Bitlis | Romani | Verdun | 5 Aug 1916

Battle of Bitlis

In the Caucasus we have rather a curate’s egg of a battle for the Ottomans. On paper, things are going quite well. They’ve retaken Bitlis and Mus unopposed. Even better, the Russians who recently gave them a bloody nose at Ognot have continued advancing and are now about to be hideously outnumbered. General Yudenich is trying to apply the brakes, but these things take time. There’s a brief window of opportunity here to counter-punch and put the Russians in this sector of the battle onto the back foot.

But it seems nobody is interested in taking advantage of the opportunity. While the Ottoman commanders dither, Russian commanders boldly push their men forward unopposed, occupying key strategic points. A regiment of Kuban Cossacks is undertaking the most ridiculous of tasks, setting out on a 170-mile march from Erzincan over trackless mountains towards Kigi. The scale of this redeployment is a truly massive feat of logistics and flexibility; it deserves far more space and attention that I’m entirely unable to give it.

Battle of Romani

Meanwhile, at the Suez Canal. Nobody’s in particularly good shape after a few days of marching and a solid day of fighting in the Egyptian summer. However, it’s the Ottomans who are suffering more; they’re the ones who have just marched across the Sinai desert for months. Smelling victory, their opponents order fresh counter-attacks today. Let’s go see what Oskar Teichman made of the day’s fighting.

It was known that the enemy had retired eastwards through Katia, where a very strong force had been left to cover the retreat of the main army. It was now the duty of all the Mounted Brigades to “make good” the country west, north-west and south-west of Katia before an attack was launched on that place.

Everywhere we came across Turkish equipment which had been thrown away during the retreat and large numbers of killed and wounded Turks. Many of the latter were lying under the little sun-shelters, which their comrades had presumably erected for them before retiring. It was a pleasing sight to see an Australian and a Turkish Field Ambulance working side by side amongst the wounded. As we advanced slowly, more cases of sunstroke developed, and these were sent into Bir Abu Hamra, where we had already collected some Turkish prisoners.

At about two o’clock the enemy opened fire on us with shrapnel and high explosive, and as we galloped forward we soon came under rifle fire. “Action dismoun” was given, and the Brigade proceeded to line a low ridge and to open fire on the enemy, who could now and then be seen in their trenches outside Katia. The ground, being uneven, afforded us a good deal of cover, as it abounded in small hummocks and ridges.

I established my dressing station, and had just attended to some casualties when a shell exploded in the middle of our little group. I was thrown to the ground after being struck by a fragment of the shell, and realized at once that my leg was broken. I was carried back a short distance, and my orderlies dressed the wound and fixed up the leg with improvised splints. It was extraordinarily lucky that the fragment did not strike my leg “full on,” otherwise the whole foot would certainly have disappeared.

Meanwhile the enemy’s big guns in Katia were very troublesome, and some Turkish infantry with machine guns and a field gun, who had moved out of Katia towards Abu Hamra, proceeded to enfilade us in a most uncomfortable manner. I was not quite aware what happened during the next two hours, as the morphia which I had taken to allay the pain had begun to make me drowsy.

Leg broken by shrapnel? Hopped up on morphine? Mustn’t grumble. Teichman is then put on his horse and sent back to the rear; no jokes about “physician, heal thyself”, please. It’s another excellent day, one of the most successful days that any British Empire force has seen since Edward Mousley and chums were pushing a different Ottoman force back towards Baghdad in late 1915. More to follow.

Battle of Verdun

Yes, this is still a going concern. General von Knobelsdorf’s push towards Fort Souville has withered on account of lack of men, but there’s still heavy scrapping going on. The front is still moving by a hundred yards here, and fifty yards there. We drop in now on the diary of one Charles Hartley, a British civilian with the Red Cross, who’s been driving the Voie Sacree for the last month. He’s now found an excuse to go into Verdun itself and play battlefield tourist, and luck has brought him there when the German gunners are all shooting at something more urgent.

The town was full of soldiers and whole streets were in a complete state of ruins. The Cathedral itself was practically intact. The bridge across the Meuse, the entrance to which is through a Norman Gateway, has escaped the bombardment. This being my first visit to a town under bombardment I was greatly impressed with everything I saw around me. Partridge and I went into a number of shattered houses and shops, in which furniture and valuables were lying about in confused heaps everywhere.

