First day on the Somme | 1 July 1916

On the signal, company will advance!

First day on the Somme

In the British imagination, 1st July 1916 looms over the rest of the First World War. Ask someone about the First World War, and if they know anything at all about the war, it is extremely likely that the first day on the Somme is the first thing they think of. It is also reasonably likely that it is the only thing they think of. Or rather, it is a particular sub-section of the first day of the Somme that they think of. It is, to say the least, a very arresting image, and a very easily distilled image, and a very easily understandable image.

However, it is not the entire story. This battle defies easy characterisation when looked at in any detail. So let’s get down to the detail. Let us have, once again, the map, to remind ourselves of what is going on.

As ever, this bears only the slightest resemblance to what the front actually looks like

As ever, this bears only the slightest resemblance to what the front actually looks like

From Serre to the end of the French attack front is very approximately 23 miles. General Haig expects that by the end of the day, his men will have advanced to the pink line. This will set up an attack in a few days to break the German Second Line at Pozieres, send the BEF’s cavalry through the gap to exploit it, and capture a critical railway junction at Bapaume.

Meanwhile, the diversions will go on to the last possible moments. All along the BEF front, zero hour at 7:30am will see “demonstrations”; artillery barrages, shouting and whistle-blowing by officers, and other such excitement to simulate an attack and keep the enemy confused as long as possible. And, about five miles north of Serre, there will be a full-scale diversionary attack at Gommecourt. And that’s where we’ll start the first day on the Somme.

Gommecourt

There is a small tactical advantage to be had by eliminating the Gommecourt salient, but that’s not what the attack is about. This is about confusing German intelligence for as long as possible, disguising the main thrust of the Battle of the Somme. Even a delay of a few hours could prove important. The men here have been quite deliberately making no attempt to disguise their preparations for attack. This is, bluntly, going to suck for the people who have drawn this shortest of straws and who now are being ordered to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

One of them is Captain Arthur Agius. We’ve been following him on and off since he arrived on the Western Front in January 1915. He was in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and he’s already drawn the shortest straw once already; for the Battle of Loos, he survived being in a diversionary attack at Neuve Chapelle. This, however, is on a completely different scale.

The trouble was that Gommecourt stuck out in the middle of the line and we weren’t to attack it directly. We were supposed to encircle it and link up behind. But what we didn’t know is that the Germans had manoeuvred and organised their line that this part which we weren’t to attack was really their strong-point. They simply had a clear field of fire on either side and nothing to bother about in front. The shellfire was appalling. We just couldn’t get across. We didn’t even get as far as [the jumping-off trench]. There was no trench left.

We got orders to turn and try to make our way back to the village. One of my subalterns was newly out. [He] jumped out of the trench to try to organise the men, and he was promptly killed. Just disappeared in an explosion. So many gone, and we’d never left our own front-line trench. And then we found we couldn’t get back. We were simply treading on the dead. Eventually my Sergeant and I got out. I heard a shell coming. It burst just above my head. The Sergeant…was killed. I don’t know how I got back. It was murder.

A few brave/lucky souls have managed to make it into the German trenches, but they’ve been quickly cut off. Nobody can cross No Man’s Land to reinforce them. German artillery has cut all the BEF telephone lines, and once again the generals who are supposed to coordinate the attack have absolutely no idea what’s going on. The end of the day sees the last stragglers dragging themselves back across No Man’s Land to the BEF’s lines. Arthur Agius has somehow found his way to Battalion Headquarters, where he is now sitting quietly in a corner, sobbing uncontrollably. In good time he will be invalided out as a shell shock casualty.

Attacking battalions at Gommecourt are lucky if they’ve only lost 50% of their men killed or wounded. So this is all horrible and disgusting and bloody. But it’s the diversionary attack. Just in planning the attack they convinced the Germans to send a division away from the main battle to reinforce Gommecourt. If we can show that it came to something positive…

So this is where we are as now we turn to the main battle. I will now take it from south to north. And that means starting with the French contribution. The map’s just up there a bit; and so far it is completely unchanged. Won’t be for long, though!

The French Army on Day 1

This is because the French Army has achieved complete and total success. Taking a considerably more pessmistic view than the BEF, Generals Foch and Fayolle have planned a more cautious, step-by-step advance. The French contribution to the Somme is extremely shabbily treated in the English-language history, so about all I’m able to say is that south of the River Somme, the French are doing extremely well.

The infantry advanced hard on the heels of a well-planned rolling barrage, they walked almost right through the German First Line without much resistance, and by the end of the day they’re digging in for the next bit. The Second Line will not be attacked until everybody is ready, and it will come after another extensive prepatory bombardment, in accordance with the new French doctrine. On top of that, because of their total air superiority, enforced by plentiful Nieuport Bebe fighter planes, their pre-battle fire has paid far more attention than at any time before to counter-battery fire, the fine art of using your artillery to shoot the enemy’s artillery.

The men have consequently been able to advance almost unmolested. With the big guns destroyed by French artillery, and the machine guns suppressed by the rolling barrage, the French have done exactly what the BEF was hoping to do. They’ve just walked across No Man’s Land and taken possession, and been happy with that and not tried to accomplish too much more. North of the River Somme the story is mostly the same. Although here the counter-battery work has been less successful, the French attackers have benefited from an extensive early morning river mist. They’ve captured the First Line, and come the end of the day they’re digging in and another lot are looking forward to the hard work of marching on the Second Line.

And there’s even a nice human moment to transition into the first BEF sector. Over the last few weeks, Commandant Le Petit of the 153rd Regiment has become rather friendly with his left-hand neighbour, Lt-Col Fairfax of the 17th King’s Liverpools. Perhaps it was not an accident that brought them together in the last moments before zero hour. Arm in arm, the two men lead their battalions over the top and across No Man’s Land in perfect order at a steady walk. The men have rifles slung over their shoulders, many of them are smoking, and they cross No Man’s Land mostly without inconvenience. Johnny Crapaud’s done his bit; over to you, Tommy Atkins.

Montauban

This covers the southernmost part of the BEF’s attack, centred on Montauban, which sits between the First and Second Lines. This is the sector where Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler has been stationed. The British artillery, with considerable French assistance, has been firing a relatively advanced version of the creeping barrage to support the advance. They’re assisted by two large mines under a pair of German strong-points, and the relatively incoherent state of the German defences in many places owing to intense mining and counter-mining earlier in the year. Fraser-Tytler:

The line advanced steadily, scarcely meeting any opposition in the [German First Line]. By 8:20 the formidable Glatz Redoubt was captured. The infantry reported that the maze of strong-points, machine-gun emplacements, etc. had all been swept away, and that the trenches were crammed with dead. …[They] then continued the attack and captured the whole village of Montauban by 10am. … In the afternoon Hun shelling increased slightly, but he appeared to be completely demoralised and, for the moment, shaken out of his wits.

After dinner I went round to “swap lies” with the Brigade Commander of the 75mm batteries behind us. He said he had been twice at Verdun, but even there he had never seen such an intense bombardment. … We were sitting, cups in hand, when we saw three French gunners trolleying down the little railway line which runs through all the positions. A stray shell landed exactly on the trolley, which simply dissolved away. Some more men of their battery then collected any scraps [of human remains] they could find, butting them into different sandbags, amidst heated arguments as to which was the proper one, etc.

This reference to confusion among the German artillery is critical. The British counter-battery fire was not nearly so accurate as the French, but the German guns are mostly without orders or observation posts. German telephone wires are not immune to being cut, after all. This is where the men threw footballs over the top and found it very useful in calming their nerves as they walked across the open ground. There is one other personal account to bring in at this point. This is from Albert Andrews of the 19th Manchesters, shortly after entering the German trenches…

[We] turned round to go along the trench, when three fine Germans came running towards us with their hands up. They would be about 20 yards away. We both fired and two fell, my mate saying as we let go, ‘That’s for my brother in the Dardanelles!’, and as he fired again and the third German fell, ‘That’s for my winter in the trenches!’ We walked up to them and one moved. My mate kicked him and pushed his bayonet into him. That finished him.

