Eland | Florina | 19 Aug 1916

Battle of Doiran

The Serbian Army has been forced to give up the town of Florina, near Lake Ostrovo. Happily for them, there happens to be a rather large ridge between the town and Lake Ostrovo. If the Bulgarians First Army can push all the way through to the lake, they’re going to have a secure flank and will be extremely difficult to dislodge from their current position.

Africa

In the south-west of Tanzania, one Sergeant Maker of the South African Mounted Rifles has just seen something truly jaw-dropping. They’ve just seen off a small Schutztruppe detachment, and Maker is leading a patrol through the very middle of nowhere, near the banks of the River Ruhudje.

As we approached the river, just about dawn, something caused me to stop dead still, which also brought the patrol to a halt. There was no talking allowed, so everything was done by signs. Nothing happened. The signal was given to advance, and at that moment, the whole countryside appeared to move! As far as one could see, there were eland; males, females, and calves. They slowly moved off, up the river. … I often wonder, with the advance of civilization, if a sight like this will ever be seen again.

An eland is a kind of antelope. They’ve briefly slipped from Michael Redgrave narrating The Great War, and dropped into David Attenborough narrating Life on Earth.

JRR Tolkien

Tolkien’s battalion is still dodging shells in the trenches near Beaumont Hamel. The man himself has once again been excused trench duty, though. All battalion signal officers in the division have been recalled to headquarters for a week of urgent remedial training. By day he’s being bollocked by someone who ranks as high as any on the Divisional staff (please read that in the accent of Pontius Pilate in The Life of Brian). By night, though, it turns out that his friend GB Smith has just moved into rest billets near him, and they’re able to spend a lot of time together.

It’s not entirely happy. They’re both struggling with the loss of Rob Gilson, rather as Evelyn Southwell and thousands of other subalterns are struggling with similar losses. More family friends have died since then, for both of them. More will die as the war continues.

Persia

General Baratov’s Russians are now installing themselves on the Sultan-bulak pass; and here the situation in Persia finally congeals for a good time to come. Ottoman commander Ihsan Pasha (not to be confused with the other Ihsan Pasha, who was captured at the Battle of Sarikamis) has never been entirely sure about Enver Pasha’s grand design of advancing clean across Persia to make trouble in Afghanistan for the British Empire. He’s at the sharp end of a 370-mile supply line and has no intention of getting his men slaughtered on the pass. Here they stop; here they will stay for the forseeable future.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is not enjoying his time at war. He’s on the Somme, currently occupying reserve positions near Montauban and Pommiers Redoubt, in what used to be the German First Line.

We seem to have been here for weeks: actually we have been here three days. It has been what is called “a soft time,” too, for the only casualties in the battalion have occurred in the company behind us, and there they have only had about half a dozen killed and wounded. We hear the batteries have suffered heavily, and small wonder, for so far the shelling has never stopped. This afternoon, frayed out with the incessant noise, I went to see Captain Rowley in his miserable little dug-out for the sole purpose of asking him whether shelling ever did stop.

He smiled and inquired what I expected, adding that it was “a bit steep,” but we ought to be thinking ourselves damned lucky we weren’t getting it. I was immensely grateful to him, for he was friendly and not in the least superior. I shall owe him something for that kindness as long as we are together.

As dark comes on we are filing out to dig a new communication-trench down in the valley between the front line and our own. Passing a dump, the men draw picks and shovels alternately. It is strange and exciting to be in the open again. The men are extended in line while the tape is being laid. They begin to chatter, too loudly it seems, for half a dozen whiz-bangs come fizzing right among us, glaring red as they burst. The men flop, and I, knowing no better, do the same. Down along the line comes Rowley cursing the men furiously. “What the hell do you think you are doing lying there?”

I get up feeling badly chagrined, and the work is begun.

And he’s not even been right up the line yet. Perhaps this is an act of common sense from the Staff to hold them back for the time being; the 10th Green Howards are still far from full strength.

Flora Sandes

Flora Sandes is acclimatising rather more speedily to life in the middle of an offensive.

In this sort of terrain the shells used to make the most appalling din, bursting on the rocks and scattering them in every direction, whilst the echoes kept up a continual reverberation among the mountains, growing fainter and fainter, but never wholly dying away before the next shell fell and echoes started anew.

