von Knobelsdorf | Iringa | 21 Aug 1916

Nyasalanders in Tanzania

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Nyasalanders’ campaign in the south-west of Tanzania is proving to be rather a curate’s egg. In engagement after engagement they’ve forced the enemy Schutztruppe back, caused casualties, taken few in return. In theory they should now be well-placed to march hard to Iringa, and complete a grand encirclement. In theory. Unfortunately, that’s just slightly beyond their capabilities, especially as they’re now at the end of a 200-mile supply line, surviving on half rations, their numbers worn down by disease.

So what we’ve got here is just another load of men marching a very long way to very little practical effect. They’ll make Iringa in a week, and then General Smuts is going to have to seriously re-assess this campaign. There’ll be no quick six-month victory, and no grand pivot of resources to another theatre just yet.

German command structure

There is an important German command change today. As chief of staff of the German 5th Army (officially commanded by the Kaiser’s son), General von Knobelsdorf (no sniggering) has played a key role in the Battle of Verdun. He’s the poor sod who’s been trying to achieve General von Falkenhayn’s wishes, and also to figure out what they are, which is not an easy job. He’s been advocating for continuing attacks even despite the Battle of the Somme.

This is an unwelcome opinion, and today he’s been called away from the battle. There are two pieces of news. First, he’s been awarded the Pour le Merite, a major German decoration. Yay! Second, he’s been re-assigned to the Eastern Front as a corps commander, a clear demotion. Boo! The knives are well and truly out in Berlin at the moment. This will not be the last change of command before the end of the month. Every option is on the table, and the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, has now fully taken up lobbying for the supposed dream team of von Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Over the last couple of weeks, both the Chancellor and von Hindenburg himself have been bombarding Kaiser Wilhelm II with letters on the subject of von Falkenhayn’s many inadequacies. The Kaiser, however still appears to be listening to von Falkenhayn, who’s been firing back with both metaphorical barrels. So today Bethmann-Hollweg goes to Pless Castle, where the boss has his headquarters. He’s going to spend the next three days personally trying to browbeat the increasingly-indecisive monarch into actually taking a decision. More soon!

Procurement

The current arrangements in Britain for tank design and production have both advantages and disadvantages. We’ll hopefully recall that Bertie Stern is now in undisputed control of the Tank Supply Department of the Ministry of Munitions. This gives him plenty of opportunity to drive things forward and use his own authority to drive design and procurement decisions. He doesn’t have to refer to the War Office or to GHQ in France before doing things. Today he uses that authority to do something both useful and unwise.

He’s convinced that when the tanks finally go into action, their potential will be obvious and there’s going to be an immediate request for as many machines as possible, as soon as possible. This can’t be done as simply as snapping one’s fingers, of course. Skilled workers have to be recruited. Supplies of steel, fuel, and other raw materials have to be earmarked. Guns, engines, caterpillar tracks, and all kinds of other components have to be manufactured. Factory space needs to be available for the manufacturing process.

Therefore, on his own authority, he today authorises the construction of an extra 1,000 machines of a similar type to the Mark I tank. (They won’t have to be identical, mind you, and two upgraded Marks are already being designed to improve on the Mark I design.) Unfortunately, he’s done so without informing anyone in the Army. He reasons that he has the support of David Lloyd George, now Minister of War; that should be more than enough support. This is deeply politically unwise. More soon, alas.

Robert Pelissier

The tone of Robert Pelissier’s correspondence has just taken a rather unhappy turn. On the Hartmannswillerkopf there was plenty of time to think and to describe daily life. Now he’s arrived in the Somme sector; and his latest letter to a friend in America, where he taught before the war, well…

We are not very far from your English cousins. They and we are bombarding with a continuity which quite beggars description. There is a canopy of steel over our heads just about day and night. We are so used to the constant reports and hisses that we don’t pay any attention to anything that falls not in our immediate neighborhood. You have had plenty of thunderstorms this year. Well, a barrage is like the most furious thunderstorm you ever heard, only it goes on and on by the hour and when it turns to ordinary bombardment it’s like an ordinary storm. (Living in New England is fine preparation for war.)

I cannot give you any details about important things because we do not know what is going on and the papers are stuffed with mere trifles. Will write you at length when we get back to some sane region.

No more lyrical descriptions, or meditations on American foreign policy. He was like this up in the Vosges when things got hot. More soon.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has not only shot an antelope big enough to feed all his mates for a week, he’s also survived his birthday without some near-death scrape. Maybe this is a sign that I can stop poking fun at him all the time?

Fooling about with Bibby. Put my foot on a tree stump and skinned it. Rather painful for a while.

Sad trombone. Sad, sad trombone.

Rather chilly wind sprang up so put on my overcoat and started a letter to Mother. Mossy Green came in to see me, but could not stay long as he is leaving for Kilossa this morning. Started on our rainy season house, getting the zinc from an old blockhouse started by the Motor Cycle Corps. My guard from 2pm to 4pm, after which went to town, but my foot was rather painful.

You don’t say, chief. You don’t say.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is censoring his men’s letters, and provides an excellent cautionary tale against reading too much into the contents of captured letters and diaries.

Some of the men’s letters are very amusing, their comments on the war, their food, the French people, etc. Yesterday a chap asserted positively that the war would be over by November. In a letter this morning another man said he was counting on being home for Christmas, 1925. One very funny letter was written by a man who was most indignant at having been transferred to a kilted battalion. He did not object to kilts per se, but he objected strenuously to “scrubbing his knees every day.” Not one letter that I have read has been anything but confident as to the outcome of the war, and all are cheerful.

