Battle of Erzincan
Let’s have a little palate-cleansing aperitif before we dive back into the Somme, shall we? Quick reminder; the Ottomans have attacked the Russians on the Caucasus front and achieved some local successes. Russian commander General Yudenich is unconcerned, because today he launches another general offensive against the still under-strength Ottoman Third Army. Its main focus is a heavy push towards Bayburt, looking to split the Third Army clean in two.
The first day sees a little success; but just as a single Turkistani battalion recently defended mountain positions for several days without support, it’s going to take more than a gentle push to knock the new Ottoman defences over. We’ll check back and see how they’re doing once it’s obvious either way. Right then.
Battle of the Somme
You know, the Battle of the Somme is kind of like God Save the Queen. (Or, indeed, many national anthems.) Everyone knows how the song goes, right? Send her victorious, happy and glorious, and so on. Maybe you dimly remember that there’s something else in there about “rebellious Scots to crush”, but nobody bothers with that bit any more. Well, on further inspection, it turns out that everyone and his dog seems to have had their own go at writing a verse. The “standard version” is usually said to be three verses long, but really there’s as many as you want them to be, or indeed as many as the band feels like playing.
So, down on the Somme, we’ve all had a jolly good sing of the anthem…and now the band is carrying on for a second verse. What now? Is it just the second verse, same as the first, over and over? Let’s have a look at the map again and remind ourselves where we were.
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map
So there you go. Where do we go from here?
Unfortunately, due to an unconscionable lack of 21st-century technology and 100 years of hindsight, General Haig’s trying to figure out what to do next based on a horrible potpourri of rumour, hearsay, third-hand reports, and the odd message. It seems obvious, right? Still, hazy though the picture is, both he and General Rawlinson seem to have appreciated that north of the Albert to Bapaume road has gone badly, but south of the road things are looking much better.
After church, I and Kiggell [Haig’s chief of staff] motored to Querrieu and saw Sir H. Rawlinson. I directed him to devote all his energies to capturing Fricourt and neighbouring villages, so as to reduce the number of our flanks, and then advance on Enemy’s second line. I questioned him as to his views of an advance from Montauban and his right, instead of from Thiepval and left. He did not seem to favour the scheme…The Adjutant-General reported that the total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe, in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.
Sounds kind of callous, doesn’t it? And it’s not exactly in accord with the actualite; other battles, before and after, did not come at nearly such a heavy price. But, come on, what else are we expecting? He’s a good soldier of the Empire and he’s got a job to do. For me, complaining about Haig reacting this way is kind of like complaining about footballers being petulant, cheating little sods. Of course he’s going to polish the turd; no good will come of doing anything else.
Incidentally, General Joffre has just made an appointment to see him tomorrow at 3pm. How do you think he would have reacted to something like “Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of men today, so now we’re going to have to call the battle off”. Spoilers, the meeting will be stormy enough even with Haig being positive about things. Haig saying “Nah, we’ve had enough” is the sort of thing that breaks coalitions and topples governments.
Right, let’s get back to the blokes on the ground. The lack of any decision by Haig or Rawlinson today about switching the focus of the offensive doesn’t mean that there’s a command vacuum, mind. Everyone still has orders to follow, and there’s plenty of layers of command below the Chief to make local decisions. At Fricourt, for instance, it’s obvious what should be done next; cut Fricourt village off completely and then prepare to press on. There is some difficulty with this; their supporting artillery barrage keeps getting in the way, and it’s into the afternoon before sanity can be restored.
And then they discovered that the Germans weren’t being suppressed by the artillery support. This is because the Germans in fact left under cover of darkness last night, recognising that their position was untenable. Red faces all round!
Right, back now to La Boisselle, home of some of the bloodier fighting of yesterday. In the absence of any orders from above, again it’s obvious what needs to happen; reinforce Lochnagar Crater, hold what’s already been gained, and push on as best they can. The 34th Division has been completely shattered, but this is why God gave the army reserves. Another division is brought in, and during the night they’ve had extensive conversations with the local artillery commanders. A fire plan has been developed which will concentrate the heaviest weight of fire against Ovillers.