For some reason prolonged shelling always made me feel sleepy. The louder the racket the more soundly I slept. One day we were waiting as reserves, while a terrific bombardment was going on just below us. The colonel, prowling round, passed me curled up under a rock fast asleep, and was much amused. “You must indeed be an old soldier if you can sleep through that, and no longer my new recruit,” he said to me afterwards. As there were no trenches, or deep dugouts, all we could do, when we got caught in a place without cover, was to lie flat on our faces, bury our heads in our arms, and grin and bear it.

Of course, nothing is so bad when there are plenty of others quite close to you, all doing the same thing, which I suppose accounts for that fatal tendency, leading men to bunch up together under shellfire, instead of scattering as they should.

A long time ago, I recall Louis Barthas commenting with surprise on his platoon snoozebag, who could sleep his way through even the heaviest shelling. Now we get the story from the snoozebag’s point of view.

Ruth Farnam

Meanwhile. Ruth Farnam is an American who’s just beginning a very similar career trajectory to our Flora; beginning as a nurse, then having to leave Serbia urgently, then returning later as a general do-gooder. She’s officially coming back to the front as a representative of the Serbian Relief Committee, a humanitarian organisation to support refugees. Her mission, which she has chosen to accept, is to visit the American consulates in Greece and smooth over some apparently strained relations.

But, like Sandes, her life is going to take one hell of a left turn at Albuquerque…

It was the third week in August when I sailed. There were no trippers, no gamblers, no “little actresses” and few New York dressmakers or milliners on board. Everyone was going on serious business, mostly connected with the war, which was nearly the sole topic of conversation. Many people then, as they are today, were perfectly certain that “Germany cannot last out another six months.” There were several alarms of submarines and one man was so depressed by the sense of danger that he jumped overboard and was lost.

On our arrival at the mouth of the Mersey, we found ourselves enveloped in a dense fog and were obliged to wait several hours before we could go up to Liverpool. Just behind us, when we at last did berth, was a large ship filled with German prisoners that had arrived that day from the Cameroons. They lined the rail and stared at us curiously, and when two other New York women and I passed near them, one of the younger ones shouted something about “Amerikanerin” and spat viciously in our direction. I saw an English sailor grab him by the collar and there was trouble for a few minutes.

It is of course relatively easy for a sergeant of the Serbian army to return to her regiment and face the enemy guns. For an American civilian, there is a far more pernicious enemy to overcome: bureaucracy. We’ll see how she goes with that.

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

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Somme ennui | Erzincan | 5 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme continues drifting aimlessly. At the top, both commanders-in-chief are busy fiddling around with the organisation of their forces. General Haig has now all but abandoned the idea of “Reserve Army” as a breakthrough formation, used to create and deliver a cavalry push on Bapaume. Let’s have the map again.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Instead, attempting to react to the changing situation, he’s divided the Somme battlefield in two. Reserve Army has been moved into the line and taken over responsibility for everything north of the Albert to Bapaume road. This will in turn allow General Rawlinson’s smaller, leaner 4th Army to concentrate on exploiting its success south of the road. General Gough is busy trying to wrap his head around his new job, completely different to what he was originally supposed to be doing. Rawlinson is happily chatting away with the French about pushing on to Longueval, Guillemont and Combles.

Meanwhile, corps and division commanders are still doggedly trying to carry out their original orders as best they can. There’s still sputtering fighting going on at Thiepval. A German counter-attack throws some men out of a small lodgement near the Schwaben Redoubt. The BEF brigadier orders a counter-counter-attack; it wins another toehold on the Leipzig Spur. Another German reply follows; another BEF response. It is at least keeping German manpower flowing north of the road, but ye gods, could there maybe have been a less bloody way to do it? To the south, the only real movement is a series of small-scale leapfrogs towards Contalmaison. (The out-of-whack map scale, or lack of same, makes them look quite a lot more than they actually are.)

General von Falkenhayn, meanwhile, is burning his candle at about four ends at the same time. He’s trying to plot a major re-organisation of forces on the Somme, and oversee the latest plan to capture Fort Souville, and keep up with the news from the Western Front, and keep up with Berlin politics. Second Army’s General von Below is preparing for an upcoming reorganisation, and trying to form a working relationship with a new chief of staff.