I had the experience of wearing a gas helmet the other day and walking through gas ten times as powerful as one is likely to meet in the trenches. I could breathe without difficulty, but found the helmet hot and uncomfortable, which, of course, is unavoidable.

If ever there is a slow day again in this war, I’ll dig out some personal accounts from men who were posted into kilted regiments, and found they actually preferred wearing kilts in the trenches. It barely seems creditable, but I promise they exist.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still quietly ticking over, but I promise some first-rate fifth-gear outrage and sacrasm is on its way. In the meantime, he’s reading the evening paper, and makes a highly interesting observation.

The “Evening News” says: –
“That the Board of Trade is still liable to cling to its old traditions is made evident by the recent appointment of Mr Albert George Holzapfel to the position of British Consul at Rotterdam. We are well aware that Mr. Holzapfel’s father was naturalised in this country and that he himself was born and bred here. We have no word to say against his loyalty, but the fact remains that his name is not one which is calculated to inspire confidence.

A man with German connections, however devoted he may be to the cause of Britain and her Allies, is most emphatically not the man to supervise the blockade of Germany, and the choice of Mr Holzapfel shows not only want of vision but want of common sense.”

So that old oracle Shakespeare was all wrong. There is much more in a name than he dreamt of. If William Shakespeare had been born of German parents 1889 and lived during the War, he would not have said “What’s in a name?”

First, let us issue a hearty “fuck you” to the bloke who writes leaders for the Evening News. Now that’s out of the way, let us examine for a moment what exactly “What’s in a name?” means. It’s from Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2, part of the famous bit on the balcony where Juliet laments that she is a Capulet and Romeo is a Montague and yet she still loves him. “What’s in a name?” is a key transition as she talks the predicament through and decides that his name is irrelevant to her.

There is a very popular interpretation of the play as the story of two bloody idiots, a pair of naive youngsters (Juliet is turning 14; Romeo is not too much older) who think that Love Can Conquer All and tragically find out that it does not. In particular, she thinks that ultimately his name is unimportant, but ends up wrong. I think Mugge has got the wrong end of the stick entirely. “What’s in a name?” is surely an acknowledgement that in fact there is a lot in a name.

But, you know, he’s still doing a hell of a lot better engaging with Shakespeare in English than I’d do with, say, Goethe in German.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Preparing for Flers-Courcelette | 15 Aug 1916

Battle of Flers-Courcelette

Deep, long-suffering sigh. For reasons that we’ll get into in a moment, General Haig has decided that now is the time to begin preparing one more great heave at the Battle of the Somme. The Germans are apparently out of men. The French aren’t getting anywhere south of Guillemont. Time for an operations order; it goes on at some length, but here’s the important bit.

The general plan of the attack projected for the middle of September will be to establish a defensive flank on the high ground south of the [River Ancre], north of the Albert–Bapaume road, and to press the main attack south of the Albert–Bapaume road with the objective of securing the enemy’s last line of prepared defences between Morval and Le Sars, with a view to opening the way for the cavalry.

That “last line” is what at the end of June we were calling the Third Line. In the month and a half since, it’s gone from a half-finished half-outline to a perfectly cromulent defensive system with all German mod cons. And guess what? Some clever sod has had the idea to begin digging out a Fourth Line, which the Royal Flying Corps will no doubt be discovering if they can make it that far into the German rear. Let’s have the map again and see what’s what.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

The eagle-eyed will note that General Rawlinson is now being ordered to capture the Third Line, which is still the line over there somewhere. There’s still the switch line behind High Wood to deal with before they can even have a wallop at the Third Line. All right, so unless someone can talk the Chief out of it, they’re going to have some tanks to throw in. Is that really going to be enough to stop this just turning into one great big Guillemont attack, biting off far more than they can even fit in their mouths, never mind chewing it?

Charteris and Intelligence

This is becoming a bit of a theme, isn’t it? “Why was Haig so unreasonably optimistic?” “He was working from flawed intelligence.” You know, a few hundred years before this war, every military commander worth his salt had his own personal astrologer to ensure he acted at the most favourable time. I wonder how differently the war would have turned out if we could just throw General Charteris into a muddy shell-hole and replace him with Mystic Meg?

I’m rather peeved about something. A couple of weeks ago, the said Charteris, General Haig’s intelligence chief, was delivering a series of perfectly sober and accurate assessments to General Macdonogh, his boss, the Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office. They both seemed in agreement that German manpower had been dented, but they weren’t in danger of running out for at least another year. Now he’s changed his tune almost entirely. Like Haig he wrote extensively to his wife with his thoughts.

His thoughts are about to flip 180 degrees. Apparently he’s now thinking that the Germans themselves are “absolutely sick of war”, and that there might be an even chance of ending the war entirely in the next six months. “[The] crack may come much sooner than many expect”. Quite where he got this idea is not clear. There have been a few prisoner interrogations of remarkably demoralised officers; but then, there are similarly demoralised British prisoners talking to German intelligence, and the Germans aren’t expecting a British collapse any time soon.

On top of that, the Chief is also getting a very interesting report from Macdonogh at the War Office. Apparently (although such efforts are yet to reach London) the German government is trying to send unofficial peace feelers out to the Entente; and if they’re unsuccessful they fear “a serious revolt” among the civilian population. No wonder there’s such enthusiasm about renewing the offensive. Haig is getting more and more indications that he’s in fact on the verge of winning the wearing-out battle.

