Demonstrations for Verdun | 9 Feb 1916

Demonstrations and deceptions

The Germans now initiate their main programme of deception to support the imminent Battle of Verdun. They’ve been very precisely designed to simulate, as far as possible, the first day at Verdun. In particular, there will be almost no preliminary bombardment before the main attack in three days’ time. As in the deception attacks, a day of mostly intermittent bombardment will be followed by the infantry attack in late afternoon. The only difference will be in intensity; the Germans are concentrating what for them will be an unprecedented amount of artillery in one place.

So today at Vimy Ridge, there’s a day of intermittent bombardment. Many more observation balloons than normal have been sent up. The infantry goes over the top (aided by one of the shortest No Man’s Lands on the Western Front, only about 20 to 40 yards wide) and captures the odd section of trench here and there. Could they be planning a heavy punch against the French 10th Army? The coast is only 60 miles away. Perhaps they have some scheme to cut the front in two. Or maybe they intend to march on Arras and then Amiens, to secure crossing points over the River Somme for another attack towards Paris…

Ridiculous it might sound now; we know what happened next. To General Joffre, ready to believe in a major offensive anywhere but at Verdun, there are all kinds of possibilities. These kind of attacks even fit, in a different form, with his concept of fighting several smaller battles before the main summer offensive, and we’ve already seen how the French Chief is prone to believe that his opponent thinks in the same way that he does.

British aviation

Colonel Hankey, the world’s most devoted committee man, is trying to improve the lot of military aviation. The basic and unsurprising problem here is a bit of good old inter-service rivalry between the Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, who are fighting like cats in a sack over just about every issue possible. This is, ahem, less than ideal for the cause of improving British aviation capabilities.

Hankey’s first tack, of having Lloyd-George and the Ministry of Munitions be put in charge of all aircraft supply issues, has been fended off. And not without reason; the French have recently been struggling with those responsible for procurement being too far from the concerns of frontline flyers. Making civil servants responsible for procurement would surely have given the British effort the same headache. More on this to follow.

Tanks

General Haig has now had time to consider a barrage of glowing reports on last week’s tank trials at Hatfield House. Today he sends a message back to the War Office that can be read at least two different ways. He wants an immediate order of 40, on the grounds that this is the maximum production possible without interfering with other war materiel, and he also wants to know how many more might be delivered by July, the date he’s working towards for the Battle of the Somme. He also makes the prudent suggestion for it to be officially circulated that the project has been cancelled and it be put back to a “need to know” basis.

So, the point to ponder here is the order of 40. If you like Haig, your angle will likely be “see how he immediately saw the potential of the new weapon? He ordered some right away!” If you don’t, your angle will likely be “the French are about to place an order with the Schneider company for ten times that number! Haig is being far too conservative and sniffy about this new technology because it had more than 1 horsepower!” Both are valid interpretations.

At any rate, the tank is about to become a fact of war. Colonel Swinton is already arguing that they should build at least 100 of them. Meanwhile, Albert Stern and Tennyson d’Eyncourt are considering how best to improve their own position. More soon.

Serbian Army

The last Serbian Army units are now being taken off from Albania, with the invading Austro-Hungarians and Bulgarians still weeks away. It’ll take them another twenty days to reach Durazzo, and by then anyone who’s still watching this theatre will be watching the Birdcage at Salonika. We’ll be catching up with Flora Sandes soon, incidentally, but not today.

Salaita

Private E.S. Thompson of the 7th South Africans gets his first taste of action today as a large force moves out to recce Salaita Hill.

Fine morning for marching. The 5th, 6th and 7th Regiments were accompanied by a Baluchi Regiment and Field Telegraph Corps. Marched past the railway construction gang and when we had got about half a mile past we extended on a long line on a ridge. We were on the extreme right flank. We advanced through the bush which was very tedious going.

Firing was heard on the left flank (5th Regiment) and we afterwards heard that they met an Askari patrol. No casualties. We could now see that there was a German fort on a hill about 3 miles away flying 2 flags. We all thought we were to attack this and so loaded our rifle magazines. We advanced for another hour through the bush and then came into a clearing. We passed their 1,500 yds range indicator and as they could see us quite well we expected every minute they would open fire but they never did. Suddenly the word was passed along that the enemy was sighted 400 yds (366 metres) ahead so we doubled into cover and unpacked the guns.

This is your reminder that Private Thompson is on a machine-gun team.

The range was now 800 yds (732 metres). The Askaris could be seen running down the hill from the fort to man the trenches. The fort was right on top of a small hill and had 3 lines of trenches. It ought to be a tough place to take as the ground is so exposed.

This is an important observation; let’s remember it going forward. Anyway, with their mission complete, they turn about and head for home.

We trekked back through the bush and long grass, and on the way had a row with the Sergeant over the telephone wires. When we got up to the railway line we noticed that they had advanced about a mile since we passed them in the morning.

Laying a mile of narrow-gauge railway in about 12 hours of work is a pretty amazing effort from the Indian Railway Corps. It’s efforts like these that make battles possible.