Meanwhile, the trenches guarding La Boisselle will only receive just enough shelling to (hopefully) clear the German wire and suppress the defenders. It works like a charm, and the 19th Division succeeds yesterday where the 34th was cut to ribbons. The German defenders are caught completely wrong-footed and are unable to bring anything like the weight of yesterday’s machine-gun fire to bear. The attackers push right through the trench system and by nightfall they’re holding part of La Boisselle itself. The Germans are now struggling to hold onto any part of the First Line south of the road.
It may be a behind-schedule success, but it’s still a success.
South of Fricourt
Here now is where perhaps the BEF could have done with a bit more direction from above. The Germans south of Fricourt are still struggling mightily to get themselves back together. On the one hand, the Second Line is fully occupied, and German artillery is taking up new positions to support it. It seems like the sensible thing for the Germans to do would just be to fall back, sit in the Second Line, and invite the BEF to come and have a go if they think they’re hard enough. There’s a problem with that idea, though: the French.
North of the Somme, the French Army has now pushed through almost without exception to attack the German Second Line. Further north and west, up on the Thiepval Ridge, the Second Line has been constructed to just as high a standard as the First Line. Some of it more so, since its recent construction has allowed them to exploit lessons learned in 1915, like the importance of reverse-slope trenches, that they didn’t have in 1914 when the First Line was first dug. However, where the French are now pushing forward to, it seems that the work has been considerably more sloppy.
There’s not nearly as much barbed wire as there should be. There are none of the super-deep dugouts that proved so effective at Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel. The trenches themselves are far shallower. Mind, the fighting today in the French sector is far from an easy victory. Casualties are up on yesterday, and resistance is stiff, but for the most part, they’re getting into the trenches and fighting with grenade and bayonet. “Hold the Second Line against the BEF” is all well and good if the Second Line also holds against the French, but if not…
The situation is so bad that in fact the German Second Army is now preparing to retreat in the south from the Second Line to the Third Line and a number of intermediate switch lines around Peronne. The hope is to buy themselves enough time to make a really good stand there. Germans making hasty retreats is not what many people think of when they think of the Battle of the Somme!
von Falkenhayn arrives
And it’s against this backdrop that General von Falkenhayn arrives to try to figure out what’s going on here. From the German perspective, this is looking like some sort of Battle of Artois-sized attack between Fricourt and the River Somme. There’s been a supporting French attack south of the Somme and some sort of over-aggressive demonstration north of the Albert to Bapaume road. Accordingly, von Falkenhayn is still far from convinced that this is the main show. He’s even sent three of his own reserve divisions to defend against a second Artois-sized offensive on the old Artois battlefields at Vimy and Loos.
There is of course a great deal spoken about incompetent British generalship on the Somme; much of it accurate. However, there’s not nearly enough attention paid to what was happening on the other side of the hill. Arriving at Second Army headquarters, von Falkenhayn immediately begins laying down the law. When he finds out about the planned retreat, he immediately sacks the army’s chief of staff and summons commander General von Below for a long lecture about the correct attitude for his army, before leaving again. von Below promptly issues fresh orders for general distribution.
Despite the current superiority of the enemy in infantry and artillery, we must win this battle. Large-scale loss of terrain, as we have suffered in certain places, will be wrested back through counter-attack from the enemy after the arrival of the coming reinforcement. At the moment, we must hold fast our current positions absolutely and improve these through small-scale counter-attacks. I forbid the voluntary withdrawal from positions. Every commander is responsible for ensuring that this solid will for battle is understood by every man in the army.
The enemy must only be allowed to find his way forward over our dead bodies.
This will, of course, take some time to percolate through the relevant officers. However, when it does, this order will become absolutely critical to the way the Battle of the Somme will develop over the coming weeks. More soon.