And now I feel obliged just to remind everyone about First Ypres, back in 1914. It was Haig’s job to defend Ypres, which somehow his corps managed to do despite being flagrantly outnumbered. They were literally throwing engineers and cooks and drivers and anyone who could hold a rifle into the line. The Germans had them right on the point of complete attritional defeat and then, after being repelled time and again, they gave up with the Channel ports at their mercy. It’s impossible to overstate how determined Haig is to not make the same mistake.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman continues the long march forward, towards Mametz.

Hardy and I are off to Pommiers Redoubt, where we are to report that the battalion will arrive this evening. We descend the long hill leading to Fricourt, dodging about the stream of traffic that stirs the dust of the road to a thick haze. Near the bottom of the hill we come upon the old front line of July 1st.

The country here is stricken waste. The trees that formed an avenue to the road are now torn and broken stumps, some still holding unexploded shells in their shattered trunks, others looped about with useless telegraph-wire. The earth on both sides of the road is churned up into a crumbling mass, and so tossed and scarred is the ground that the actual line of the front trenches is hardly distinguishable. … Everything needs pointing out, for the general impression is of a wilderness without growth of any kind.

We come upon guns hidden under the banks of the roadside and camouflaged above by netting. The road through Mametz is still under enemy observation; so we turn sharply to the right to go round the back of the rising ground that faces us. All that remains of the village of Fricourt is a pile of bricks; there appear to be just about enough to build one house; and Mametz Wood is nothing more than a small collection of thin tree-trunks standing as if a forest fire had just swept over them.

A little farther on we come upon all that remains of a German field cemetery: two or three painted triangular wooden crosses; the other graves will now go unmarked for ever. Here we leave the road and begin to climb over the forsaken trenches. Barbed wire, bombs, bully-beef tins, broken rifles, rounds of ammunition, unexploded shells, mess-tins, bits of leather and webbing equipment, British and German battered steel helmets, iron stakes, and all the refuse of a battlefield, still litter the mazy ground.

I come across a skull, white and clean as if it had lain in the desert.

This is an excellent and detailed description, and this is what it’s going to be like for just about everyone on both sides who goes up the line on the Western Front through the rest of the war.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is still at Le Havre, but he’s also having a most jolly time.

I am not yet with my battalion, but am enjoying life in this most interesting and historic region. It is really a great piece of good fortune and a great privilege to have been of an age and in a position to come overseas to take part in this war. I only wish I could write in detail of all the interesting things I see day by day. On Sunday a grand band concert was given at the camp here, and the country people for miles around came in to hear the music. They seemed especially interested in the pipers.

It was very interesting to see the country folk in their best Sunday clothes, mingled with hundreds of Canadian, and a few French, soldiers. I have seen lots of German prisoners. They are well treated and always appear to be on good terms with their guards. I heard of a German Major who, when told he was to be sent to England with other prisoners, laughed and said he knew that was impossible, as England was completely blockaded by the German fleet (presumably he meant the German submarine fleet).

This is a true story.

I love how he too feels the need to mention “I am not making this up” after some particularly ridiculous funny story.

E.S. Thompson

Our favourite felonious South African soldiers are attempting to improve their situation.

John went foraging and returned with an old sofa for a bed. Bibby and I went afterwards and brought back one each. They were rather heavy but we managed to get them in. Went to town to get a long bamboo and pinched one from our camp. … Fine boiled pig and sweet potatoes for lunch. Went to a German house and got a door for a table, a shutter for a shelf and some planks. Major Thompson and Colonel Freeth made an inspection and were quite pleased. Nice stew and mashed sweet potatoes. Started to mount guard but were relieved by B Company later.

There’s a footnote which claims that the sofas were actually seats from discarded railway wagons. I am extremely skeptical of this claim.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge continues to annoy me with his discretion.

The position of [Pease Pottage Camp] is fine. On one side lined by pinewoods, it has trees on all the others. A two-hourly bus service connects us with Reptum. Our tents are all blackened or patterned to keep off the Zepps. On the neighbouring squarethere are several other regiments stationed here; the Queens, the R. Fusiliers and another [Middlesex Regiment]. Innumerable parties of “Housie-Housie” players sit about and, with their monotonous sing-song break the peace of these pretty woodlands.

Walking with two chums of mine to [Crawley],I was stopped by a military policeman, who informed me that though we were walking on the left side of the High-road, we were yet at fault. Men should walk two deep only. Since the high road is as broad as Oxford Street I asked him most courteously whether the latest order was already in force that the pocket handkerchief should be used with the left hand only. The watchdog of the Law growled and we went along in triangular formation, as long-as he could see us.

Conversation begins to pall, since injustice and stupidity are the everlasting topics. The boys refer again and again to a pre-eminent personage, and say he ought to be Honorary Colonel.

Who? Who, damn you? The Fairy Tinkerbell? At a wild guess I’m going to suggest that it might be Prince Louis of Battenberg, who was run out of the Admiralty on a rail in 1914 by a hysterical anti-German witch-hunt from the newspapers. (Thank God our respected Press doesn’t do that any more!)