We came through the Baluchis advanced camp…and there the chaps began falling out. I got a bit of stick in my boot at that camp and had it under my sole all the way from there to camp. It hurt but I didn’t want to fall out. I have never struck such a long 3 miles as the last 3. Felt so tired when we got back that I could have cried at the least thing. After I had changed my shoes and a sort of bath felt much better and was glad I hadn’t fallen out. It is reckoned we went 24 miles altogether.

Once again, this is “retreating from Mons” pace to do 24 miles in a day with some fighting in there as well. General Malleson, in command of capturing Salaita Hill, now has all the information he’s going to get. The attack isn’t far off now.

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is out of the line now. Some time later, he looked back on his first few days at the Bois Francais.

What I notice most is the way in which I recorded the fall of individual canisters and rifle grenades, even if they were twenty yards away! Never a six days in, latterly, that we did not have to clear Old Kent Road and Watling Street two or three times; and we used to fire off a hundred rifle grenades a day very often, and received as many in return always. And the record of casualties one did not keep. We were lucky, it is true. Once, and once only, after, did “B” Company go in and come out without a casualty.

Here we see again the common BEF practice of naming trenches after places from home. From this we can guess that the first BEF units to occupy these positions (and who would have produced the first trench-maps) were likely from south-east London or west Kent.

Those first two days in Maple Redoubt, when “everything was quiet” were the most deceitful harbingers of the future that could have been imagined. …The dugouts were abominable; not one was shell-proof; and there was no parados or traverse for a hundred and fifty yards. The truth of the matter was that these trenches had been some of the quietest in the line; for some reason or other, when our Division took them over, they immediately changed face about, and took upon themselves the task of growing in a steady relentless crescendo into one of the hottest sectors in the line.

“For some reason”. Yeah, I wonder why that might be.

Malcolm White

Lieutenant Malcolm White, one of the two friends from Salisbury, has just arrived in France. He’s gone into a base camp at Le Havre.

More reportings and eventual arrival at the Base Camp, where life has become more commonplace, and excitement has gone for a time. Which Battalion will it be? The 2nd seems probable from here, but not necessarily.

Hopefully some of these subalterns who are just arriving in France will give us a chance to explore the BEF’s rear areas and training camps. Maybe one of them might even make it to Etaples, which has changed just a bit since we last saw it in early 1915 as the world’s worst music festival.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)

Mother | L19 | 2 Feb 1916

Mother

It’s time for the official trial of Mother, the British tank prototype, attended by the great and the good. This being the case, the trial is scheduled for after lunch. Thank God they’re at an important country house. Nothing has been overlooked. Albert Stern and Colonel Hankey have, in many ways, the most important duty of all. They’ve been assigned to babysit Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man who’s supposed to be paying for all this. McKenna gets his lunch at a club in London and is then driven, suitably lubricated and primed by conversation, to Hatfield in Stern’s Rolls-Royce.

The details of the trial are much the same as we’ve already seen; the tank drives around, goes up and down some slopes, crushes plenty of barbed wire, and generally looks mean. The well-refreshed McKenna effectively writes a blank cheque. The equally-refreshed Arthur Balfour insists on having a ride inside Mother himself. Minister of Munitions David Lloyd-George is deeply impressed. General Haig’s representative, General Butler, asks a number of questions that all come back round to “when can we have some tanks, please?”

Then there’s the question of Lord Kitchener. He may not have his former official power, but he’s still running the War Office, and the whole “war hero” thing means that his opinions will carry considerable weight. Kitchener arrived early and saw a private demonstration. He then sat alone with William Tritton for a comprehensive discussion of exactly what the machine can do. And Tritton’s sense of the conversation is that Kitchener was deeply skeptical, finishing with the words “without serious military value”. Colonel Swinton later overhears Kitchener talking loudly about how they’ll be knocked out by artillery before they can do any good. Lord K even leaves before the end of the afternoon display.

This reading of events is sometimes used as support for an argument of further resistance on the part of the Army against newfangled ideas. There is another interpretation, however. It comes to us via Wully Robertson and Kitchener’s aide General Whigham, who both accompanied Lord Kitchener to the trials. On their telling of the story, this was all an elaborate public bluff; Kitchener is appearing disdainful for security’s sake. By Robertson’s telling, Kitchener immediately approved an informal suggestion that an order should be placed for 100 tanks. And there is also the matter of a War Committee meeting tomorrow, at which Colonel Hankey will minute Kitchener reporting that he was “impressed by the trials”.

Mother will stay at Hatfield for a few more days at the request of the King, who would like a private ride in the thing. More soon as people work out what to do next.

Africa

An anonymous German official in neutral Washington DC was apparently heard, about now, to remark in relation to Africa that “nothing more to our liking could have been done if we had the ordering of [the Entente’s] military movements ourselves.” Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is becoming extremely popular, and well he might be after all the men he’s tied up away from Europe over the past year and a half. He’s also conducting a major recruiting campaign among both colonists and Africans, and has raised the strength of his force in German East Africa to between 15 and 20,000 men.