This kind of thing was going on all along the line, no Germans being spared. Wounded were killed by us all. We hadn’t exactly been told, ‘No prisoners!’ but we were given to understand that that was what was wanted.

This is, of course, a war crime. Sad to say, stories like this are pretty much ten-a-penny from both sides when there’s a major offensive on. So too are stories of other men going out of their way to take prisoners. Andrews had himself just a few minutes before spared a shell-shocked German who he could easily have shot down. The perfect Balanced Sample? After securing the trench he and some mates attempt to settle down to some light looting and are then intercepted by their captain with more orders. “You all look very nice, but get some fucking digging done.”

Wise words. Here then is the south of the Battle of the Somme at nightfall. It’s all going quite well. There’s a couple of attempted German counter-attacks, but they’re beaten off by artillery fire and a little rifle fire and there is plenty of time to get some fucking digging done. It’s not quite as good as it might have been, but it’s still a good day, and one that mostly runs completely counter to the common picture of the Somme. They’ve achieved just about everything that they were supposed to and are in a good position to push on tomorrow.

Mametz and Fricourt

Moving west. Fricourt is where Bernard Adams was stationed until he was wounded a month ago. This is a nasty little part of the line. Fricourt and Mametz themselves are now gigantic fortified super-pillboxes, with a series of inter-connected dugouts running beneath them. The German fire trenches have been carefully laid along the winding hillside to create a number of miniature salients, with barbed wire entanglements designed to direct attackers into the teeth of machine-gun nests.

Against this, we have the BEF’s jumping-off trenches. They’ve dug some of the best prepatory trenches in the battle, and almost all of them are the recommended 100 yards away from the enemy. XV Corps has also taken a lot of care over its artillery preparation, conducting several useful experiments (of which more later) with different counter-battery techniques. While not approaching French levels of success, they’ve still put a serious dent in the Germans’ artillery capabilities. They’ve also enthusiastically adopted the creeping barrage along strict French lines, and battalion commanders have been emphasising the need to stay close to it, however silly it sounds.

Things have got rather difficult here. The early going is decent enough; No Man’s Land is short, and the creeping barrage somewhat effective in suppressing German machine-guns. The trouble begins once the first wave has crossed without trouble. They’ve done a poor job of “mopping up” the trenches, the act of completing the equation of attack by killing Germans in their dugouts. Now they’re spewing grenades as they come up to make a fight of it. Men are slipping through the Tommies in their trenches and manning the machine guns to shoot down the second and third waves who are supposed to be pushing on while the first wave consolidates. Private Burke of the 20th Manchesters:

Then the hand-to-hand fighting started. It was Hell. Bombing was the star turn; many of the Devils were taken unawares and were asleep in their dugouts. We threw bombs of every description down, smoke bombs especially and as the hounds came up, crawling half dead, we stuck the blighters and put them out of time. In one dugout there were about twenty-five in there and we set the place on fire and we spared them no mercy, they don’t deserve it.

They continued sniping as we were advancing until we reached them and then they throw up their hands, ‘Merci, Kamerad!’ We gave them mercy, I don’t think! We took far too many prisoners, they numbered about 1,000 and they didn’t deserve being spared.

And all this trouble is throwing the artillery timetable out of sync. The creeping barrage is creeping off into the distance, and now the men are too busy fighting to send messages back to the rear. The Germans bring up reserves, and are sometimes able to feed them directly into the trenches. By the end of the day the attackers have captured most of the First Line, and Mametz itself. However, they’re well behind schedule; a few parties have attempted to push towards the Second Line, but have run into intermediate trenches and taken heavy casualties. Importantly, Fricourt itself and Fricourt Wood just behind are still in German hands. We’ll finish with an observation from 2nd Lt Probert, an artillery officer who spent most of the day watching the battle from an observation post.

The 2nd Gordons were deepening the communication trench … but we had to stop here some time as the sniping was continuing. One captain was sitting in the front line eating his lunch with one hand and shooting the snipers with the other as they came out to surrender. I thought that rather rough as some had their hands up, but he said that he had had several wounded Jocks shot on their stretchers.

War crimes for war crimes. Yay. This is still not the popular picture of the Somme, though. This is still success. It’s limited, hard-fought, bloody success; and they’re not at the Day 1 objective, but they are going forwards. Let’s stop and see the map again.

Pink is the Day 1 objectives

Pink is the Day 1 objectives

Ovillers and La Boisselle

Ovillers and La Boisselle guard the Albert to Bapaume road. They’ve been fortified and incorporated into the First Line. They’re supplemented by two redoubts, the Schwaben Height (not to be confused with the Schwaben Redoubt a little further north) and Sausage Redoubt (why not just call it “Huns-R-Us”, guys?) The one-size-fits-all solution to these problems appears to have been “a bloody big bang”, with vast amounts of underground explosive being brought in. This is possibly the most critical sector of all.

General Haig’s immediate objective is a breakthrough at Pozieres, a few miles up the road, and then cavalry exploitation and the capture of Bapaume. This has to be done before the Germans realise what’s going off and dispatch reinforcements to strengthen and occupy their Third Line. The attackers are on a serious timetable here; the men need to at the very least replicate the success at Montauban, if not exceed it. And now, here is where the stories start to sound depressingly familiar. Corporal James Tansley of the 9th York and Lancasters:

We had been told, ‘There’s no need for this short rushes and getting down on your stomach, go straight over as if you were on parade. That’s the orders, there’s no fear of enemy attack, that’s been silenced by the British guns’. Up we went through the lanes cut in the wire, spread out and tried to follow this instruction. Myself, I was a bit sceptical about it. I and my section made for this slight ridge marked by an old farm implement. Looked around for where the line was, they seemed to disappear. Lying about on the ground. There was a severe machine-gun fire coming from the region of Pozieres, half-left.

The machine guns cut down Tansley and a friend. The friend dies; Tansley lies in No Man’s Land for about seven hours, with his finger stuffed deep into his wounded groin to stop the bleeding. Then he crawls back into the BEF trenches and almost falls on top of a stretcher bearer. Meanwhile, Private Harry Baumber, 10th Lincolnshires, advancing on La Boisselle:

Line behind line of steadfast men walking grimly forward and wondering what was in store. We soon found out. I noticed men falling thick and fast about me and all the time the tremulous chatter of machine guns. It was akin to striding into a hailstorm and the further you went the less and less became your comrades. Jerry had not been obliterated, his wire had not been destroyed and we had been called upon to walk 800 yards across No Man’s Land into Hell. A far cry from the walkover we had been promised.

Baumber is exaggerating about the distance he had to walk, but he arrives at the German wire to find it almost completely uncut; or possibly cut and then repaired. At any rate, he and his mates soon realise that they will have to spend 12 hours or more lying in No Man’s Land until darkness, when they might be able to sneak back. Many more are spotted and shot or grenaded as they try to keep a low profile. 2nd Lt John Turnbull is trying to exert some command, but there’s a problem. Either he’s got lost, or the exact location of the Lochnagar Mine was told wrong to him.

Very puzzled with the rotten crater, which was in the wrong place. Used it to screen us from La Boisselle, got as far as the ridge, and goodness knows how many machine guns opened up on us. We all dropped, and I started to crawl to the crater to see who was there, when I got hit in the back. Corporal Turton helped me in. Unfortunately I couldn’t move about much, and felt very dazed.

JRR Tolkien has a friend in all this mayhem. Lieutenant Rob Gilson is attacking the Sausage Redoubt, and he dies within minutes of going over the top, hit by a shell almost immediately after taking emergency command of his company. Of the 16 officers in Gilson’s battalion, only one returns unhurt. Two thirds of the men are dead or wounded. G.B. Smith is luckier, over on the far left, and he escapes unhurt for now, with his battalion only having taken one-third casualties.

At nightfall, we have a picture of almost complete failure. Artillery fire was, apparently, inadequate. Wire was not cut. Machine-guns were not suppressed. The enemy had plenty of warning of the attack. There are a few men clinging to a few shreds of trench, and the new Lochnagar Crater is British. For whatever that’s worth. Which isn’t much at all. The line of the Albert to Bapaume Road is where the Somme that everyone knows about starts to happen.

And on we go further north.

Thiepval

This sector is dominated by Thiepval on top of its ridge, the Leipzig Ridge just to the south, and Schwaben Redoubt just to the north. Here we have a clear case of Staff Officer Optimism. The objectives are simple, in theory; capture the First Line in the morning and attack the Second Line in the afternoon. By the timetable it’s just about possible, as long as no German in the sector offers more than token resistance, but it’s going to be an enormous ask. It starts well enough; the German fire trenches are protected by up to sixteen rows of barbed wire, but a little luck and a little skill with the guns has cleared plenty of it away.

Then something odd happens. Attacking the Schwaben Redoubt is an Irish division. Benefiting from an extremely successful smoke deployment, they haul themselves and their 60 pounds of kit across No Man’s Land in double-quick time, and through the trenches before the Germans know what’s hit them. Messages for defensive artillery support go astray, and well ahead of schedule, the Irishmen are pushing the Germans out of the redoubt. An inspirational battalion commander pushes the attack home, and then, mostly on his own initiative, orders another advance up towards the top of Pozieres Ridge and the German Second Line.

Quite how they didn’t all die in the attempt, I’m not quite sure. It soon becomes obvious to the few men who made it all the way that they are utterly isolated, and need to fall back into the Redoubt. Into the afternoon and evening, there are lots of awkward looks from the Redoubt across at Thiepval. The two positions are deeply interlinked. One position can be reinforced from the other, or attacked from the other. Thiepval also holds a dominating view of the route BEF men must take to come up and reinforce the newly-won trenches.

Thiepval is now one gigantic machine-gun nest. Even with the barbed wire mostly cleared, the battalions thrown directly at Thiepval at zero hour have all but ceased to exist. To their right, the Scottish battalions attacking towards Leipzig Redoubt managed to get across No Man’s Land (including the 17th Highland Light Infantry, who also crossed while kicking footballs). Then their troubles begin. Some battalions ran into trouble, as we’ve seen, because they broke into a trench, but didn’t spend long enough “mopping up” the Germans still alive down in the dugouts, and then started getting shot in the back.

These men are now having exactly the opposite problem. They’ve done a good job of work mopping up, but it took so long that the Germans have regained local command and control. Machine-guns from Thiepval, Leipzig Redoubt, and Wundtwerk Redoubt to the rear are now firing on them from three sides as they attempt to push towards the Leipzig Redoubt, and Thiepval and Leipzig are also raking No Man’s Land at will. Private Bentley Meadows, 17th HLI:

The machine gun swept us down outside the Leipzig Redoubt. It became evident that we, who were working up between two communications trenches, after two or three rushes, that further advancing was impossible without support. We waited for our own reserve waves and the Lonsdales who should have come on behind. But no reserves reached us and we saw our only hope lay in the fact that they had rushed one of the communication trenches and might manage to bomb out the machine gun. But the bombers were checked out of the range of the gun.

I at length found myself the only living occupant of that corner. About twelve o’clock I managed to leap the parapet without being hit. I found my platoon officer, Lieutenant MacBrayne, lying shot through the head. Of the others of my platoon I could get no news, except those I saw lying dead or wounded

Another officer appears and leads a last, futile charge that ends in the order “Every man for himself”. They cling on to a few German trenches until a counter-attack at 5pm encourages them to leave. One of the men in this bit of fighting is Private Eversmann, who gave us a German perspective during the barrage. His body was never found; his diary was taken from the trenches by a Scotsman and sent back to Blighty.

The position at the end of the day; the Irish have been evicted from Schwaben Redoubt but are holding a few German front-line trenches; the Scots are still clinging on by their fingernails to half a trench on the edge of Leipzig Spur. Nobody’s anywhere near their objectives. I would describe it as complete and total failure, but there is still one more northward jump for us to make. Let’s have the small map again, though.

All Day 1 objectives that have not been reached will, going forward, be marked in pink.

All Day 1 objectives that have not been reached will, going forward, be marked in pink.

Serre and Beaumont Hamel

And so we arrive at Serre and Beaumont Hamel. This is where, almost unbelievably, it has been decided that the supporting mines will not be blown at 7:30am, precisely at zero hour, but at 7:20am, ten minutes before the infantry are due to go over the top. And, on top of that, some idiot has told the artillery that the meen will also be going over at 7:20. There will be ten minutes of unmolested silence for the Germans to leave their dugouts and prepare to be attacked, terrible rolling barrage notwithstanding. Private Pearson, 15th West Yorkshires, who is attacking Serre:

Every man climbed out of the trenches at the whistle of the officers and not a man hesitated. But I was lucky. I was in a part of the trench where the parapet had been battered down as Jerry sought for a trench mortar. When I ran up the rise out of the trench I was under the hail of bullets which were whizzing over my head. Most of our fellows were killed kneeling on the parapet. There was nobody coming forward, only one man, the reserves had been shelled in our lines and blown to smithereens.

I noticed higher up the trench one of our chaps laid there with a baulk of timber across his leg, one leg had been cut off—severed. This baulk of timber had cut across his leg and acted as a tourniquet and stopped the bleeding.

Private Glenn of the 12th York & Lancasters was supposed to be in one of the supporting waves.

The first line all lay down and I thought they’d had different orders because we’d all been told to walk. It appears they lay down because they’d been shot and either killed or wounded. They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply went forward and the same thing happened. You were just trying to find your way in amongst the shell holes. You can imagine walking through shell-pitted ground with holes all over the place, trying to walk like that. You couldn’t even see where you were walking!

When you got to the line you saw that a lot of the first line were stuck on the wire, trying to get through. We didn’t get to the German wire, I didn’t get as far as our wire. Nobody did, except just a few odd ones who got through and got as far as the German wire. The machine-gun fire was all trained on our wire. Only a few crept along. I lay down. We weren’t getting any orders at all; there was nobody to give any orders, because the officers were shot down.

It is possible that despite this utter ridiculousness, about 200 men may just have broken all the way through, taken a few lucky turns, and then blundered into Serre village itself. It would explain the messages that General Rees, he of the lack of optimism from a few days earlier, was receiving.

An aeroplane reported that my men were in Serre. The corps and the division urged me to support the attack with all the force at my disposal. I was quite sure that we had not got anyone in Serre except a few prisoners, but the 93rd Brigade on my right reported that their left had got on, whilst the 4th Division beyond them again claimed the first four lines of German trenches and were said to be bombing down our way. It was obviously necessary to attempt to get a footing in the German first trenches to assist these two attacks.

The hostile barrage had eased off by now and was no longer formidable, so I ordered two companies of the 13th York and Lancs to make the attempt. I did not know that the German barrage was an observed barrage, but as soon as this fresh attack was launched down came the barrage again.