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Mouquet Farm | 14 Aug 1916

Mouquet Farm

The march towards Mouquet Farm continues for the 4th Australian Division at the Battle of the Somme. They’ve almost done their job too well at this point. They’re butting into the trenches that directly defend the farm. Over the last four days they’ve worked their way a mile down from the Windmill Hill at Pozieres, and irritated General von Gallwitz so much that he’s going to go into the trenches at Warlencourt and have a look for himself at the ground. As befits an Army Commander, he’ll be a respectable distance behind the front at Warlencourt, but more-than-theoretically within the range of the BEF’s heaviest guns.

Rather more depressing for the Germans is the intelligence they’re gathering from prisoners taken around Pozieres about now. They’ve discovered that the 4th Division is far from a load of hardened Gallipoli veterans; there’s a few in there as a stiffener, but it’s mostly “inexperienced replacements”. A British skeptic might look at the last few days and see a lot of mud and guts and six inches towards Berlin. The Germans at the time are looking at this, and seeing they’re being pushed off ground by raw recruits, and they can’t take it back.

That’s not good for morale, or their intelligence’s assessment of their own fighting quality. As ever, the picture of the Battle of the Somme is far more complex than just blokes walking at machine guns and getting mowed down.

Communication

General Haig’s “Ineffectual Burblings 1916” tour continues with a visit to II Corps’s HQ.

I impressed two points on General Jacob. … 2. Information from divisions frequently reaches HQs of Corps, Armies, and GHQ very slowly. Too slowly! So I desired Jacob to see that intercommunication between [brigades and lower] in a division, and Divisional HQ, was efficiently kept up. I further pointed out that Staff officers must be able to explain the plans of their General, as well as to see that the actual orders are carried out.

Well, yes, it’s a point in his favour that he is trying to solve the problem. However, it’s not unlike trying to solve the problem “the river keeps flooding” by going out in a boat and and shouting at it in the middle of a flood.

Neil Tennant

Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Tennant has decided that the best way to ginger things up after taking command of 30 Squadron RFC in Mesopotamia is to lead a raid, immediately.

Time was allowed for the Turk to have his supper and get to sleep; he had never been bombed by night before, and we hoped that the surprise of
this little jaunt might further its effect. Just after eleven Captain de Havilland left the ground with a cheery wave and was gone in the darkness; a
few minutes later came “Contact, sir!” from my mechanic, and I was away. Our course took us over the desert west of the river, which shone like quicksilver in the moonlight far to starboard.

A strong head-wind made progress slow, but it was pleasant to be up in the cool vastness of the night above that strange country. It seemed ever so long ago that I had left England. A series of flashes in the distance ahead dispelled reverie; D.H. was attacking. Gliding slowly with engine off, I arrived short of the aerodrome at a height of 400 feet, when suddenly there burst a storm of heavy and concentrated rifle fire from what must have been at least a thousand rifles under well-directed control.

It had been my lot during the war to come under fusillades of varying intensity, but this reception was perhaps the warmest up to date: the sound was like the tearing of a piece of calico. After dropping the bombs on the hangars,my speed downwind gave the Turks small chance. The results were unknown in the uncertain light and dust of the explosions; time would tell.

The evening finished with a cheery supper by the Tigris at 2 a.m. off sardines and coffee with the lads who could not sleep for sand flies. The sand flies at Sheikh Sa’ad defied description, and mosquito nets were of no avail, the net specially designed against these pests entailing a mesh so small as ‘to make ventilation impossible ; the expedient of emptying ‘the kerosene from one’s “butti” (lamp) over bed and body gave relief for perhaps an hour till it had dried off, and the torture started again. In those days men sold their souls for kerosene.

In the Army, the officers send the men off to die in the mud. Navy officers and men all go off to die together on a giant torpedo magnet. In the Royal Flying Corps, the men cheerily wave their officers off to go and die, and then they go back inside and drink tea or have a wank, according to preference. Nice to see at least one branch of service getting things the correct way round.

Once again, I remind the reader that these people are flying aeroplanes made out of plywood and fabric. Mad as March hares, the lot of them.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman has now seen the Leaning Virgin of Albert. He’s also come under fire for the first time, sort of.

We have moved another step forward. This field by the cross-roads, where we sleep in the open, is called Belle Vue Farm, though I see no farm. As to the belle vue, that has been spoilt. The town of Albert, which lies below us to the north, has been raked with shell-fire and looks half ruins. Some chimney-stacks still stand. They sway beneath the gilded figure of the Mother and Child. That figure once stood triumphant on the cathedral tower; now it is bowed as by the last extremity of grief. Troops still occupy the cellars of the town, but shells drop into the place every day.

I woke just now to an eerie watery sound, followed by a long whizzing rush, and then a thud: shells falling behind us. I did not recognise them at once, their watery gurgle through the air as they passed overhead seemed so slow and tame.

Time for the big boy breeches, sunbeam.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach is still the laziest arse in the German army.

We hear from the Italian front that the town of [Gorizia] has been occupied by the Italians. I still have duties in Noyon now and then, and these outings make a nice change. You can actually go to a military club, what they call a “Kasino”, and have a meal at a table with a cloth on it, as though it were peacetime.

I’m sure there are plenty of lazier slackers in the army than him, but I guess they were too lazy to write a memoir.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still reviewing the situation in which he finds himself. Don’t worry, his outrage is going to come out of neutral and into first gear soon enough.

At present the “Bing-boys” are either drilling and learning the elements of military routine or they are engaged on camp fatigues. We, the former expeditionary force men, are shedding our formidably dirty and picturesque rags and are putting on new uniforms, whilst we tease the young NCOs, and wait for our service leave. The new “Bing-boys” here as far as the “Hun Section” goes may be divided into three classes:

(a) British born. Parents either naturalized British subjects of German descent or actually Germans resident in Great Britain. Usually only father “tainted.” These boys, almost without exception, pure English type ; in speech, character and appearance. Facial contours interesting proof of maternal preponderance. (Vast majority of English mothers.) [WANKY GREEK WORD]

(b) Naturalized British subjects:
1. Perfectly acclimatised specimens ; appearance often, language almost always pure English. Absolutely loyal.
2. Imperfectly acclimatised specimens. Speech usually more or less “tainted” or even broken. Sympathies now often wavering; result of persecution.

I presume the action of the Government in forming this “regiment” was partly due to the existence of a few doubtful individuals in Class B2, but I am convinced that the number of such doubtful individuals has been at least quadrupled by the stupid policy of “Isolation.” Many a good man from B1, must have become in respect to his feelings, a B2 man. We, the former “Expeditionary Force Men,” however, have nothing to do with all that. We volunteered to fight for England and we all object to being “concentrated” with conscripts.

The younger men are very bitter that they were recalled from France, and will never forgive the Government.

I do wish I knew what that Greek word was.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Albatros | Nieuport | SPAD | 13 Aug 1916

Battle of Bitlis

About a week too late, Mustafa Kemal’s corps has finally been given permission to get into the Endres Valley. Having done so, they’ve blundered straight into an enemy rifle division, fresh from some rather dull garrison duty in Erzurum. The Third Army’s advance is about to come to an extremely undignified halt. Like many things in the Caucasus theatre, this was not in the Ottomans’ plan. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Unfortunately, the Russians weren’t in on that meeting.

Delivery, sign here please

There’s a lot of new aircraft about on the Western Front. The Germans have finally introduced an aeroplane to match (and, indeed, exceed) the performance of Nieuport’s Bebe, and it makes the Royal Flying Corps’s Airco DH.2 fleet look like Morris Minors next to a Porsche. Its manoeuvrability isn’t anything special, but the Albatros D.I is both lighter and stronger than any other fighter currently flying. It’s not only faster than anything the Entente can field, it can be faster while being armed with twin machine-guns, a first. And it’s made out of plywood. Plywood! They were all totally mad.

The only reason there aren’t about 150 flying over the Somme right now is that the first pilots to get one have been complaining about a lack of upward vision. So the D.I, already outclassing every other fighter, is about to be slightly redesigned into the D.II, and by the end of September there’ll be 150 Albatros fighters of both types on the Western Front. This could get painful if there’s no response. But wait, what’s this from France? The Nieuport firm hasn’t been standing still, for one thing. They’ve recently started production runs for a number of different models, all an advance on the Bebe; the most important is the Nieuport 17.

And, not just that. Top French ace Armand Pinsard is just about to begin testing a prototype SPAD VII, the first aircraft to use that Hispano-Suiza engine about which there were such ructions earlier in the war. It’s all a big game of rock-paper-scissors, of course. If most of the Nieuport 17s go to Verdun, and the Albatros fighters go to the Somme, it won’t be much consolation to the RFC in their DH.2 pushers that there are more Nieuport 17s in existence than there are Albatroses…

Meanwhile, some aggressive destroyer patrolling has ended the recent submarine scares in the Channel. The tanks are heading for Le Havre again. It’s all but impossible that General Haig will have 150 tanks to throw into another push in mid-September, though. 25, almost certainly. Maybe 50, if he’s a good boy and eats up all his Shredded Wheat without complaining.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has been yanked out of reserve. He’s managed to dodge going over the top for a year and a half, but it seems that his luck might just have run out. Someone far above his pay grade has decided to have a diversionary attack to improve the tactical position.

The wind was in our favour. They were going to launch against the Boches the famous poison gas, for which we had been preparing for so long. Nobody within my hearing was particularly happy about this operation. There was going to be a big bombardment, on both sides, and from what the patrols told us we might have to occupy certain enemy positions. While waiting, our section was going to occupy a jumping-off point in a part of the trench with no shelter at all in which to protect ourselves from the likely bombardment.

Soon we learned that the time was set for midnight, the hour of crime. But you could say that the wind was guilty of collusion with the enemy: at ten minutes to midnight, the wind was blowing too hard. They postponed the business to two in the morning. But by that time the wind had stopped blowing altogether, to the point where it wouldn’t have moved a candle’s flame. The order came down to go back to our dugouts. A reprieve of 24 hours was granted to the Kaiser’s subjects who were swarming throughout Champagne.

Over the next week, the wind continues changing; the attack will never come. Another fortunate escape.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is nearly at the Somme.

The sun is setting over Albert.

I have wandered out alone to the top of this hill, learning that a view of the battle-front may be had from this spot. Nearly all the rough ground hereabouts is taken over by some department of the army; dumps and camps are littered about everywhere like a child’s toys strewn over the nursery floor. But here, for a few hundred yards, where the scrub is clear, poppies and cornflowers stud the ground about my feet and glow bright as jewels in the evening light. …

I turn from them to look out over the east.

The sky is purple dark and all along the horizon gun-flashes quiver as if some fearful aurora borealis were continually appearing. Every now and then huge explosions send up pillars of smoke, as though the internal fires of the earth had broken through. Nearer, the darkness is pricked by lesser lights that rise to fall and fade successively, like matches thrown into the air; and to all these ominous illuminations there comes the continual accompaniment of roll and roar: the grind and belch of guns and the shock of countless explosions.

