas II ordering an immediate offensive to give the enemy something other than Verdun to think about, and the various army commanders all grasping frantically for excuses not to. Nevertheless, when the monarch says “Jump”, there will always be people ready to answer “How high, Sire?”

The situation is actually quite a bit better for Russia than the pronouncements of its commanders might have you believe. They’ve been gradually feeding in reinforcements for six months; not particularly well-trained ones, but reinforcements nonetheless. (And it’s not like Germany and Austria-Hungary have the time right now to extensively train any of their freshly-conscripted men before sending them off to war.) There’s now nearly enough rifles to go around and enough ammunition to fire them in anger.

There’s even a plan, of sorts, from the Tsar’s chief of staff General Alekseyev. The Russian Northwest and West army groups will each launch an offensive against the German Tenth Army, which is now significantly outnumbered. Since the advance into what they called Courland (in this context “Courland” generally refers to areas of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus, far larger than the historic region), the front has got a great deal wider, and Tenth Army is now dangerously over-stretched.

The main attack will come from the West group, marching through the Lake Naroch region towards Vilnius. From the Northwest group will come a supporting attack southwest from Jekabpils towards Kaunas and Vilnius. The Southwest army group, opposing mostly Austro-Hungarians, has also been ordered to assist, although no reinforcements are being provided. After some wrangling they’ve all agreed to begin artillery preparation on the 16th and attack on the 18th.

I have but one observation. The initial battles for the West group are planned to come around Lake Naroch. The name given to this operation by history is “Lake Naroch Offensive”. I am not sure that this is a good sign, although I suppose it was for the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian has arrived in Boghazliyan, where he takes his leave of Captain Shukri, who now will return to Yozgat.

As we had asked, he entrusted the leadership of our caravan to a reliable [person], who would take us to Kayseri.

Barely had word gotten out that a caravan had arrived than some emaciated Armenian orphans came to linger around our building. For the first time since our departure from Cankiri, we were encountering survivors of the massacres. We spent an anxious night here, then at dawn departed for Kayseri. Everybody, Captain Shukri and all the Jandarma accompanying us, had said “If you can survive the trek to Kayseri, don’t be afraid from there on.”

They of course hold a document requiring the Jandarma to inform Constantinople of their arrival in Kayseri en route to Der Zor.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley’s heroic efforts to keep his morale up at the Siege of Kut continue.

Rain fell last night and again early this morning. This is bad for the river. Then we heard the sound of distant artillery, which increased to the subdued throb of gun-fire far away. But this was drowned in the grander music of a thunderstorm. I did my rounds and straightened up pay books, etc., in the office, and then played chess.

Last night we felt what we believed to be an earthquake, but which proved to be the sappers trying to dynamite fish in the river, which experiment was completely unproductive.

“Let’s go.” “We can’t.” “Why not?” “We’re waiting for Godot…”

Louis Barthas

Let’s finish on an encouraging note today. Private Louis Barthas discovered that he had his rank removed for “setting a bad example”, according to the commandant. This enrages him; by all means, take his rank for hating war and the military, or for being too Socialist in the trenches, but don’t take it from him for a lie about his personal character. And then he thinks again. He doesn’t want to be a corporal, after all. Nor does he want to give Cros-Mayrevielle or Quinze-Grammes the pleasure of knowing he’s been hurt by their actions. Maybe he should drop it after all.

And then…

All my comrades begged me to protest, to give a humiliating lesson to the captain. Corporals offered to turn in their stripes in an act of protest. Deeply moved, I dissuaded them from doing this. Finally, when I left, all hands were stretched out to me, and I saw tears welling up in the eyes of comrades. All these promises of support truly touched me, and this fortified me to resolve to ask for a hearing with Colonel Douce.

From victim I would turn accuser against Captain Cros, for having forced men to work in a trench exposed to machine gun fire, without it being absolutely necessary. … I had to postpone my request for a hearing. The regiment was dispersed, the colonel was still at the front lines (not at an outpost), and finally we were pulling up stakes and shifting back and forth to make room for the English.

A lot of marching follows, including one march through Crecy, some 550 years (give or take a few months) since the Anglo-French battle in the Hundred Years’ War.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux is fast learning how to moan like a soldier, if nothing else. He’s now resting at Bouxieres and takes in his new command.

I have four sub-lieutenants; a former sergeant who is strong but simple; a wine-barrel of a butcher; a commercial traveller from Marseilles; and a steam-boat pilot who can’t say one word without swearing.

At mealtimes, two sergeants (why are they there?) come to join the group. The mess has a reputation for gambling and drunkenness. My comrades pity me; my superiors are counting on me to raise morale. So I start by sending the two sergeants to the NCOs’ mess. That will make two drunkards less with us.

Put your foot down, bro. We’re right behind you. (About 35 miles behind you.)

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
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.)