And so the situation on the ground is drifting in exactly the same way. Without fresh directions from higher command, middle layers of command are trying to get things done as best they can. This is translating into badly-coordinated small-unit attacks with very little chance of success. The BEF is launching them against Ovillers and Thiepval, the Germans against Mametz, Montauban, and the French near Peronne. They’re keeping the doctors in work, but that’s about it. I’m not sure this is what attrition is supposed to look like, yo. Right now, nobody seems to have much control over anything. The battle is drifting.

Battle of Erzincan

Russian operations west of Erzincan have just hit a snag. On their right, General Lyakhov was supposed to wait for the attack on the left to break through towards Bayburt. This would have allowed him easy progress against enemy forces with an excellent excuse to withdraw quickly to keep in touch with their retreating friends. However, this passive attitude doesn’t suit his personality. There’s not much glory in refusing to fight until your opponent falls over from someone else’s attack, and then kicking him while he’s down.

So he’s attacked towards Mamahatun now, while numbers are still even. Here the Ottomans have committed some brand-new German artillery pieces, and their German chief of staff Colonel Guse has been able to pass on advice on how to best use them. It’s a bloody day for Lyakhov’s men, with only slight territorial gains; more tomorrow.

JRR Tolkien

Good news/bad news for JRR Tolkien. Good news is that he’s not on burial parties any more. Bad news; this is because his battalion is going up the line. Bad news again, they’re going to to La Boisselle. It’s still an extremely unhealthy spot as the occupying BEF forces play Whack-A-Mole with the slowly-dwindling number of German defenders. But, good news. Let’s remember that Tolkien is a signals officer. He’s been left behind at Bouzincourt, partly for general liaison purposes, partly to be in the survivor cadre, and partly because Divisional Headquarters, also in the village, needs an extra subaltern.

So, having just begun to form a bond with his men, he now has to watch them march off up the line to a deeply uncertain future. Well, one part at least is certain; some of them will not come back.

Neil Tennant

Bring on the new correspondents! Neil Tennant is a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Flying Corps. Why bring him in when we’re already hearing from Alan Bott? Because Lt-Col Tennant is not going to the Somme. He’s going to command 30 Squadron, which you may recall last hearing of in the dying days of the Siege of Kut, when they manfully attempted to airlift supplies in to Edward Mousley and his mates.

We join him on board ship in the Red Sea. He’s not going direct to Mesopotamia; for reasons best known to the War Office, he’s first sailing to India, and from there back to the Middle East.

The Briton had not been built for these climates; the saloon at meals was like an Inferno, and it was too hot to sleep. The stokers were white men, and unable to carry on unsupported, so forty volunteers were called for, and the Welsh Fusilier ex-miners responded. The temperature of the sea rose to 92 degrees Farenheit, and the atmosphere was soaking. The ship’s doctor died of heat-stroke; we buried him over the poop deck next morning in a thick haze of heat. The human frame could stand little more; the perspiration ran from head on to deck and down legs into boots.

No sooner had we buried the doctor than one of the crew went down outside my cabin; his clothes were taken off, and we put him close to the side of the ship to get any air there might be, but despite all efforts he was gone in two hours. Such is the Red Sea in July.

If nothing else, our new man is affecting an iron-stiff upper lip. Don’t worry, he gets more interesting when he actually starts doing his job. Infantry battalion commanders are now being encouraged, in no uncertain terms, to resist the temptation to lead their men over the top, and instead offer direction from the rear. RFC officers, on the other hand, are most valuable in the air; Tennant will be fighting like a private and commanding like a colonel at the same time.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier, who before the war lived in the USA, is still decompressing from service in the Vosges. There’s not been much in the way of rest, though.

We are out here to get into walking training once more and to forget the trenches in case the attack in the North with the English should be successful. It is a very nice change, for the present at least. The summer so far has been very rainy and the trenches where we were in places were so sandy that we were kept building the walls all the time while in other spots the water did not drain off and the dugouts were very unhealthy places. There was so much sickness that at one time we were not more than one hundred men for eight hundred and fifty yards!

Now everybody is fattening up and all the troubles are forgotten. We don’t expect to go up North before the middle of the month and we fully enjoy our dip into civilized life without worrying about what may come later the motto in this business more than in any other being “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”.

Yesterday was July 4th. That date must have had a special significance to the USAfolk this year, after these months of tribulations as a neutral nation, a narrowly escaped Mexican war and a presidential campaign ahead.

Now, this implies that he’s going to be heading to the Battle of the Somme, which would make me very happy. We’ve seen the sharp end of Verdun twice, but English-language accounts of the French part of the Somme are like hen’s teeth. “Sufficient unto the day…” is half a King James Bible quote, again from the Sermon on the Mount. In full it’s a warning to worry about the troubles of today, instead of the troubles of tomorrow; a life lesson for the soldier at war if ever there was one.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

Briggs Kilburn Adams, a newly-minted American volunteer ambulance driver, is getting used to having a proper job after a comfortable life at Harvard University. He’s staying in a requisitioned chateau which is now serving as a dormitory for all sorts of odds and sods.

There are six of us in a room that used to be a reception room on the ground floor, but my bed is near a window, so it is not bad. There are no hooks, no closets, no chiffonier, so you cannot unpack; and you have to have, your bags either under or on your bed. But all inconveniences are passed by with a shrug of the shoulder and the remark, “C’est la guerre.”

We saw some terrible results of German warfare. I saw one man with only a slight wound, but whose nerves were so gone that he couldn’t hold himself in a chair, but would literally shake himself off. Another fellow had both legs and arms gone, and his head all bandaged. Another whose face was burned to a charcoal. Eyes, nose, all gone, but living. One expects bullet wounds, or to lose a limb or two, even a head, if necessary, but to have a blackened mis-shapen nothing for a head and still live, makes you realize that not only is this the biggest but the most horrible war of all history.

I find only thoughts bother me. Even the odors in the Ambulance trains, which are awful, do not phase me. I am getting a lot of interesting experiences and even if I cannot go out to the front, I am close enough to hear the guns at night, and get first-hand accounts. It looks as if the big drive had really started, so we will be busy here for some time. But we have plenty of hands and will work in shifts, and so get on all right.

Jeannot obtenu son fusil.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is today writing home to his parents with some important news. His number has been called.

Yesterday I was warned to be ready on Friday to proceed overseas to the 8th Battalion. This battalion…is called the Black Devils or Little Black Devils, or more often simply the LBDs. This is what the regiment was called by the Indians in the Northwest Rebellion. At least one of the Indians who fought against the regiment in the rebellion is now serving in its ranks. I am lucky to be going with three officers whom I know, to a battalion where I am already known to many of the officers and men. The officers of the 8th are an unusually kind and cordial set.

Those who came over with the First Contingent (I have been associated with many such since I got my commission) are as considerate of late arrivals, even those who came over months after I did, as of those who belonged to the original 8th. In [Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry], I found some of the few surviving officers of the “original” a little inclined to be snobbish in their attitude towards those who came overseas later.

I have two days’ leave, and have come to London for a rest, and to get a few odd articles that I still need. My course at the Canadian Military School has been rudely interrupted, after little more than two weeks. But even in two weeks one can learn a good deal, and I feel better qualified than if I had not gone to the school at all.

He’s been kicking his heels in England long enough. Off to the war. The King wants you.

Henri Desagneaux

We finish with Henri Desagneaux, survivor of Verdun. He’s only just beginning his period of post-battle rest. However, he now offers the pithiest of postscripts to two weeks of sheer unmitigated hell.

Promoted to Captain.

And then he goes silent to enjoy his rest.

Actions in Progress

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

Joffre’s temper | 3 Jul 1916

German East Africa

In Tanzania, the Schutztruppe is now in full-on retreat from the north of the colony. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s clear instruction has been that territory is irrelevant; only continuing the fight and tying down enemy resources. His officers have since turned escaping from tough spots, and living to fight another day, into a fine art. Which is what makes a small and otherwise-uninteresting fight near Lake Victoria, between 800 Schutztruppe and a somewhat larger detachment of the Belgian Empire’s Force Publique, worth mentioning.

Because this is one of a very, very, very small number of occasions on which the defenders didn’t get away. Over the next few days, the Force Publique will kill or capture almost all of their opponents, and a precious German field hospital. Aside from anything else, this is a valuable propaganda victory for the Entente; despite having 95% of its homeland occupied, the Belgian Empire can still give the Germans a bloody nose

Battle of the Somme

Day three on the Somme. The map at the end of yesterday.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

General Haig is now reasonably sure the best results will be obtained by a hard north-east push out of Montauban. Orders to this effect have now been sent out, and staff officers everywhere are frantically scrabbling to plan a breach of the Second Line somewhere near Longueval. Artillery is beginning to displace forward to support an attack even now, and General Gough’s Reserve Army is soon going to be in the fight in some form. And, of course, if there’s going to be an attack, there needs to be a diversion. German attention has to be drawn, as far as possible, north of the Albert to Bapaume road.

More about that in a moment. First, General Joffre is bringing his friends round to Haig’s gaff for a major conference. He is not at all happy about the suggestion that the BEF might change direction away from Thiepval and Pozieres. Are they not supposed to be capturing the Bapaume rail junction? Tilting south will surely only bring them into conflict with any French advance, and bring German reinforcements closer to it. This is supposed to be a British battle to take the pressure off the French, isn’t it?

By all accounts, the usually-unflappable Joffre entirely lost his temper (perhaps shades of September 1914, when he also shouted at Sir John French under pressure). He attempted to order Haig to attack Thiepval, claimed he was surely beaten if he did otherwise, and went on and on and on. Haig then reminded Joffre that his command was independent and he was responsible to London, not Chantilly. Joffre then recovered his composure and accepted the change of direction. On the surface, the meeting ended in a friendly fashion. Haig’s diary certainly presents the meeting as a victory for himself.

However, French observers with the BEF are beginning to report on their own impressions of the first couple of days of battle. None of it would make good reading for British egos. “Minimal results” obtained, not enough heavy artillery, artillery improperly used, “the commanders lack experience, decisiveness, and firmness”. General Fayolle’s staff officers are bitching among themselves about having to fight a battle “organised by amateurs, for amateurs”. Fayolle’s diary has described British tactics as “infantile”.

And well he might. General von Falkenhayn might be doing a lot of shouting on the need to not give up any ground, but the French have now mostly broken through the German Second Line, on both sides of the Somme. The north bank is easily reinforced by the Germans, and the advance there is starting to run into trouble. However, a Senegalese corps is continuing to push south of the river, and Fayolle has pithy comments for this, too. “The Boche front is brokeen open for eight kilometres, and we cannot exploit it. … The Senegalese kill everything.”

They cannot exploit it, of course, because there wasn’t supposed to be anything to exploit. Most of the French cavalry has long since been dismounted and turned into emergency infantry battalions. There’s still some, but they’re still chilling in rear-area billets, unaware that they might be needed. The infantry reinforcements who might have relieved the Senegalese and pressed home the advantage are needed at Verdun. Meanwhile, the BEF has the cavalry and the reserves, but there’s no breakthrough to exploit, yet.

Ovillers and La Boisselle

So. Remember what I said about there needing to be diversionary attacks? Yeah, we’re going to have one at Ovillers. It goes over the top at 3:15am, trying to attack at the very crack of dawn. Perhaps the men who planned it had some hope that they might somehow be able to force their way into Ovillers with fewer men and fewer artillery shells available. There’s another diversionary attack opposite Thiepval; the men can barely get over the top for tripping over each other. Conditions are not dissimilar to those at La Boisselle, where they’re still actively trying to take control of the village. Private Roy Bealing of the 6th Wiltshires was in one of many attempted attacks.

There’s a ridge and then there’s a dip, and the Germans…could see us all coming down in single file, perhaps a thousand of us going to this trench, and they started shelling. One pitched right in front of me and knocked out Sergeant Viney and two or three more. We had to step over one and step over another to carry on. … What with the shells exploding and it being our first time over the top, we felt pretty damned bad as we waited there.

The worst of waiting in the trench was that the Germans had a machine gun trained on it going backwards and forwards, traversing and coming round every couple of minutes. The bullets were cutting the sandbags on the parapet just as if they were cutting them with a knife. If a bullet didn’t get you, this shower of sand and dirt was going straight into your eyes. Terrible feeling, knowing you’ve got to go over the top with your eyes full of sand, watering, not being able to see anything.

By the time it’s time to go over the top, the machine-gun has been suppressed by the supporting artillery, and his mates make it safely over the top. Bealing ends up getting turned round during the chaos of battle, and he literally falls right into Lochnagar Crater; his battle ends there, down among the dead men. Fighting continues through the day; La Boisselle is still not secured, and the Germans are starting to put some counter-attacks together, but they’re not having much effect.

The situation at nightfall.

Pink line, your uncaptured Day 1 objectives.

Pink line, your uncaptured Day 1 objectives.

The Germans are quite clearly in a very bad way south of the Albert to Bapaume road. Sadly, they’re struggling in places they weren’t supposed to struggle, according to the plan of attack. Even if the generals had had perfect information, it’s debatable whether the logistics of the situation could ever have allowed the German troubles to be fully exploited. There are only so many roads north of the Somme, and quite how all the French and British traffic got up and down them all without any major fist-fights..

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien is moving forward, although only to Bouzincourt, about three miles from the front. Importantly, and worryingly, it’s just to the north of the Albert to Bapaume road. As they march forward, they pass an unkempt line of kilted Scotsmen staggering backwards, unshaven, covered in mud. Shortly after they arrive in the village, some German battery commander behind Ovillers decides to have a shoot at some likely-looking places in the British rear. No shells land in Bouzincourt; the rain of shells is soon replaced with a rain of rain. (I still think it’s funny.) More to come; he’s in the war now.

Herbert Sulzbach

German artilleryman Herbert Sulzbach has been woken from his quiet, lazy existence at Evricourt, near the apex of the great Noyon salient, where the Western Front switches from running north/south to east/west.

The French fire over 1,000 rounds into our “C” trenches, in the course of which the telescope in our Observation Post is shot to pieces. The shells land all around us; for the first time, you’re reminded of a large-scale day’s fighting in Flanders or Champagne. The enemy trenches are heavily manned, and you see the French infantry with bayonets fixed. Our artillery is quiet and for the moment is not firing a single shot. For the next few nights we obviously don’t get any sleep. These difficult days I spend alone, up at the front in the OP.

Far over to the right, on the Somme, a strong British offensive has started. It is not yet clear whether the British offensive will spread over to our sector, or whether the livelier enemy fire here is just a diversion to prevent us sending any reinforcements away to the Somme. [The infantry] puts on patrol operations nearly every night.

About time you did some real work, boyo.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman, medical officer with the British Empire forces in Egypt, is having a rather calmer time of things.

While at dinner our patrols brought in 150 camels captured from the Bedouin. From our mess tent we watched searchlights of the steamers in the Canal flashing across the desert. The old pilgrim route along which the caravans have journeyed for thousands of years passed just outside our camp ; this was the route which connected the Holy Land with Egypt, and must have been traversed during the Flight into Egypt soon after Our Lord was born.

This little caravan must have used the same Hods for water which the British troops were using now. Probably at that time the Nile ran out into Tina Bay, near Romani, where the ancient city of Pelusium, the “key of Egypt,” was situated. One could not help wondering what could have been the determining factor in altering the course of such a mighty river.

So calm, in fact, that he now goes quiet for a couple of weeks.

Evelyn Southwell

Malcolm White’s, ahem, good friend Evelyn Southwell is writing home to friends who are still at Shrewsbury School, where he and White taught before the war.

I dare say you know; but if not, I am in great anxiety about our Man; though I can’t say where he is or what he is doing. I had a letter from White two days ago, by the way, mentioning the night before the Challenge Oars. It was a short note, but very wonderful. Pray God all’s well with our Man.

This would mean that Southwell may well have received that last letter at about the same time as White was going over the top to his death. For now, Southwell’s battalion is being held in rest billets, annoyingly far away from anyone who might be able to carry news.

Actions in Progress

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

Montauban | Bayburt | 2 Jul 1916

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

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

So there you go. Where do we go from here?

The Chief

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.

Fricourt

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!

La Boisselle

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.

Montauban

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.

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

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.

Clifford Wells

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

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

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