It is an inferno. Can anything live in that? Heaven on one side : hell on the other. One should not hope to come out of that alive. It is a continuous earthquake. Well, life must end somewhere. One wouldn’t have chosen it there.

And this on a day when it seems that “nothing of importance” is occurring.

E.S. Thompson

Architectural expert E.S. Thompson is exploring Dodoma.

Mealie-meal and tea for breakfast, after which looked round the place a bit. Station quite a neat but foreign-looking one. Saw [a Reo Speedwagon] with flanged wheels running, also a Ford car. Quite neat houses near. The water tank had been knocked over and destroyed. Had tea and porridge for lunch during which John arrived with a sow. After lunch cleared out a place for a kitchen and got some stones from a cemetery nearby. Rose and Bibby brought some sweet potatoes back. Motor Cycle Corps left for Kilossa making a great noise.

Ali and the other Mohammedan boys much disgusted with the pig. George stuck it for us and it died quite calmly. Skinned and cleaned it. Fried the steak with which we had sweet potatoes for dinner. Mouth very sore. Got into bed early. Had to do an hour’s guard each.

So what you’re saying to me is that the Germans have different looking architecture??? Cor blimey, slap me vitals, and other unconvincing expressions of disbelief.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has been gathering information about his new home, the political concentration camp for soldiers too dangerously German to remain in fighting units. He begins with a description of how the 30th Middlesex was formed; I’m leaving his original names in rather than trying to translate them.

I hear that this Battalion was formed on 12-7-16 as the 33rd (I.W.) Bn. Midshire Regiment, at Balmy Camp, Sussex; Captain P. L. Thornly 10th East Lancers Regiment assuming temporary command. The majority of the men are conscripts and were recruited under Army Council Instruction 1209; they are of enemy (German, Austrian, Hungarian, Turkish and Bulgarian) Alien parentage.

On the 13th July 1916 Headquarters and 300 men of this Unit proceeded to Peas Pudding Camp, Reptum, as an advance party; on the twentieth Colonel Byle took over command of the Battalion, and seven days later the remainder of the battalion arrived. On the 3rd August, 1916 200 men of A. Company under 2nd Lieut. Singleway proceeded to Fodderham and were attached to the Guards for Trench Digging at the Bombing School.

I would love to know if anyone could track down the true identity of either “Captain Thornly” of the “10th East Lancers” or “Colonel Byle”; Mugge is fond of puns (“Peas Pudding” for “Pease Pottage”, for instance), so it wouldn’t be completely hopeless. Beyond my resources at the moment, though.

The boys here call themselves “Bing Boys,” I believe after some London Revue. They are a quite superior lot as far as I can judge. Almost one-fifth seem to be clerks and city people. A very considerable number of Jews are amongst them and with the usual shrewdness of their race all the more comfortable billets like staff sergeants and quartermasters’ jobs have of course been appropriated by their financial magnates, stockbrokers and others. The cooking is excellent as only to be expected, our cook being a former chef of the Metropole.

There is in my tent a poor creature, cannot walk at all: rheumatic gout; had to be carted here. Born in England. Before Appeal Board; chairman, on being pointed out utter inability of man, alleged to have said “O ! they will find some work for him and he will be amongst his brother Huns.” The boy is in law and in fact English. Another boy with two gold stripes arrived today. Another “bloody Hun” who fought for England and was wounded for the cause of liberty.

Uncomfortable shifting at this anti-Semitism from a man of German parentage. The Metropole is a grand hotel in London that’s been requisitioned as Government offices; and a gold stripe is worn on a man’s sleeve to indicate that he was wounded on active service, one per wound.

We’ve also run into references to the Bing Boys a few times before. The revue is so popular that the name “Bing Boys” is being self-applied to units of dubious fighting value or extreme disorganisation. This is in much the same way that in 1914 and 1915 it was popular to call the Kitchener recruits “Fred Karno’s Army”, after the pioneering slapstick comedian who popularised throwing custard pies at people.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Mouquet Farm | Contalmaison | 11 Aug 1916

Battle of the Somme

Problem: To dislodge the Germans from Thiepval, Reserve Army needs to push north-west from Pozieres and threaten their rear. Just over a mile down the hill, Mouquet Farm links two strong German Second Line redoubts. So now, having had their fill of attacking uphill, they’re going to get a chance to attack downhill. Can’t attack Mouquet Farm without jumping-off positions, after all. Stands to reason, that does. And so, under the guns, Mucky Farm is getting muckier by the day.

Meanwhile, the Germans have just thrown in a couple of fresh divisions to meet this latest attack; of course it’s the ANZACs who’ve got to do it. The attack today is often only looked at from the BEF’s familiar side of the hill, where it comes over like another penny-packet half-arsed attempt to bite and hold. (It is at least a relatively successful one, gaining about 600 yards of ground; note use of word “relatively”.) From the German side, it’s an entirely more sinister affair, though. For a moment, although it would have taken a major stroke of luck for the attackers to know, they were in serious trouble.

The inexperienced new battalions coming into the fight have been thrown into an unfamiliar world of trenches, with few maps, where everything looks the same, under heavy shelling. The two who were supposed to be the divisional boundary didn’t have time to properly link up with each other before they were under attack and falling back. For a few hours there’s a rare gap in the German line, and a great deal of confusion up the chain of command. But of course the attackers can’t know, and they’ve taken bad enough losses as it is just pushing forward and getting counter-attacked and falling back a bit.