General von Below has also committed a division from his own Army reserves. In accordance with von Falkenhayn’s wishes that “The first principle of position warfare must be not to surrender a foot of ground, and when ground is lost to throw in even the last man in an immediate counter-attack”, that division attacks the BEF this morning around Montauban.
And here something very interesting happens. It’s a rather similar situation to what happened yesterday at Thiepval. Here the BEF holds a line anchored on a fortified village, and enjoying the benefit of observation from high ground. Their trenches have been hastily dug and are far from the quality of the trenches they’ve just left, but the German artillery does not know where they are. Consequently, the supporting barrage is inaccurate; while some Germans did make it into Montauban, they were evicted again thanks to plentiful use of the BEF’s new Mills bomb, a major improvement on the old No 15 “cricket ball”.
Once it’s been repelled, the BEF begins moving cautiously forward again. They can’t go too far, of course, or else they’ll lose touch with their left flank, still held up at Fricourt. Perhaps a bold push in the afternoon might have paid dividends. Perhaps it would just have turned out to be too uncoordinated to end in anything other than another slaughter against the Second Line. We’ll not know. The position at nightfall:
Pink marks uncaptured Day 1 objectives for the BEF.
North of the Albert to Bapaume road, by the way, almost nothing has been done, and with good reason. General Rawlinson is minded to attack again as soon as possible, but even so, that means fresh artillery bombardments and the bringing up of reserves for another attack. Today there is a day of consolidation, and a day of bringing in the wounded, and a day of burying the dead.
Round the fringes
Let’s go sweep round the fringes of this battle and see what’s going on on a more personal level, shall we? We’ll begin under cover of the early morning darkness. About twenty miles north of Beaumont Hamel, last evening a brigadier became extremely excited by the news, which was barely more restrained than the ridiculous, over-optimistic blithering that’s about to be served up to the home front in the British newspapers. He’s also got rather sick and tired of the Germans’ damned unsporting habit of writing insulting notices and hanging them on the barbed wire.
Which is why we find one lance-corporal and one private of the 6th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry crawling across No Man’s Land in the dark, with one enormous noticeboard, and one booby trap. (Both sides have now taken to booby-trapping their own amusing jokes to stop the enemy trying to remove them.) The notice has been painted according to the brigadier’s explicit order, and it says:
10,000 MEN AND 100s OF GUNS CAPTURED ON SOMME! MORE TO FOLLOW! GOD SAVE THE KING!
If only it were true, mynheer. There is a rather less funny story from the aftermath of the diversionary attack at Gommecourt, though. Sergeant Stewart Jordan belongs to the London Scottish, from a battalion which has not attacked, and which is at rest in the rear. He’s gone up to a crossroads at the rear of the BEF trench system to find the survivors of a sister battalion and guide them back to their rest billets. An uncomfortably long wait follows.
I heard marching feet and after a bit in the dark I could see that they were wearing kilts and guessed that that was our regiment. When I could distinguish them I noticed about 120 men, I suppose, and the Adjutant was leading them. So I said to him, ‘Which company is this, please?’ ‘Company!’ he said, ‘This is the regiment!’ About 800 men went over, and about 100 came back.
This might be from Gommecourt, but it can stand for any number of battalions from Serre to Ovillers.
Briggs Kilburn Adams
Of course, rather than using the recent death and wounding of some of my correspondents as an excuse to do a little less work for a while, I’m bringing in more recruits. Briggs Kilburn Adams is quite a special character. He’s just about to begin the final year of a university degree at Harvard. However, being young and stupid, he’s decided to go to France for his summer holidays and drive an American volunteer ambulance. That’s not all he’ll do in the war, mind. But for now, he’s just finished several days hanging around in in Bordeaux and Paris.