There are no accounts of what might have happened in Serre. If anyone ever did got in, they just disappeared into the war. At Beaumont Hamel, German observation has prevented anyone digging trenches closer than about 500 yards. There is a general shortage of stories of Beaumont Hamel and the attack on Hawthorn Redoubt, for obvious reasons. The ones we do have are by this point familiar; confusion, barbed wire, shells, machine-guns, hiding in No Man’s Land for hours until darkness. Men going over the top long after it should have been obvious that the attacks should be called off. And death, death, death, death everywhere.

Malcolm White

And this is where our correspondent 2nd Lt Malcolm White is, right between the two strong-points, leading the 1st Rifle Brigade over the top like a good junior officer should. The good news is that we have an account, of sorts, of what happened next; although, as you’d expect, it is rather confused and lacking in crunchy detail.

The Battalion went into action in front of Mailly-Maillet. White was hit [presumably by bullet or shrapnel] in advance of his men. His servant, who had followed him in the attack, reached him, and asked if he was badly wounded. He said, “I’m all right; go on.” At that moment a shell burst near them. His servant remembers nothing more till the time when he was in hospital.

The bad news is that it is not from Malcolm White. When the 1st RB drags itself back to the rear and takes a roll call, he will be missing, and reported to his family as such. It can take a month or more for prisoners’ identities to be sent to Britain via the Red Cross, but. He will remain officially missing for about ten months. Then, after the war has finally moved away from Beaumont Hamel and Serre, there will be a pioneer battalion clearing out some disused trenches. The shell took White’s life; however, it did not take his identity disc.

So he has a grave of his own, and he does not appear among the 72,246 names on the British Memorial to the Missing, whose bodies have never been found or identified. The Memorial to the Missing, by the way, is at Thiepval. I hope now it is clear why they put it there.

The General’s view

Generally speaking, ahaha, the easier it was to advance, the easier it was to get information back to the rear (for a given value of “easy”; reports are still taking hours to reach anyone who can pass them back via field-telephone). The moment we get north of Thiepval, we find British command and control once more breaking down almost entirely. General Reed gave us a taste of the picture being painted to the rear. Sometimes there are spurious reports of men in places they never reached. More often, observers are unable to tell the difference (at several thousand feet’s remove) between men who have easily captured a trench, and men who are having a bloody difficult time of it.

And then there are the runners. Signaller Dudley Meneaud-Lissenburg has one more story for us, as he sits in his OP in the old front line in front of the Hawthorn Crater (nee Redoubt). A knot of men has reached a sunken road unhurt. They send a man back to report that it’s completely impossible.

I watched a lone figure, a runner no doubt, coming back towards our lines, dropping every now and then into shell holes for cover. On reaching our barbed wire he was about to jump into the trench when a shell burst at his feet and blew him sky high.

The picture filtering back to General Haig is extremely murky and full of half-truths and exaggerations and the odd piece of completely unrealistic bullshit. He’s got some decisions to make, though; there’s been success in the south and he does know about it. But I’ve talked far too much about this one day; time to see if it can be encouraged towards a conclusion. We’ll go into the BEF’s strategic thinking tomorrow.

In summary

There is chaos. Let us try to bring order to it. Here now is the full map at nightfall.

Even abstracting things this much makes me just go "ugh".

Even abstracting things this much makes me just go “ugh”.

Never mind the north. The north we know about. Look at the south! The south has moved! At its furthest point, this is the biggest advance for the BEF since the Battle of Loos. You’d need a tape measure to tell whether they got further than the French did in some parts of Second Champagne, or in their attack today. And this is why it is wrong and inaccurate and incomplete to speak of the Somme simply in terms of Thiepval, Ovilliers, and Serre. This is even why it is wrong just to say that the BEF has lost near as dammit 20,000 dead and 37,500 more wounded as though it speaks for itself. (The French lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, attacking with much more caution.)

Well, okay. It stands if you just want to step back and think about the July Crisis, and the insane series of diplomatic pratfalls that made this stupid war happen in the first place, and go “it’s all bonkers”. It stands if you want to think of a particularly bloody single day of war. It stands as a profoundly traumatic moment for Britain; the casualty figures exceed those sustained in the Crimean, Boer, and Korean Wars put together. More than half the men who attacked and three-quarters of all the officers are casualties.

And, of course, this was the day that the BEF used a large number of its Pals battalions all at once. Men recruited from the same village, same street, same workplace. They’ve gone over the top together and died together. In a few hours of fighting, the heart has been ripped out of entire communities at once, and they don’t even know it yet. Working-class communities sent to their deaths by, and in the company of, the upper classes. It’s huge and heartbreaking and overwhelming and yet there is more to the story than just that. However callous it may seem, there is still a war tomorrow. We can’t just write it off as senseless butchery.

The BEF has done something positive, for given values of “something” and “positive”. And it won’t be until tomorrow, as the battle begins to take shape, that we can put our fingers on why. Time to put this day in the books and move the hell on. There’s a chance here. A small chance, and one that’ll be very hard to take advantage of. But there is a chance.

I think that’s all for today.

One more thing

There is one more perspective that we now must take advantage of, a question far too often overlooked. What about the Germans? What do they think has just happened to them, in front of them, around them? Due to the way German casualties were reported it’s impossible to know how many there were on the first day. Prisoners are also not included in that total, and there’s been plenty of German prisoners taken, despite the bloodthirsty stories above. Reasonable estimates are in the region of 10,000 to 15,000.

I think the best description of German higher command in the evening is “equally confused, but in a different way to their opponents”. It’s hard to say, but from the reaction it’s very probable that General von Falkenhayn saw this as 1915 all over again; a French attack with a British supporting component, and it’s been launched far to the south of where it should have been. Hold that thought a few days for me. Why are the French attacking when they’re taking a kicking at Verdun? It makes no sense. Perhaps this is just a limited offensive and the BEF is going to do the real attack somewhere else tomorrow, or the day after.

It must have been an extremely odd picture to make sense of. In the north of what appears to be the battle front which appears to be the wrong place, you’ve shot thousands and thousands of enemy troops down in No Man’s Land. In the south, General von Below has been worried enough to commit his three reserve divisions down there, but the picture of where exactly the enemy attack is and what exactly it’s achieved is highly unclear. It’s like trying to repair a burst water main while wearing a blindfold.

Once you get to division level or lower, second and third-hand reports of what was going on seem all very panicky. No orders from on high, and they’ve been blown right out of the First Line. Of course, the Germans aren’t paralysed; officers are encouraged to use their initiative, but that’s not always a good thing. Some have used their initiative to order immediate counter-attacks. Some have used theirs to order a fall-back to the Second Line. This is not going to last for long. However, for the time being, part of von Below’s army is pulling on the same rope from opposite directions.

And that is all.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux is very relieved, thank you very much, to be out of the Battle of Verdun.

After being relieved, we are quartered in the same camp where we stopped on the way here. We arrive at 2pm, exhausted. We fall into bed and sleep like brutes.

There is always, always, always something else going on. Fleury is changing hands at Verdun once more. The Sharif of Mecca has just met up with a British artillery battery which promises to turn the tide of the Battle of Mecca. The war continues.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Footballs on the Somme | 29 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

This, of course, should have been Z Day, but due to the bad weather, Z Day’s been put back to the 1st of July. Instead, the bombardment continues, and Private Eversmann of the German Army, far underneath Thiepval, gives a short but arresting description.

Shall I live till morning? Haven’t we had enough of this frightful horror? Five days and five nights now this Hell concert has lasted. Hell indeed seems to be let loose. One’s head is a madman’s; the tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth. Five days and five nights, a long time, to us an eternity. Almost nothing to eat and nothing to drink. No sleep, always wakened again. All contact with the outer world cut off. No sign of life from home, nor can we send any news to our loved ones. What anxiety they must feel about us. How long is this going to last?

Still, there is no use thinking about it. If I may not see my loved ones again, I greet them with a last farewell.

The barrage continues lifting every so often. Sometimes it starts again after only a few minutes’ pause. Sometimes it goes a little longer, and yet more trench raids are launched. The prisoners being brought back are looking worse than ever, many of them unable to resist, completely shell-shocked. There are routes through the German wire for the raiders.

At this point, we find General Rycroft, in command of the 32nd Division, which will be attacking Thiepval, watching the fifth day of bombardment with his brigadiers. Perhaps we can forgive him for an oft-quoted observation, screaming to be heard over the roar of the guns. “My God! All we’ll find in Thiepval when we go across is the caretaker and his dog!”

Footballs

Now then. The same idea has occurred to quite a few officers up and down the Somme. Football is a popular rear-area pastime, of course. Most often mentioned here is a company commander, one Captain Nevill of the 8th East Surreys. His men have much further than the maximum recommended distance of 100 yards of No Man’s Land to cross when they attack. This will mean being out for some minutes in No Man’s Land. Captain Nevill is understandably worried that the men’s morale might crack.

So, in order to give the men something to focus on as their wave approaches the German line, he’s been given permission to issue footballs to the men. They’ll be thrown over the top, and the men will be encouraged to kick the footballs forward and follow them. It sounds a bit silly, but if it works…

A mile or two to the rear, our artillery friend Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler has more serious matters on his mind.

“Y2” Day. A cloudy day, but as no more rain has fallen, the country is drying up fast. The only outstanding incident in the day was a smoke discharge on a seven-mile front, preceded by a very intense bombardment of one hour. It was a wonderful sight. Every smoke candle was lit simultaneously, and as far as the eye could see, a solid wall of smoke about 50 feet high moved over the Hun trenches. The night passed with two more gas discharges. Both were accompanied by the usual barrage.

His bosses, at least, are certainly very determined to show the Germans everything possible, so that they won’t be able to reason “Aha, Tommy did not let off smoke earlier, this must be the real thing!” Well, with one exception, of which more later, but you take the point, I hope. This barrage is far more subtle than just “FIRE ALL THE GUNS AT ONCE AND DON’T STOP”.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White has had his orders to go forward and prepare to attack.

I scribble my entry for the day, while my servant waits to pack up this little book in my valise. We go up this afternoon, and this book must not go too.

His last letter to Evelyn Southwell is now on its way.

Oh Man, I can’t write now. I am too like a coach before the Bumping Races or Challenge Oars.

So, Man, good luck. Our New House and Shrewsbury are immortal. which is a great comfort.

The Challenge Oars is another rowing competition at Shrewsbury that White and Southwell would have coached crews in before the war. He spends the night moving up into his jumping-off trench.

Battle of Verdun

Has Henri Desagneaux been relieved from the front lines at Verdun yet? No. Has Henri Desagneaux been killed in action yet? Also no. Is his eloquence finally beginning to suffer after a fortnight of Hell?

Our 14th day in this sector. The bombardment continues, our nerves make us tremble, we can’t eat any more, we are exhausted. Yet still no relief.

Little bit, yeah. At least he wasn’t attacked today. As it happens, there is going to be another French attack to retake Thiaumont tomorrow.

Haig and Hunter-Weston

Today is a rather interesting day for General Haig’s diary. Quick reminder: he kept daily hand-written diaries throughout the war, which he then sent home to his wife for safekeeping. The diaries were then typed up for posterity; and initially, the typed diaries were presented to history simply as “Haig’s diary”.

This is troublesome, because on quite a few occasions he took the opportunity to make amendments to his original thoughts. It would be unfair then to accuse him of trying to systematically amend history to his benefit. In fact, I’d rather have it this way. He was of course not the only man to do this. Sir Ian Hamilton published his type-written diaries. Rawlinson was happy with simply polishing up his diary, as Haig did, in type-written form, and leaving it among his personal papers.

As long as the original diaries survive (which they have), this means we can compare his less considered, immediate reactions with the reactions he would have apparently preferred to have had. This is one of the few entries where he decided his original thoughts needed supplementing. He’s now arrived at his advanced HQ at Beauquesne, about 13 miles behind the front. Close enough to be in touch, far enough away to not get shelled. In theory.

General Hunter-Weston came to see me and stayed to lunch. He seemed quite satisfied and confident. I gave him a kind message for his Divisional Commanders. I told him that I fully realised all the difficulties and hard work which they had had in training their divisions, and in preparing their trenches, etc, for attack. Also that I have full confidence in their abilities to reap success in the coming fighting, etc.

After dinner, my Commander Royal Artillery (Birch) came to report on his visit to VIII Corps [Hunter-Weston’s] today. The conclusion I came to is that the majority [of their officers] are amateurs, and some thought that they knew more than they did of this kind of warfare because they had been at Gallipoli. Adversity, shortage of ammunition, and fighting under difficulties against a superior enemy, has taught us much!

Those were his original thoughts. Worryingly, he later decided that much more specific criticism was required, both of junior officers and of Hunter-Weston and the senior men. This is not promising.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien has just joined his battalion, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, in the middle of an intense round of last-minute training. They’re probably not going over the top on Z Day, but there’s always the chance of a last-minute change of plan; and they’ll almost certainly have some fighting to do as July wears on. This is, to say the least, not the ideal time to join a new battalion and make friends.

He’s also struggling with the strict social separation between officers and men. He may have come from Oxford University, but his early years were not always comfortable and privileged. In many ways, he feels that he’s got more in common with the men than with his brother officers.

The most improper job of any man is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

He’s not at all happy; he now knows that his friends Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith will both be attacking on Z Day.

Mount San Michele

The Battle of Asiago is at an end, but of course Conrad von Hotzendorf simply cannot leave well alone. The Austro-Hungarian army has for the last few months managed to obtain and stockpile some gas, apparently a modern chlorine/phosgene blend. So now they’re going to try to use it on the Carso, while the Italian Brains Trust is still distracted with the Asiago plateau, and drive the Italians away from Mount San Michele once more, ideally all the way to the River Isonzo itself. It’s a bold plan. And the Italians only have basic mouth-pad gas masks, completely ineffective against phosgene.

With a lot of Italians still on the Asiago plateau, it might even have worked; and it would have been a major kick in the dick if it had worked. Unfortunately, about an hour before the gas is due to be released, the wind drops to almost nothing. Without any experience of this sort of thing, the Austro-Hungarians release the gas anyway, and a day’s brutal fighting follows.

When it’s over, the attackers have occupied a significant number of enemy trenches, and then been unceremoniously evicted again. The situation is unchanged, except now the Italians are sure they’ve got gas and know they need better masks. Oh well.

Emilio Lussu

Meanwhile, Emilio Lussu has another extensive, confused, and extremely aggravating tale of a wholly unnecessary attempt to attack the new Austro-Hungarian defensive line on the edge of the Asiago plateau. Officers fall quickly, Captain Canevacci one of the first. The enemy has dug down and supplemented their digging with solid stone breastworks. After several hours, Lussu takes himself in the rear to call in some artillery support against a pesky machine-gun. He passes another battalion…

The whole place had an air of confusion and terror. The major in command was standing against the trunk of a fir tree. I knew him well. I had eaten at his mess many times. Red in the face, he was shaking his hands at someone I couldn’t see. He looked really upset. “Hurry up! Hurry up or I’ll kill you! Give me the brandy! The brandy!” He was screaming at the top of his lungs, in a tone of command. He said “brandy” in the same voice he would have used to say “battalion in column!” or “double column!”

A breathless soldier appeared with a bottle of brandy in hand. The major was holding a pistol in his right hand and a sheet of paper in his left. He threw the paper to the ground and went over to the soldier, still screaming. He grabbed the bottle and, with a lightning move, sealed it to his mouth. He looked paralyzed, like he was dead on his feet. The only signs of life came from his throat, guzzling down the liquor with gulps that sounded like groans.

Lussu tries to get some help; the man is beyond reason, and waving his pistol dangerously. Lussu takes the pistol and confiscates the bullets for everyone’s safety. The major grins at him. Lussu tries to find someone else. Most of the officers are dead. There will be no help here. Nobody knows where the artillery is. Out of options, he heads back to his men.

[As I left, I] passed by the command post. The major was standing there motionless, in the same spot where I’d left him, pistol in hand, and he was still smiling.

There follows a brief period of calm. Lussu’s battalion has only three officers left now, all of them lieutenants. There’s nobody left to carry out the generals’ orders. So further attacks will have to wait for a while until reinforcements can be brought up. More in a while.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Rain and raids | 28 Jun 1916

“Y” Day on the Somme

Just as most of the BEF’s part of the Western Front has been delivering intense artillery bombardments to disguise the location of the Big Push, the other three armies in the line are also raiding at night just as enthusiastically. Twelve or more raids per night, every night, from every army. The poor weather and the demands placed on the German air force from Verdun is also denying the defenders a great deal of critical aerial observation. And the men continue to suffer. They’ve been effectively confined to dugouts for four days, and after today there’s still two more days to go.

On the other hand, the rain of shells is being accompanied by a rain of rain, and if there ever was a time to be trapped indoors while it rains cats and dogs, it’s surely now. Over to Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler.

Heavy rain continued all the morning, and the country is rapidly becoming nothing but a slimy bog. We hear that the great Z Day has been postponed, as it would be quite impossible to attack over the ground in its present state. Today has been rather an unfortunate day, as there were several [shells exploding immediately after being fired] all around us, which caused many casualties. Besides, the enemy shelled Maricourt very severely.

Gee, postponing an offensive because it’s raining too hard for the ground to be passable by laden men. What an idea. Hope they don’t forget that that’s a thing they can do in years to come. Er, so there is another thing to note about the rain. Wet ground greatly increases the chance of shells not exploding when they land. The artillery is firing more time-fuze shells than ever before, many of them designed to burst in air to cut barbed wire, but there’s still a whole load of contact fuze shells out there as well. A contact fuze needs a firm impact with ground in order to explode. Soft ground is quite capable of just swallowing shells whole without ever providing enough pressure to detonate them…

Battle of Verdun

It’s another horrific day for Henri Desagneaux.

The Boches pound our positions, we take cover, some try to flee, we [officers] have to get our revolvers out again and stand in their way. Our nerves are frayed and it’s difficult to make them see reason.

Usually I don’t heckle combat accounts, and certainly not a relentless, hideous, horrible one like this. But I do have to say here, I am not sure that what you did was to make them see reason, Lieutenant.

At midday, while we are trying to eat a bit of chocolate, Agnel’s orderly has his back broken. The poor chap is groaning, there’s nothing we can do except wait for nightfall and then take him to the aid post. And will we be able to? The stretcher-bearers are frightened and don’t like coming to us. The nights are so short that they can only make one trip. One trip, four men to take one wounded on a stretcher.

It’s an inferno, the Boches are undoubtedly preparing to attack us. Shells scream down on every side, a new panic to be checked. At 6pm, when we are dazed and numb, the firing range lengthens, and suddenly everyone is on his feet, shouting “The Boches are coming!” They attack in massed formations in columns of eight! These troops, who moments ago were in despair, are at their posts in a twinkling. We hold our grenades until the Boches are at 15 metres, then let them have it. A machine gun which survived the avalanche of shells is wreaking havoc.

The Boches are cut down. We see dozens of dead and wounded and the rest retreating back to their trenches. Only about 9pm is it quieter. Our shell-holes are lakes of mud. It’s raining and we don’t know where to put ourselves. Our rifles don’t work any more. We can only rely on grenades, which are in short supply. Still no relief. Another 24 hours to get through. We lie down in the mud and wait.

Now then. These men have been out in the open for 13 days, barely any sleep, barely any food, barely any water. Twice as long as the Germans on the Somme will have been under continual fire when that battle starts, and then in deep dugouts. While it’s just shelling, French morale is at mud bottom. (I’d say rock bottom, but there appears to be no rock here.) But then, as soon as the alarm comes, this little knot of defenders pulls itself together, drags up the remnants of the last remaining kitchen sink, and throws everything they’ve got at the enemy.

That is not a promising sign for the Somme.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is writing his final letters home before going up the line for Z Day. He’s just had confirmation that the attack has been postponed and they will not be going forward today. It’s raining continuously where he is, well to the north of Fraser-Tytler.

It’s possible that mails will be interrupted a bit in the future. So, if you do not hear from me, I want you not to be unnecessarily anxious about me. There is nothing I can tell you,except that I am happy and very fit. The weather is fresh and the wind in the West, and it is beautiful weather, except for camping. For every now and then comes a heavy downpour.

News of Leslie Woodroffe’s death. I could never have thought that they would send him out again. He was so very much a part of [Shrewsbury School], and is still. Do you think that we all continue to have our part in the place after death, even when not remembered? I am very jealous of mine; and though I know such an article of faith is called animism or some such horrible name, yet I cling to the idea of becoming, after death, more completely a part of Shrewsbury than when I was an unworthy, active member of the community ; not by what I’ve done there, but by how much I have loved it.

It is inevitable, just at present, that we should think such things, and impossible, at present, for me to express them legibly or intelligibly. I expect Leslie Woodroffe thought something of the same sort, but I expect also that he met death easily, for I think he trained himself to self-sacrifice. Oh! I meant to say that there are five officers in this Company, and three of us are quoting “The Wrong Box” pretty frequently, much to the annoyance of the other two.

No surprises that The Wrong Box is popular just at the moment. It’s a black comedy novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (yes, the Treasure Island guy) and his stepson. The plot revolves around two brothers who are due to come into a lot of money if the other one dies first; hilarity ensues.

Madur

Near Trebizond, Vehip Pasha’s Third Army has finally evicted an extremely stubborn Turkistani battalion from the Madur mountain. From his perspective, further attacks have an excellent chance of cutting the Russians off from their newly-captured port. However, from General Yudenich’s perspective, this is neither here nor there. His own general offensive is nearly ready to begin, and when it does the attackers will have to retreat or be encircled. At this point, losing a mountain here or there is of singular unimportance to the Russian calculations. We’ll see who’s right.

Haig and the ANZACs

General Haig is dealing with one of the many knotty problems that the Commander-in-Chief has to deal with. It seems that for PR reasons, the Prime Minister of Australia, Billy Hughes, would prefer the Australian divisions currently resting loudly (more on them in a moment) near Boulogne be called the “Australian Army”. Haig gently points out that the “Australian Army” would be about half the size of any other BEF army. (He’s also mulling over the possibility of creating army groups along the French model.)

If an opportunity arose of using the two Australian corps independently under General Birdwood for any operation, I would try to do so, and then call the force the “Australian Army”. … Everywhere I found the troops in great spirits, and full of confidence. … Several officers have said to me that they have never known troops in such enthusiastic spirits. We must, I think, in fairness, give a good deal of credit for this to the parsons.

Mmm, you’re not really helping yourself in the “defending against accusations of turning the Army Chaplains’ Department into political commissars” stakes.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas, you may recall, has been employed on secret duties near Chenilles in Champagne. Not being stupid, they’ve soon worked out the secret.

[The work] consisted of digging shallow, projecting trenches with no more than two or three steps at the end. You didn’t need to be a wizard to figure out that these were shelters for preparing an emission of asphyxiating gas. Soon this was Polichinelle’s secret, and everyone added to it: we were going to launch these gases along the whole Champagne front; the gases we had launched up to now were nothing but simple insecticides, but these new ones would strike down the Boches to a depth of twenty kilometers.

Already in each regiment they were forming teams of “courageous” men to go explore, after the emission, the places where this breath of doom had passed. Special gas masks would be issued to them at Suippes, Mourmelon, and Châlons, and experiment after experiment would be carried out on the harmfulness of the gases and on the effectiveness of the gas masks.

Polichinelle is the commedia dell’arte character who in English is called Punchinello. He shares his secrets indiscreetly with the audience, so Punch’s secret is no secret at all. (Or, for our Australian readers: the secret you keep when you’re not keeping any secrets.)

E.S. Thompson

Speaking of bullshit latrine rumours, here’s one from E.S. Thompson, still in hospital at Kondoa Irangi.

Heard that Colonel Freeth paraded the regiment and made a speech in which he said that they were going into town to be re-equipped and that the hard work was over now and we would soon be homeward bound. He also thanked them for doing their duty so well. Major Hazeldene visited the hospital. There are rumours that the 7th and 8th Regiments are to be disbanded but I think it very unlikely at this stage.

Yeah, for once I’m on his side. This all is completely without foundation. The sort of thing that puts a bloke’s back up if he should hear it too often.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley has been allowed a short halt at Nisbin. On arrival he tries to follow up a rumour of a dead officer. This leads to a discovery.

I was led through a doorway of matting hanging from the mud-brick wall into a courtyard, where through an opening in the wall I saw a sight that staggered the imagination.

A bare strip of filthy ground ran down to the river some two hundred yards off. Along the wall, protected by only a few scanty leaves and loose grass flung over some tatti work of branches through which the fierce sun streamed with unabated violence, I saw some human forms which no eye but one acquainted with the phenomenon of the trek could possibly recognize as British soldiery. They were wasted to wreathes of skin hanging upon a bone frame. For the most part they were stark naked except for a rag around their loins, their garments having been sold to buy food, bread, milk, and medicine.

Their eyes were white with the death hue. Their sunken cheeks were covered with the unshaven growth of weeks. Some of the men were too weak to move. The result of the collection of filth and the unsanitary state in the centre of which these men lay in a climate like this can be imagined. Water was not regularly supplied to them, and those unable to walk had to crawl to the river for water. One could see their tracks through the dirt and grime. Three or four hard black biscuits lay near a dead man. Other forms near by I thought dead, but they moved unconsciously again. One saw the bee-hive phenomenon of flies which swarmed by the million going in and out of living men’s open mouths.

I talked long to [an officer] who understood some French, and told him how this sort of thing was destroying the name of Turkey and how for these things the day of reckoning must come. He was more moved by the latter than the former, knowing that in Turkey officials may be sacrificed for any caprice of another person. An Armenian was there also, and I much despised him for expressing horror to me of “les barbares” when the Turk was outside, but obviously siding with him when together.

I know, I know, there’s no way that Mousley could possibly know anything about the Armenian Genocide yet. But it still makes me grind my teeth. Incidentally, the railway he’s heading towards is of course the same one that our old correspondent Grigoris Balakian (of whom more when space permits) is now working on.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is out of the Non-Combatant Corps back in the ranks. From his latest comedy place name (it’s a joke about the Field of the Cloth of Gold), I am certain he is now in a camp near Balinghem. These days Balinghem has a large field hospital and its name, along with Tatinghem, has inspired three more hospitals named “Mendinghem”, “Dosinghem”, and “Bandagehem”. Mmm, that’s some seriously good crap punnery.

My new mates are, of course, quite a different type. At first, after a rather prolonged though compulsory stay with the gentle-spoken Conscietious Objectors, the sudden plunge into the atmosphere of strong language is as bewildering as the high-dive on an October morn. Instead of the genial criticism of some officer, calling him a “Silly old fool”, the worst language to be heard amongst the COs, here he is annihilated by the grim “Hie nothus constuprator!” In fact the various members of the word-family to which the most objectional adjective belongs occur again with deadly monotony in almost every sentence. “B” and Cicero’s “stercus curiae” are merely “also rans” compared with the great “F” group. The result of damnable social system and silly education!

For the present I am attached to the 12th Division. My tent corporal is a youngster of about eighteen – could be my son – from Northamptonshire. Nice boy ; worked in a shoe factory. We are only eleven at present in our tent. Every one of my tent-mates has been “out” at the front. Glorious material to study. At present they are all “off,” for outside the camp-gates the Australians are running innumerable Crown and Anchor games. “Shove it on, milads!” “Shove it on!” “Up she goes!”

My advisor on dead languages has very little idea what “Hie nothus constuprator!” is supposed to be, but “stercus curiae” is very probably something like “full of shit”. Nice to know Mugge can swear as long as it’s in Latin! Also, the apparent information about which unit he now belongs to is entirely useless and in fact outright aggravating, for reasons which I’ll go into when there’s not a major offensive starting in three days’ time.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Somme postponed | 26 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

The weather has turned nasty over the Somme battlefields. Heavy summer rains are starting to blow in from the south, and they’re forecast to continue for a good few days. Generals Foch and Rawlinson confer and agree that they must wait for the rain to stop, and then allow the water time to drain away. “Z” Day is to be delayed once more, for a final time. After all the haggling and chopping and changing and changing back, we have now arrived once more at the men going over the top on the 1st of July 1916.

And the guns continue firing. The noise is now so loud that when the wind is right and a lot of them happen to fire in sync, the noise can be heard in England. This is causing a number of immediate practical problems, as Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler tells us.

Every order to the guns has to be written on slips of paper, it being absolutely impossible to hear the spoken word. The Hun commenced to reply, and what with frequent [premature detonations], the valley became pretty unhealthy. In the afternoon I went down to the front line in order to engage a portion of our zone which was difficult to see from our Observation Post. However, we had not been shooting long before some of our very heavy howitzers started a combined shoot on the Hun front line. However marvellous as a spectacle, this show did not conduce to accurate observation of our own small stuff.

About three o’clock the Huns started to reply in earnest and things became very sultry. We all got hit by some splinters, and Gunner Ryding had a wonderful escape, a razor-like splinter 15 inches long grazing the back of his neck. By 4pm the [telephone] wire was cut in many places, and I retired to my OP to continue the shoot from there. On arrival I found that Lowe, my OP subaltern, had gone off with four fractured ribs. A shell exploding near the OP had blown him down the 15-foot shaft, and although his fall was broken by the telephonist’s head, he managed to hurt himself pretty badly.

Here’s a problem that nobody appears to have considered beyond digging slit trenches in an attempt to protect their telephone lines. How do you keep the guns firing accurately once enemy return fire starts cutting the wire? I suppose it’s not so important right at this moment since everyone has a detailed firing plan. What happens when the guns are needed for on-call infantry support, though?

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the hill, it sucks. A lot. A whole honking lot. Here is Private Eversmann, who’s been underground near Thiepval for two days now.

They went at it left and right with heavy calibre guns and hammered us with shrapnel and light calibre pieces. Only with difficulty and distress have we obtained rations today. Two of my comrades got fatal hits while fetching dinner. The uncertainty is hard to bear. They have just found another of my comrades on his way back from ration carrying, a dear chap, three days back from leave and there he’s gone.

The German dugouts are generally equipped with at least two days of iron rations for just such an eventuality. For now, the men endure.

Battle of Verdun

The line at Verdun has almost entirely re-congealed. Here’s the map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

The attacks against Fort Souville have been suspended for the time being. Relentless artillery fire continues; it’s finally beginning to impact the concrete fort’s structural integrity. Everywhere else, there’s very little movement. The remnants of Fleury village, now reduced to a few scattered piles of shapeless rubble, are being brutally scrapped for. It’s often said that from now until mid-August, the rubble will change hands on sixteen different occasions. This is one of the purest expressions you will find of war as waste of life, senseless war, unthinking war, war for war’s sake.

I would say that, just to the west of Fleury, Henri Desagneaux is not doing well. Then I reconsider.

Our heavy mortars bombard Thiaumont. We must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. [The army] attacks incessantly. It’s four days since we we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning, during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun. Filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing, I am unrecognisable, frighteningly dirty.

Henri Desagneaux is still alive. Therefore, he is doing well.

Caucasus

In command of the Ottoman Third Army, Vehip Pasha has been gathering intelligence for his next move. The staff thinks they’ve found a weak point in the Russian deployment, off to the north. There seems to be a chance of attacking towards Surmene, not far from Trebizond, and cutting the Russian main body off from the port they’ve just captured. A nasty high-altitude brawl breaks out on the Madur mountain. As planned, they seem to have caught a Turkistani battalion isolated and outnumbered, but mountain fighting is never easy and their opponents aren’t particularly minded to go anywhere. More soon.

Emilio Lussu

Emilio Lussu’s adventures continue as the Italian army attempts simultaneously to harass the Austro-Hungarians in the foothills of the Dolomites while avoiding being shot for cowardice. His battalion’s machine guns have gone missing somewhere, so he goes back half a mile into the hills to find them. That’s not all he finds.

General Leone, [riding a mule alone], was climbing a rocky slope between the 2nd Battalion and our machine-gun unit. As the mule was moving along the edge of a steep drop, about 65 feet, it stumbled and the general fell off. The mule, unpeturbed, kept walking along the edge of the cliff. The general was hanging onto the reins, half his body dangling over the precipice. With each step, the mule yanked its head from side to side, trying to shake him off. There were a lot of soldiers nearby who saw him, but nobody made a move. I could see them all very clearly. Some of them winked at each other, smiling.

A soldier rushed out from the ranks of the machine-gun unit and threw himself on the ground in time to save the general. Without losing his composure, as though he had trained especially for accidents of this kind, the general re-mounted his mule, continued on his way, and disappeared. When the soldier’s comrades reached him, I witnessed a savage assault. … The soldier fell to the ground on his back. His comrades jumped on top of him. Punches and kicks slammed into the poor wretch, who was powerless to defend himself.

Lussu can’t watch any longer, and breaks it up. The man’s lieutenant appears, and offers a few quiet words of counsel.

“You imbecile! Today you dishonoured our unit. You should have done what everybody else did. Nothing. And even that was too much. A dumbass like you, I don’t even want in our unit. I’m going to have you thrown out. What were you supposed to do? You wanted to do something? Well then, you should have taken your bayonet and cut the reins and made the general fall off the cliff.”
“What? I should have let the general die?”
“Yes, you cretin, you should have let him die. And if he wasn’t going to die…you should have helped him die. Go back to the unit. If the rest of them kill you, you’ll have got what you deserve.”

The man’s eventual fate is unknown.

Conscientious objectors

Those British MPs who have been looking out for the rights of the conscientious objectors have just heard of the men who were recently sentenced to death and then reprieved. They’re not happy, and today they’ve managed to get the Prime Minister into the House of Commons so he can listen to them shouting. Mostly he just sits there and hides behind his air-raid shelter Harold Tennant. Over the next week or so, they’ll face several sessions of outraged questioning, and determinedly fail to answer the questions. The Government has a war to fight, after all.

Maximilian Mugge

Meanwhile, Maximilian Mugge has been transferred…somewhere (more on that in a moment). At any rate, it’s out of the Non-Combatant Corps and back into the mass of the Army.

Heard this afternoon that I was to be transferred to the 111th Royal Musketeers. I always held the Practical Joke Department was, after all, cruel to be kind; they only want to provide the scribe with a unique chance of studying all sorts and conditions of regiments. It is so much nicer to be amongst the “men,” without the incubus of shallow-brained and drawling staff-officers and the smell of petrol. Little pleasantries are unavoidable.

Only on the 24th of May my people [in England] were informed that ” Pte. Mugge has been transferred to the Non-Combatant Corps…no other transfer can be sanctioned,” and the present surprise packet states that Pte. Mugge has been irregularly transferred to the NCC, and will now be dispatched to the Musketeers; which is as much of an apology as you can expect from those high and mighty Infallibles!

That this last letter from the playful gods took a fortnight to get from Whitehall to Boulogne is in harmony with the dignity essential to all action on the part of the first cousins of the [Servants of Peace]. This War Office letter is dated the thirteenth of June, and to-day we write the twenty-sixth.

Couple of notes here. Where it says [Servants of Peace] up there, there was originally a wanky ancient Greek word. Fortunately I know someone who knows a bit of ancient Greek, and we’ve decided Mugge was probably trying to make a “Ministry of Peace”-style gag.

The “Royal Musketeers” is, again, almost certainly the Royal Fusiliers. Beyond that, I’d need to start trawling war diaries to find out who was where at the right time. British battalion numbering does not go as high as a one-hundred and eleventh battalion of anything. The 11th (Service) Battalion RF is currently preparing to attack Montauban; Mugge is not going anywhere near the Somme. The Fusiliers don’t have any Territorial battalions; there is a 1/11th London Regiment, but they’re in Egypt. Git.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is touring the area that he’s going to be attacking when Z Day finally comes.

The Divisional General addressed the Battalion in the morning. In the afternoon I went up to the Sucrerie to reconnoitre a communication trench for carrying parties. I had a good view of the German lines round Beaumont Hamel, and the fountains of earth and smoke and ruin which spouted there. At 10 pm we moved to a bivouac a mile to the south of Beaussart, where the ground is shaken by a 15-inch howitzer close by. I begin to have a sort of pre-Bumping-race feeling from time to time. Heavy rain poured at intervals, and the men had no cover.

White competed in intercollegiate “bumping” or “bumps” rowing races at university, and then coached them while teaching at Shrewsbury. It’s a distinctly odd form of mass racing which involves a long line of boats, all chasing each other, and physically bumping into other boats to overtake them. What White is describing here, the rest of England knows as butterflies in the stomach.

Evelyn Southwell

White’s friend Evelyn Southwell has finished his time at the divisional school of instruction, and now finds himself in a rather odd part of the line with the 9th Rifle Brigade. I’m trying to find out where exactly it is, but wherever it is, it appears to run directly through a ruined village.

I am in the trenches, and also in a house, very much as before as regards situation. The first floor is not, and the roof is one of the never-was-es by all appearances, and the ground. And oh, I saw the Sussex at Boulogne, with all her bones stove in, without a trace of emotion. I have seen too many ruins before now in this game, and one is very like another; a house that is no house has too often been an everyday sight.

And so, when I came here, I found this billet a shade more demolished than anything I thought possible, the whole air rather more [sad] and sinister; but that was all. I could stand all that, and even the piano (shade of Ivor Atkins!) shattered to bits, and the keys choked with brick-dust, but one thing was just a fraction too much, and when I saw it I confess I caught my breath for a moment. It was a child’s marble, chipped, and past all hope of rolling…

They are quaint places, these trenches, that wander in and out of houses, and in a way rather picturesque. Summer fights its way in even here, and you may find your face brushed with a yellow cornflower, sticking out of the side of a field as you plod along through the trench, and remember better days.

Ivor Atkins is a well-known organist of the day; SS Sussex we saw being torpedoed by UB-29 on the 24th of March this year.

Actions in Progress

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

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

Revolvers | Parapets | 25 Jun 1916

Battle of Verdun

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of the Somme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Asiago

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

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

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

E.S. Thompson

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

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

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

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

Clifford Wells

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

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

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

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

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

Malcolm White

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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