In the end, just one of a thousand missed opportunities. As all this is going off, a new field ambulance has just arrived at Contalmaison to assist with the ANZACs’ casualties. Medical officer Lawrence Gameson has been given some rather odd sailing directions that nevertheless proved completely reasonable. The conditions in his new place of work, on the other hand…

Contalmaison is quite completely ruined. We were told to turn left at the second bad smell. The directions proved to be as accurate as a precise map reference. We live in the remains of a chateau. A few chunks of wall and part of one room is all that is left above ground. The cellars are sound. Soon the wounded began to arrive: some walking, some carried, some just helped along; the usual bloody, patient battered crowd, without a grouse and with scarcely a groan. Here at Contalmaison I feel most curiously and disturbingly isolated, as if one was going to be stuck here forever.

The flow of work in our cellar was uncertain. Times of slackness alternating with times of great stress, when the place was filled with scores upon scores of reeking, bleeding men. These times of great stress were not isolated incidents, to be dealt with, cleaned up, then forgotten, like a railway accident. They recurred regularly. They went on and on and on. Sometimes a man on a stretcher would vomit explosively, spewing over himself and his neighbours. I have seen mounted troops brought in with liquid faeces oozing from the unlaced legs of their breeches.

Occasionally a man would gasp and die as he lay on his stretcher. All this was routine and the waiting crowd looked on unconcerned. No one spoke much during these seemingly endless periods of congestion.

Look at this, our Susan. “Died of wounds”, it says here. “Died of wounds”. What does that mean? That nice Lieutenant Eyewash-Woggler wrote to us and said our Tommy, he died quickly and without any pain, he saw it himself…

German defences

Regardless of General von Falkenhayn’s intermittent burblings about holding every inch of ground (more on him very soon, I promise), the German units who have been through the Somme are doing some extremely quick institutional learning. This is no time for pooh-poohing ideas that might work. If some hairy-arsed private has an idea, he’ll probably get a chance to try it. If he dies, it probably isn’t any use. If he lives, or at least takes a lot of the enemy with him on the way out, it’s probably worth doing again. The secret machine-gun or bombing post is just one such idea that’s catching on very quickly.

Someone crawls out to a random shell-hole about 50 yards in front of their main fire trench; there are plenty of those around. They lie still and quiet (often under a blanket) until the BEF’s latest attackers are right on top of them. Then they open up at point-blank range. Other units are, very quietly, experimenting with allowing attackers into booby-trapped trenches and then counter-attacking only after the attackers trigger the traps. These methods are currently being passed on by word of mouth. Perhaps someone might collate these things and turn them into doctrine; wouldn’t that suck to have to attack?

Speaking of doctrine, the French have just managed to capture in a trench raid some spectacularly useful papers. Some of them set out the defence in depth theories that von Falkenhayn is so determined to ignore. Some of them discuss lessons learned from infiltration-style attacks early at the Battle of Verdun, the first use of proto-stormtroopers. Food for thought for the intelligence department, especially when compared to reports that the Germans seem to know this is a good idea, but they’re not being allowed to do most of it…

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is thinking about how best to ingratiate himself with his men. Well, he’s not putting it in those terms, but.

I am getting to know the men of my platoon. About a third of them, the pick of the bunch, are miners from the north of England: short, tough, reserved men, used to hard work and not given to “grousing.” More than half of them are married. … Spencer is a tall, red-faced lad, awkward but intelligent. I presume the pits have given him that incurable stoop. The trades of the rest make an extraordinary list. Labourer, wheelwright, railway storekeeper, farmer, platelayer, cabinet-maker, rag-conditioner, oil-presser, painter, shoe-salesman, driller, grinder, wool-sorter. What occupations a civil world provides!

Barlow calls himself a “horseman,” and, being the platoon fool, can give no more explicit description of himself. … Jenkins is an “interpreter” of languages, perhaps; but I rather suspect the description as being designed for purposes of reference when those “chits” from the orderly room come round, promising comfortable billets for men of strange trades. I suspect this because Jenkins shows himself a cute student of his own well-being in other ways.

That little wisp of a man, Jackson, who has been to India with the regular army, is something of an enigma. He is smart enough, but he wears a bored expression and seems strangely reticent and unresponsive. To-day, when I told him I wanted him to [become a lance-corporal], seeing that in point of service he was nearly the oldest soldier in the platoon, he replied that he would rather not. Well, he must, for there’s nobody else.

Corporal Neal, who escaped injury on July 1st with the old battalion, has lost his nerve, if he ever had it. He is demonstrative in his authority; but I do not like his stupid, shifty eyes or his subservient manner. Still less do I like the sergeant I am saddled with by the colonel. He has a criminal look, and why he should suddenly be promoted from the ranks to full sergeant I cannot imagine. He has served in Gallipoli, but we do not know his record. Like Neal, he is too servile, and I am a bad judge of men if he proves trustworthy.

He almost certainly feels much more of a connection to the men than to his brother officers; he left school at 16 and worked in his father’s brick business.

Neil Tennant

Neil Tennant hasn’t been mucking around in boats so much as boating around in muck on the River Tigris, but he’s finally making progress.