Looting is of course forbidden and the French soldier, at any rate, knows what to expect if he is caught. Sympathetic soldiers passing along nodded to us and asked us if we had found any little ‘souvenir’. I managed to secure some good snapshots with my camera which I always carefully carried with me and produce guardedly on suitable occasions. If one goes about it in a right way and does not show a camera under the very nose of the military police, one can do a great deal, and I have often succeeded in getting French officers to tactfully look away when photographing something of interest.

Cameras at the front are, of course, strictly forbidden. Like diaries, this means that every tenth man is wielding one.

The Chief

General Haig attempts to praise the Australians, and just ends up with innuendo.

The Australians gained all their objectives north of Pozieres and beat off 3 counter-attacks. A fine piece of work.

Chortle chortle chortle. Haig has some very approving comments about the artillery arrangements, which have been adapting Behaviour Modification principles to great effect. His real work is yet to begin, though; tomorrrow he’s going to be deluged in dignitaries. General Joffre, President Poincare, the King, the Prime Minister, anyone who’s anyone will be visiting Haig’s HQ for a big extended social affair. Meanwhile, General Rawlinson prepares to have another crack at Guillemont so the dignitaries can have a success to admire.

E.S. Thompson

Off your arse! Time for the 7th South Africans and E.S. Thompson to get moving up to Dodoma.

Took our letters to the 9th Regiment’s orderly room and asked the Sergeant-Major to post our letters, which he did. Got back in time to get my kit ready and saddle up. Moved at 8.05am and did 7 miles having 2 surprise attacks on the way for practice. Lost our tent and very much fed up with the sergeant for not allowing us to use the water out of our red tins. Mean to have our own back one day. Very nice day for marching. Sky overcast. Kit inspection and a row made as the sergeants carry too many pots and pans on the motor.

The red tin contains what the quartermaster might call “water, cooling, Maxim guns, for the use of”. So no, you pillock, they’re not just going to let you drink it because you’re a bit thirsty. A few days’ uneventful marching follows.

Henri Desagneaux

Captain Henri Desagneaux is really not having much luck at all. Nancy is supposed to be a quiet bit of the line, but some gung-ho idiot has been stirring things up. Anyone know the French for “Am I as offensive as I might be?” Here is the result.

We relieve the “Marseilles” sector near Regneville. Heavy mortar fire. For the second time, my shelter, a fragile cellar, collapses. These mortar shells are causing huge damage, but the rats, bugs, and fleas are even more formidable. We live in filthy squalor. Every day the trenches are devastated. My command post is 10 metres below ground, with water streaming in from all sides. Every morning we have to bale out 10-15 bucketsful of water coming from a nearby cesspit. How damp and dark it is!

Yeah, mate. Water. From the cesspit. That’s what it is. Water. You tell yourselves that. The mental effort required to keep this up causes the captain’s diary to fall silent for a while.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman has been plucked out of Etaples and sent up to the 10th Green Howards. The battalion is still recovering from a nasty kicking at Fricourt. B Company returned with one officer (who has been recommended for the Victoria Cross) and 27 men, and the rest weren’t much better off. Time to get rid of some of the silly romantic ideas about the Army that even a pacifist can pick up by cultural osmosis.

I had formed a mental picture of how a subaltern joined his regiment. First he met the adjutant, who took careful particulars of training and special qualifications. Then, with due ceremony, he was taken into another room and formally introduced to the colonel, who deigned to extend his hand and wish the young man luck. Then the colonel would follow this with some details of the battalion’s immediate history, a footnote on esprit de corps and the honour of the regiment, and finally give a few words of fatherly advice. The subaltern saluted and returned to the adjutant, who now gave the junior particulars of his company, told him how he could obtain an orderly, what were the regimental messing arrangements and any other local details.

But it does not happen like that.

As the draft reaches the top of the last hill, we are met by a sallow-faced cadaverous-looking young man on a horse, who in a Cockney accent shouts directions to the troops. He tells Hill and me we are for C Company and will report to Captain Rowley. We pick our way across the dungheap and enter a room that seems to be fulfilling nearly all the purposes of human habitation at once. Captain Rowley lies fully dressed on the sheets of one of the unmade beds, dozing. We tell him who we are and he replies in a mild friendly voice, but hardly takes a look at us; he is evidently very tired.