And he’s got no intention of throwing in the towel; not now, not ever. His only objective is to keep fighting, no matter what the cost, to keep the enemy from being able to conclude the campaign and withdraw his forces. He’s quite happy, if it should come to that, to turn the theatre into a gigantic game of Whack-A-Mole, with his men as the moles. Defeating an enemy who’s trying to win is one thing. Defeating an enemy who only wants not to lose is quite another. It will be well to remember this as the 1916 campaign begins…

L19

The sad story of L19, the doomed German airship, concludes. Early in the morning, a British trawler, King Stephen, appears on the horizon, having seen the airship’s distress rockets. When the ship’s master sees what he’s being faced with, he refuses to take anyone on board and sails away. (Turns out that he only saw the signals because he was fishing somewhere he wasn’t licenced to be fishing.) The crew write last messages; the airship sinks with all hands a couple of hours later.

When the details emerge, the reaction will be somewhat predictable. The German press spits and fulminates at this most hideous and callous of events, which of course proves how hypocritical the supposed gentlemanly British are. The British press isn’t overly concerned that the crew of an evil baby-killing Hun airship got their just desserts, and what’s a score of dead Boche compared to the sack of Louvain, anyway? War crimes are as war crimes do.

JRR Tolkien

Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien is still in exile at Brocton Camp, cold, wet, and bored. His old school friend Rob Gilson, having joined the war rather sooner, has now made it to France as a platoon commander and today goes up the line for the first time near Armentieres. (He has a sweetheart at home and apparently never tried to find Mademoiselle.)

It is a strange and dreary looking place – wasteland and shattered trees and houses. What most impresses me at first is the appalling expenditure of human labour on merely hiding each other from each other’s devilishness. I had never grasped it with my imagination. It is one of the very saddest sights I have ever seen.

The Western Front is becoming host to more and more of these places, where battles have been fought in the past and are still close enough to the front lines for artillery to still touch them. So many shells have been fired that everything around Armentieres except the men and the rats is dead and barren.

Flora Sandes

Air raids over Durazzo continue. However, to the sharp mind, this is but another opportunity.

Some bombs had fallen in the neighbourhood of a camp of Italian soldiers, who had to vacate it. A company of hungry Serbians near by had with great presence of mind seized the opportunity to go in and clear the deserted camp of all the bread and everything eatable it contained, and they were heard to express a wish afterwards that there might be a visitation of aeroplanes every day.

Yeah, there’s currently a small Italian detachment running around Albania doing nothing of much consequence except embarrassing their government. (Presumably the blokes were all far too relieved at not being on the Isonzo front to care.)

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is up the line for the first time in months, but his optimism is still opting in.

In the trenches. Everything very quiet. We are in support, in a place called Maple Redoubt, on the reverse slope of a big ridge. Good dug-outs, and a view behind, over a big expanse of chalk-downs, which is most exhilarating. A day with blue sky and a tingle of frost. Being on the reverse slope, you can walk about anywhere, and so can see everything.

Have just been up in the front trenches, which are over the ridge, and a regular, or rather very irregular, rabbit-warren. The Boche are generally only about thirty to forty yards away. The trenches are dry, that is the glorious thing. DRY! Just off to pow-wow to the new members of my platoon.

He will later note that the weather was dry at the time; when the weather is dry, the trenches are dry, and when the weather is wet…

Evelyn Southwell

We’ve hit a rich vein of new correspondents here. There’s rather a couple of big battles coming up in the next few months, you see, and I’m trying to find enough so that I can be sure a couple of them, at least, will get through the other side. Lieutenant Evelyn Southwell is from Shrewsbury; before the war, he and a very good friend (of whom more later) were both masters at Shrewsbury School. Duty, King and Country, etc etc.

He’s been in France since October (arriving at about the same time as Bernard Adams), in the Ypres salient; but has been having about as dull a time as it’s possible to have anywhere near Ypres, having nearly died on only two occasions (once when nearly caught out in No Man’s Land with a wiring party, once when he caught pneumonia). Like Bernard Adams, he’s also recently been home on leave. He’s just come out of the line to Elverdinghe, north-east of Ypres itself.

We came out absolutely “flat-out” into the farm last night, the men quite exhausted after a bad time. I am tremendously happy to be here at rest for two or three days; so are the men. It was grand to see how they loved a rest in the mud of the road coming down last night, falling asleep constantly in some case.

As usual, I took my short airing down the road past the French, saluting and nodding like fun; there is not enough of that business. It has never failed to be the adorable time of the day, but to-day, after a certain amount of fairly real misery [-2 degrees Celsius], I strode down that road inhaling the air of the universe, and even I counted my breaths, fifteen yards at a time!

We’ll remember from one of Louis Barthas’s stints of rest that, for some reason, French Army units are often sent to rest behind BEF and Belgian-held sectors.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

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.)