Ali-Gharbi proved a mere collection of Arab shelters and the tents of a small British post; not a tree to be seen. Here we left T3, as she would only have blown on the shoals in the shallow and tortuous channels above. I shall never forget going ashore that morning in this god-forgotten spot; bending low against the gale, I searched for a British officer. Eventually there appeared a ragged individual in pyjamas and helmet; he had been there all summer and had long since lost all interest in life. The arrival of fresh blood from England, however, cheered him, and talk of London over a bottle of warm beer seemed to awaken further desire to live.

Our intention of crossing the desert to Sheikh Sa’ad in a motor was not advised on account of possible attack by Arabs, so a telegram was sent to Squadron HQ for their motor-boat. Captain Murray, commanding at ‘the time, met us, and we ran up to Sheikh Sa’ad in four hours in spite of taking several shoals at twelve knots. The tents of a squadron of Flying Corps and afew other troops were the sole means of distinguishing Sheikh Sa’ad from Ali Gharbi. Otherwise, as spake the British Tommy, “there was miles and miles and miles of sweet fuck all!”

Tennant claimed the British Tommy actually said “sweet damn all”, but we know better than that. He’s arrived now to take command of 30 Squadron and kick it into some kind of fighting shape, but that might not be easy.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson continues to, oh, I’ll let him say it.

Slept late. Had a narrow escape from boiling porridge falling on my face as half a dixie full upset.

The man is a walking pratfall, he really is.

Sewed patches on my shorts and packed my valise putting my camera in again. Still feeling a bit stiff and footsore. … Got orders to move at 4pm. Made doughboys for the stew and had it at 3.15pm. Marched 3 hours doing 7.5 miles, then halted for 2 hours and made some coffee. Feet very sore from little splinters in the left foot. Marched on again for 4.5 miles. Total for the day 12 miles [19 km]. Collected some wood and made some porridge and coffee.

His mates have also vented their feelings about not being able to drink the machine guns’ water by confiscating a sergeant’s oversize water bottle. There’s not much water around for anyone right now, but as long as they make good time they’ll be in Dodoma tomorrow.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has found an excellent way of occupying his time at rest in the rear, as he tells to his father.

This morning I was alone; so I went along the river bank, and made a highly important discovery, which is that the Field Service Post Card makes a capital boat in skilful hands like yours or mine. I put one afloat this morning, within twenty yards of a huge artillery camp on the bank, but not in the least abashed by the watchful eyes of one or two inquisitive gunners at their ease on the bank. I put her well out, and with a poke from a stick off she went.

All went well (this was a very important voyage, and you must forgive me if I dwell on it rather lengthily) for quite a long time- it was necessary to throw one big stone into a shallow, to prevent her coming to rest much too soon. And there was a certain home-sick look about her (perhaps she caught it from her designer), which was a little too apt to make her aim at unexpected little harbours on the way down. With this exception, however, she did well, and it was no fault of hers that she did go right down to join the — Oh dear, here’s the Censor again. One can’t even run one’s private navigation without being careful.

Of course he can’t say which river this was. I do like to imagine the other half of this anecdote, though. That’s the story told by the two gunners (I also want to think they’re from Neil Fraser-Tytler’s battery) who were sitting around having a quiet rest, when suddenly this idiot officer appears and starts floating a boat folded from a field service postcard down the river…

Curiously, it is far, far easier in a less easy period than in what we call a ‘cushy’ one. In the Ypres days, ‘twenty-four hours out’ was a thing to look forward to, and down in our last place a week out seemed short! So I fully hope it will be, here: in fact, I know it is so. One says to oneself that it is silly even to think of anything unpleasant till we get to So-and-so at the earliest, and there one stops. At least, I think so.

“So-and-so” is clearly somewhere like Albert, the last big town before the Somme battlefield begins.

Maximilian Mugge

Private Maximilian Mugge, newly-minted member of the 30th Middlesex (a unit, as we shall see, of many nicknames) still has his outrage in first gear. Today he contents himself with a description of his new unit’s history. But don’t worry, he’ll have plenty of time to get steaming mad about being exiled to the “Boche Battalion”.

I hear that this Battalion was formed on 12-7-16 as the 33rd (I.W.) Bn. Midshire Regiment, at Balmy Camp, Sussex; Captain P. L. Thornly 10th East Lancers Regiment assuming temporary command. The majority of the men are conscripts and were recruited under Army Council Order 1209; they are of enemy (German, Austrian, Hungarian, Turkish and Bulgarian) Alien parentage.

On the 13th July 1916 Headquarters and 300 men of this Unit proceeded to Peas Pudding Camp, Reptum, as an advance party; on the twentieth Colonel Byle took over command of the Battalion, and seven days later the remainder of the battalion arrived. On the 3rd August, 1916 200 men of A. Company under 2nd Lieut. Singleway proceeded to Fodderham and were attached to the Guards for Trench Digging at the Bombing School.

Usually I translate Mugge’s pun-filled substitute names into their real equivalents, but here I’m leaving them as written. The officers too have had their names obscured; but Mugge does like a good pun, so perhaps someone can work out who they are. For an example of how his mind works; Peas Pudding for “Pease Pottage” is relatively transparent, and “reptum” is a Latin verb meaning to creep or crawl, as in Crawley, the large town near Pease Pottage village and Army camp. Good luck.

Army Council Order 1209, incidentally, was drawn up right after someone noticed that conscription was going to require taking into the Army men of alien parentage who had previously attempted to volunteer and not been accepted.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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