A moment later another subaltern, Mallow, the bombing-officer, comes in. He begins to hold a conversation with Rowley which is one of the frankest I have ever heard. It appears that on the previous evening they rode into a neighbouring town where they spent the night with women of easy affections, and now they proceed to recount the details of their adventures and discuss the possibilities of similar entertainment, with a coarseness which is without reserve. They drink big tots of whisky, but seem too dissipated to raise more than a mirthless laugh.

A British officer? Using the services of a prostitute??? Well, I’ll try to carry on with the blog. But I must confess, I’m shocked and appalled. Plowman excuses himself and goes for a walk with another new arrival, Lieutenant Hill. “We are neither of us prudes”, says our narrator, a claim so inaccurate it could be in the intelligence briefing.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is becoming downright fatalistic.

Since Wednesday last, when we were issued gas-helmets, a number of us have been expecting to go up into the firing line any moment. I wish they would send us on. I am sick of waiting. Apparently the Interpreters’ Corps or Intelligence Department are “off” and I may as well do what many better men had to do.

To fit up part of the “bull-ring” for some sports to be held, a large fatigue party of us proceeded this morning to that dreadful place. The “bull-ring” is a huge desert in the neighbourhood where the boys arriving from England get their final training, a kind of finishing school. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here! Here the last remnant of individuality that may have held out hitherto is bludgeoned down and the perfect war-slave is manufactured.

Whilst I was carrying planks and tables, I marvelled at a group of Jocks that were driven around the immense ring like circus horses. Trenches barring their progress had to be taken. Each trench was supposed to be full of Huns. And the boys had to lower their bayonets and then charge the next trench “at the double.” Again and again they had to repeat the turn! If they did not shout madly enough a fat blood-curdling Sergeant Major instructed them in the real blood-curdling Red Indian War-Whoop.

Well, that sounds like the exact opposite of promising. The quotation is of course from Dante’s Divine Comedy, as the inscription over the gates of Hell. Mugge quoted it in the original Italian; once again I think it has a little more punch in this form. But, not to fret! I happen to have read ahead, and these are the last thoughts he will share with us from Tatinghem. His hopes will soon be fulfilled, and he’ll be on the move again.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive (Battle of Kowel)
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani

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

Justifying the Somme | 2 Aug 1916

Battle of Bitlis

Off to the Caucasus for starters today, where Ottoman commander Izzet’s three-independent-corps concept is already starting to wobble. One corps is finding unexpectedly difficult going in the Ognot Valley, where their advance guards have just been thrown back by Russians who booked an earlier train and showed up first. Elsewhere, Mustafa Kemal’s men are enjoying numerical superiority near Mus; the Russian commander sensibly orders a withdrawal into more defensible mountain positions, within range of most of his artillery. More to come, this one’s going to be a slow burner.

Haig justifies the Somme

Well, sort of. I suppose that perhaps “justifies” is too strong a word. But then, it doesn’t flow nearly as well as “writes down his reasons for continuing”. Like Winston Churchill’s comments the other day, these points will soon be distributed to the War Committee for their consideration. They’re formulated as a direct response to Wully Robertson’s four questions, which were: will casualties of 300,000 (double those already sustained) lead to a big victory? should we not revise and limit plans? why does it seem like we’re doing all the fighting and the French aren’t? and have we not already relieved the pressure on Verdun, which after all was the primary strategic aim?

Haig begins by discussing the strategic implications of the first month’s fighting.

(a) Pressure on Verdun relieved. Not less than six Enemy divisions besides heavy guns have been withdrawn.
(b) Successes achieved by Russia last month would certainly have been stopped had enemy been free to transfer troops from here to the [Eastern Front].

This is a debatable point, since the Brusilov Offensive has been very specifically directed against the Austro-Hungarian Army. However, while we can haggle about what effect they might have had, it is fair to surmise that potentially an Army-sized formation could have been sent East without the Somme. Haig now moves on to some slightly grander thinking.

(c) Proof given to world that Allies are capable of making and maintaining a vigorous offensive and of driving enemy’s best troops from the strongest positions has shaken faith of Germans, of their friends, of doubting neutrals in the invincibility of Germany. Also impressed on the world, England’s strength and determination, and the fighting power of the British race.

Now, this sounds like so much old shite, but it shouldn’t just be dismissed out of hand. It is fundamentally based in Intelligence assessments of captured German letters and diaries. The image of the Central Powers under combined attack from all angles has certainly made joining the war a more tempting prospect for the Romanian government. The French no longer have cause for complaint that their allies are not pulling their weight. There are more considerations to alliance warfare than just strict military ones.

(d) We have inflicted very heavy losses on the enemy. In one month, 30 of his Divisions have been used up, as against 35 at Verdun in 5 months! In another 6 weeks, the enemy should be hard put to it to find men!

Hrm. German casualties so far are about 100,000. The French have lost 50,000 men and the BEF 160,000. “Heavy”, fine; not sure I’d spring for “very heavy”. The assessments of divisions “used up” (that is, made useless for further front-line fighting until after a long rest) is, of course, bollocks. However, the 6 weeks idea is absolutely critical. Haig’s staff is now beginning to plan for the next effort on the scale of the Bazentin Ridge attack, and they’re roughly targeting 15 September for Z Day, which is in about six weeks.

(e) The maintenance of a steady offensive pressure will result eventually in his complete overthrow.

On this, all we can say is that time will tell. Having prepared the ground, Haig then lays out what he’s going to do next, a restatement of what he told General Rawlinson the other day; keep up the pressure, attack only after proper preparation, secure territory gained after each push. There are a few supplementary comments worth flagging up.

Our losses … cannot be regarded as sufficient to justify any anxiety as to our ability to continue the offensive. … Proceeding thus, I expect to be able to maintain the offensive well into the autumn. It would not be justifiable to calculate on the enemy’s resistance being completely broken without another campaign next year.

The bit where Haig talks about casualties has been used against him with monotonous regularity, but he is quite correct. As the next few months of the war will show, they did take a damn good kicking in July, but 4th and Reserve Armies will still be capable of attacking and repelling counter-attacks. And yes, he’s being just slightly blase about having sent 40,000 men to their deaths and 120,000 more to their wounds (ahem). But, as I’ve said before, his job is to fight and win the war. As General Mangin said, “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”. He can’t do his job if he thinks properly about the human consequences of his orders.

On a similar level, I hope that we’ve seen in May and June that almost nobody in high command was thinking of the Somme as an offensive that could win the war. Setting the Germans up for defeat in 1917 has always been the long-term aim here. The ludicrous over-optimism that filtered down to some of the blokes was very often the doing of junior staff officers and brigade commanders, not men at Haig’s pay grade.

It all sounds so nice and reasonable when the commander-in-chief sets it out for us. And then a battle happens, we go to the blokes on the ground, and it’s all machine guns up the jacksie and guts spilling out everywhere. Funny, that.

Emilio Lussu

With the Army now preparing for a Sixth Isonzo (more on that in a moment), Emilio Lussu’s sector of the Dolomites remains quiet. He’s been randomly visited by a young lieutenant, a staff officer with a cavalry regiment. He’s come down to the trenches, in impeccable gleaming uniform, in response to millions of soldiers’ prayers for the ignorant HQ-dwellers to do just that and see what conditions are like.

He said to me, “I think you [infantrymen] are too cautious. Wars are not won with caution.”
“It’s just that we can only count on our own two legs”, I retorted. “In a difficult moment a soldier’s knees might start shaking. If his knees shake, he can’t take a step forward. You’re much luckier. You can be scared to death and your horse’s legs will carry you forward just the same.” Later I regretted what I had said, by right then it was satisfying. It seemed that the cavalryman had it coming.

Lussu takes the staff officer to see loophole 14; he explains how enemy snipers are watching, and the blokes have taken to waving targets for them to hit. The guest wants a try.

He raised the shutter and put the end of his whip in front of the hole. A shot rang out and the end of the whip was severed. He laughed. He picked up a piece of wood, stuck a coin on the end of it, and repeated the experiment. The coin, struck right in the center, was blown off the stick and whistled through the air. I moved on, and pointed out the next loophole. “From here,” I said, “you can see another sector that’s less important. You see, way down there, a pile that looks like a bag of coal? It’s camouflage for a machine gun.”

The conversation goes on for a while, and then Lussu’s well-honed spidey-sense tells him that something is not quite as it should be.

I was sure that he was looking out too, behind me. The loophole was big, and there was room for two. Then I heard his voice, a little way off, as he said “The legs of an officer in the Royal Piedmont shake less than the legs of his horse.”

A rifle shot came on the heels of his words. I turned around. The lieutenant was standing at loophole 14 and crumbling to the ground. I rushed over to hold him up, but he was already dead. The bullet had struck him in the forehead.

Loophole 14 is not to be fucked with.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell has now arrived at his new billet, which is far too near where Malcolm White used to be for peace of mind. Still. If he’s going to be here, then that will surely keep him safe from the next Big Push at High Wood?

There is a deal of difference between inability to feel one and the other of two propositions – ‘Carry on’; and ‘The Man is dead: Carry on.’ The first is being done; the second has a sort of brilliant ring about it which, if attainable, would be rather fun, but happens to be entirely foreign.

What I really meant was what I called absence of attitude altogether: one plods along, not particularly hearty and not particularly sensitive; for some at least of one’s emotions here die easily: after a month and a half in the line, with a period out in supports, one becomes rather a low order of being – I mean all but the good men do. We are now no great distance from the Man, [and] life above ground has been very good for some days: we are ‘seeing the light’ (in a sense no Greek ever guessed), and a very delightful change that is.

He uses the time to write a number of letters, including one to a friend who is still at Shrewsbury School, where he recently made some end-of-term remarks to a class of young men who will now surely be applying for officer’s commissions.

Let me have your address in Chapel, won’t you? Later on, perhaps, I will send you some news, should there be any. At present we are happy enough in this existence, [thinking] a little, but generally too tired and contented for more than [thought]; and, perhaps luckily, we are not allowed too much time for that, either. In fact, now I come to think of it, I doubt if I’ve done any of that for some time now. It seems a trifle futile, considering how very little there is to be wondered at, and how many better men have contrived to get through with no wondering at all. But I would like to see your address, all the same.

He actually used the words “wondering” and “wonder”. Usually I don’t interfere like that when a correspondent says something obscure, but here I think it makes the meaning immediately obvious, whereas it took me about fifteen minutes and a second opinion to riddle the original meaning out.

E.S. Thompson

Glory be, E.S. Thompson needs rely no longer on latrine rumours; he’s actually received some orders!

Parade as usual. Moving the day after tomorrow. Finished my slack-shorts then cooked the tea for lunch. … Paddy and Piet paid us a visit from hospital. … While having our dinner we saw some German prisoners coming in on the transport. There were about 10 whites and 8 askaris. The Germans looked fat and well but a bit pale. Great excitement in camp especially among our native porters. They were captured near Dodoma.

Time to get back to work, my lad! No more lazy camp days for you.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has discovered that he does not, in fact, like being in the Army.

“When a man is not great enough to let change and chance guide him, he gets convictions and dies a fool.” I wish I could remember who said it! Was it Voltaire? Somehow I hate opportunists,and yet with the herd of human kine a policy of straight lines is even in peace-time a very risky thing to say the least of it. But the man who is not an opportunist in the Army in war-time is doomed to extinction.

Army Discipline will not allow any man to have opinions, ideas, ideals. Its chief purpose is to break in the individual. An Intelligence that is convinced of its sovereignty is an impossibility for everybody bar perhaps the Field-Marshal. Discipline wants cog-wheels, bayonets, numbers, not intelligences. The only conviction you may have in the Army is that you are nobody. “Morale” is a mixture concocted from lies and terror.

On Monday I was detailed off with five others to make purchases for the officers’ mess in the neighbouring town. The NCO simply walked alongside and “supervised” our pushing heavy wheelbarrows. There seems to be little hope for democracy. Give a man a little authority, and lo! he is worse than those at whom he used to rail. And the Machiavellian rulers of Europe know that. Divide and rule!

Assuming that Mugge is not being facetious, he’s half-remembering a novel by one Gilbert Parker, called The Seats of the Mighty, for that quotation. It’s a fictionalisation of a British Army officer’s memoirs who served in Canada before and during the War of 1812. Parker gave his main character a French companion and antagonist, Doltaire, “the character of Voltaire spelled with a big D”, who could make appropriate philosophical remarks at intervals. The quotation is in fact Doltaire’s, and therefore Parker’s.

By the way, “kine” is not a spelling mistake or a typo, it’s a plural for “cows” or “cattle”, now archaic, although it was common enough 100 years ago for H. Rider Haggard to use it freely.

Actions in Progress

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

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