The trip has been of the greatest interest so far because of its entire novelty. I had not realized a foreign country could be so foreign. On shipboard I noticed the change mostly in the cooking. Also the French are always shaking hands; when they meet in the morning, when they meet at lunch and when they go to bed. As a foreign city, [Bordeaux] was very attractive, I thought; but it was strange to see stone buildings everywhere. The fare to Paris is something over forty francs. We came through free! It is pretty soft being an ambulance driver.
One is not uncomfortable in plain clothes as in England, for here the Army service is universal and it is only voluntary there. So if a man is in civilian clothes here they know he is either a foreigner or has some good reason. However, when in uniform, you are less conspicuous and you get half prices everywhere. Paris gets dark after sunset, but all the regular French places are going, except the Opera and the Comedie Francaise. The streets are crowded and busy, and everywhere you see women doing men’s work.
Women? Doing men’s work??? That’s unpossible!!!!!
Ahem. He’s just been sent up to Bar-le-Duc, so lots of lovely stories about the wounded from Verdun to come.
Robert Pelissier has some rest to look forward to, but he’s also heard of something new in the offing.
This is a rolling New Englandish kind of country and we are all glad to be out in the open, having nothing to fear and plenty of time to bask in the sun. We are about eighty miles from the trenches and the battalion has never been so far back into the country and from the Dutch since war broke out two years ago. We may stay here two or three weeks, then we shall go North to attack; according to all probabilities, there are going to be great doings out that way and we want our share of them.
For the present we think of nothing but sleeping (I have a bed, glory be), eating and getting washed up in plenty of water, instead of in a tin cup. We have a fine cook and a pleasant dining-room, so life is rosy.
“Great doings” to the north could equally be Verdun or the Somme.
Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is now really getting his teeth into his three months’ course at the Canadian Military School in Kent. He too has heard the first hint of news from the front.
The course in riding under a regular cavalry instructor is quite an education in itself. We were told the first day, and it is repeated whenever necessary, that it is far better to fall off and break your neck than to hold on to the arch of the saddle. No necks have been broken yet, but there are cases of falling off nearly every day. I have managed to stick on under all circumstances hitherto. Before we get through, we shall be riding cross-country, jumping fences, etc. One has to be able to ride at a full gallop using neither reins nor stirrups, and keeping the arms folded. I find the ride every morning the pleasantest part of the day.
The “big drive” has apparently commenced at last. We are anxiously awaiting further reports as to its progress. It will not be over in a week, but it really does look as if the beginning of a series of advances had arrived. Canadian cavalry in France and England is training hard for “shock action,” with swords and lances, as though open fighting is expected some time. Canadian and Indian cavalry are reported to be training in the neighbourhood of Verdun.
Canadian and Indian cavalry is indeed training for shock action out in France, but of course they’re waiting for the call to action at the Somme. I am also reliably informed that holding onto the saddle when one rides is Just Not Done, Old Boy.
Maximilian Mugge, newly restored as an Army private (although still on light duties due to his heart) is defending the reputation of Tommy Atkins.
The boys with their phenomenal swear-words, (which make pure Limehouse and mere Billingsgate appear to be the refined accents of Sunday School teachers and Church workers), might create the impression of semi-savages to a superficial observer. But it is only their “slanguage” that does it. At heart most of them are really a good-natured lot, and with not a few I have become quite chummy. True, their fierce competition in filthy language does not ennoble them, but I hold it is mostly external.
The boys were quite astonished when I told them that “bloody” had been the strongest adjective I had known of hitherto, and that [George Bernard] Shaw became famous “beyond the Kaiser” because he made a lady in a play say “Not bloody likely.” The inscriptions to be found in the camp latrines, either recriminatory reflections on some rival regiment, or mad and stupid sexualities, are even more graceful. I do not reproach the working-man for having been left where he is, but I do condemn and curse that majority of the middle-classes and upper-classes who care neither about the men nor about what I may say.
Fortunately, there is a small minority who will agree with me.
The lady in the play is Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, which premiered in London just before the war and caused a major scandal among Britain’s chattering classes. (It then inspired the musical and film My Fair Lady.)
Actions in Progress
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan