Serre | Beaumont Hamel | 21 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

There are eight days to go until the Battle of the Somme. Today sees Lieutenant Malcolm White’s final day of hard work near Beaumont Hamel. His 1st Rifle Brigade, and all the other battalions who are due to attack on Day 1, are about to be given a short period of total rest.

A real June day; but I seem to see nothing at present but a feverish and tired phantasmagoria of wagons, sand-bags, ‘materiel’, copies of orders, men and horses.

Let us now take a moment and consider what’s going to happen when White goes over the top. VIII Corps and General Hunter-Weston is responsible for the very north of the battle front. Let’s have a look at the map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Their job is, on paper, simple enough. First they advance across No Man’s Land and capture the initial German trenches, which no doubt will be child’s play. Then the corps must push on and capture the two fortified villages of Beaumont Hamel and Serre that anchor the German First Line positions in this area. With a little luck, their central division will then be able to move out of the First Line to have a pop at Munich Trench. This is a last-resort fullback line that runs out of Serre to cut the road between Beaucourt and Beaumont Hamel, and prevents an attacking enemy force from quickly marching on the Second Line.

The BEF’s Brains Trust is very much aware that Serre and Beaumont Hamel are among the strongest positions on the battlefield. But that’s no reason to be pessimistic. They’ve thought of that. There is, after all, more artillery than ever before, firing a longer and more intense bombardment than ever before. They’ve also quite deliberately sent VIII Corps here; two out of their three divisions are old Regular Army divisions, still with plenty of old Regular Army men despite the casualties they’ve taken. Those two divisions will be thrown against Beaumont Hamel, the stronger of the two positions. (31st Division, which will attack Serre, is not only a Kitchener’s Army division, it also has a very large proportion of Pals battalions compared to other divisions.)

There’s another complication around Beaumont Hamel; right in the middle of the First Line in front of it is the Hawthorn Redoubt. This is a large trench fortress, laid out similarly to the Hohenzollern Redoubt near Loos which caused such problems there. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. The Engineers have been digging a gigantic mine underneath the redoubt. And, just to cap off all the reasons to be cheerful, VIII Corps has heard of these new French “rolling barrage” ideas, and all their artillerymen are keen to have a go at it.

Even better, Malcolm White and the 1st Rifle Brigade have, through the luck of the draw, managed to avoid attacking either of the two fortified villages directly. Instead, their battalion’s job will be to attack the trenches at a point pretty much halfway between the two villages, and set up a platform from which someone else can hopefully move on to Munich Trench. He’s in a nasty old spot here; but he has managed to find the least dangerous part of it.

Hunter-Weston: from Krithia to Beaumont Hamel

Now then. General Hunter-Weston has had a lot of time to think about his experiences on Gallipoli, and he’s learned a number of things. A while ago, we checked in with him and he appeared to be a born-again convert to General Rawlinson’s church of bite and hold. That, however was a long time ago. In the meantime, he’s been subsisting on a steady diet of extremely optimistic intelligence reports. He’s of course going to have access to a lot more artillery than they could ever have dreamed of on Gallipoli. The terrain here is far kinder and allows for far simpler plans for the advance. He’s even been rather taken by this new “rolling barrage” idea, and all his divisions will be using it in some form. All of this stuff appears to have convinced him that his Gallipoli experiences are irrelevant; the situations are just too different to be compared.

In fact, just about the only lesson he appears to truly have learned from Gallipoli is the attitude practiced by Sir Ian Hamilton. “If my boss says it can be done, then it can be done.” Having committed to this, he appears to have internalised every single positive attitude going. And he’s also allowing for considerable fiddling with details. That rolling barrage, for instance. The French have now standardised them for best effect; the guns begin firing about 50 yards into No Man’s Land, in front of the German trenches, and then advance at a rate of about 50 yards per minute. The men are then encouraged to “lean” on the barrage as much as possible, following close behind to ensure that the Germans can’t get up and out of their trenches before the attack is upon them.

There is a lot of skepticism about this in British circles, particularly the concept of firing into No Man’s Land, where we know that there are no Germans. It is a rather counter-intuitive idea. Hunter-Weston’s subordinates are very worried, and not without reason, that if their men take friendly fire from the barrage, they’ll simply stop advancing. They also think that 50 yards per minute is far too slow. (I imagine a few red tabs strolling slowly over a measured 100-yard distance and finding they can do it quite comfortably in less than a minute.) 100 yards per minute is a much better, and more optimistic, figure. This, I think, is fair enough; nobody in the British artillery has done rolling barrages before, so you can kind of understand the desire to experiment.

Less understandable is Hunter-Weston’s attitude towards the Hawthorn Redoubt mine. He wants it blown in the dark, at 3:30am, so the crater can be seized and used as a jumping-off point to feed men into the remains of the redoubt. Fair enough, except for the part where most BEF experience on the Western Front has shown that it’s hard enough to capture mine craters when there’s daylight to see by. There’s been squabbling over the timing for the last little while, as most everyone else in this attack who’s got a supporting mine is content for it to go off at the exact minute of the attack.

But Hunter-Weston will not be told. In the end, they’ll come to a ludicrous compromise. Hunter-Weston won’t get his 3:30am detonation. But he will get a slight delay; the mine will go 10 minutes before the men go over the top. Which defeats the entire point of detonating the mine early. Nobody now attempts to defend this utterly ridiculous idea. Few try to explain it. One last note before we move on; not all Hunter-Weston’s subordinates are happy with the plan. But we’ve talked about this man enough, for now. That’s a story for another day.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux remains exactly where he was at the Battle of Verdun. Heavy howitzers continue their constant drum-fire, all morning, all afternoon, all evening…

We have been bombarded by 210s for exactly 24 hours. The Germans have been attacking on our right since 6pm. We crouch there, packs on our backs, waiting, scanning the top of the ridge to see what is happening, and this lasts until nightfall. In some companies there have been cases of madness. How much longer are we going to stay in this situation? Night comes and the guns still fire. Our trenches have collapsed. It’s a tangle of equipment and guns left by the wounded. There’s nothing human about it. Why don’t they send the deputies, senators, and generals here?

Our nerves can’t take much more. Can’t move or sleep. There are no more shelters. The front-line troops are so fatigued and jumpy that at every moment they believe they are being attacked and ask for artillery support. Red flares follow, our artillery does its best, it’s hellish.

And yet they’re still alive. As long as they can dig for themselves, as long as there are craters to hide in, some of the men will stay alive, and perhaps some of them will be able to fight at the end of it. It seems that the Germans have found and then flown right past the point of diminishing returns. Hoping for total destruction of the enemy via artillery fire could well be a fool’s errand.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas today proves that even he can say things that set my teeth on edge against him. As we join them somewhere near Chenilles in Champagne, his squad has got lost in the dark for the 3,219th time.

I was at the front of the line, which doesn’t have any particular merit, but which explains my great surprise and terror when two harsh and ominous voices roared out “[French equivalent of ‘Halt! Who goes there?’] And as lightning flashed I saw the points of two menacing bayonets advancing toward my chest. At a second flash I saw two faces as black as the finest ebony, but hardly reassuring. So, there were man-eaters, cannibals, in the Bois de Chenilles, right in the middle of Champagne!

“Comrades!” I cried out. “We aren’t Boches! Please, let us pass!” Ah, yes. Let us pass. That’s all we needed to say to not be skewered on bayonets. But we had to take the long way around. After some discussion among themselves, these blacks who spoke French so well told us that they were from Martinique. There were quite a number of them in the regiment next to ours, and they were able to give us helpful directions for getting back to our shelters.

Our shelters, where each of us had a wire-mesh bunk, an innovation which seemed to us an unaccustomed luxury. The supplier of that wire mesh—yet another one who will make his fortune! The war is not an equally cruel scourge to everyone.

Cor blimey, black people who know what they’re about, slap me vitals, and other such unconvincing expressions of disbelief. I wonder if they’d have let you pass if they knew what you were thinking? Martinique is part of the French Empire, a small island out in the Caribbean, in the Lesser Antilles.

Oskar Teichman

Oskar Teichman has a lot to say about today’s desert march. I’ve cut it way down.

At 1 am our little party left the camp, accompanied by the Padre. Our way lay through Hill 40, and passing through this post in the dark was quite jumpy work, as the sentries were very much on the alert and suddenly leapt out of obscurity into the middle of the track with bayonet fixed and gruff challenge. By 2.30 am it was getting light as we arrived at the last fortified camp, known as Hill 70. Here we watered our horses as the sun rose behind the great sand mountain Katib Abu Asab, a landmark for miles around. Up till now we had been following a desert track by the side of our narrow-gauge railway, laid down by the Royal Engineers, but now we struck across the open.

A wonderful mirage appeared in the Bay of Tina, rows of white houses being seen apparently standing in the water; this was evidently caused by a reflection of Port Said, some 25 miles to the west. We now followed a field-telephone wire which would eventually lead us to Romani. … The landscape altered and we had begun to enter the great Katia waterbelt, or the land of Hods. A Hod is usually a depression in the desert, studded with palm-trees and containing water, of a varying degree of brackishness, just below the surface of the ground.

This water can sometimes be drunk by human beings, and horses will generally drink it unless the degree of salinity is very high. When drunk by the former, intestinal catarrhs are apt to follow. The water is usually obtained by sinking a shaft four to six feet deep, revetting the sides with sandbags, and then letting in a cylinder of corrugated iron. It was considered essential that the Katia waterbelt should be held by our troops, as it was the last district the Turks could obtain water from, and thus constituted a jumping-off place for an attack on the Canal.

The first camp was that occupied by the Bikaner and Egyptian Camel Corps. Here we saw thousands of camels, which carried out all the transport of supplies and water to the isolated posts. Romani was, at this time, both railhead and pipe-head. We rode on a mile or two through the various camps, which were very much spread out on account of recent enemy bombing, until we reached Brigade HQ of the Second Australian Light Horse Brigade, situated in a little Hod by itself.

The Brigade was out on reconnaissance, but we found the Staff Captain and Supply Officer, from whom we drew three days’ rations for our men and horses. We also procured the regulation amount of water and a certain number of camels.

They’ve come about 30 miles in 10 hours, and now settle down to attempt sleep.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina

Further Reading

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Arsiero | Decimation | Italy | 27 May 1916

Battle of Asiago

Picking up from yesterday. Arsiero has fallen, Asiago is about to go the same way. General Cadorna believes that the men are insufficiently terrified of “military” “justice”, so has just yesterday loudly exhorted his junior officers to show some backbone. “Backbone” in this case being defined as “summarily executing men who dare to run backwards”. I predicted rather gloomily that it surely wouldn’t be long before someone obliged the boss.

It’s not. Maybe 24 hours, maybe less. A battalion commander whose name I cannot easily find has had a problem. He’s trying to hold a position outside Asiago, but he’s missing pretty much an entire company. This is a problem, obviously. But the vast majority of them come skulking back during the morning. Problem solved, right? Not if you care about your career. The colonel is not happy with muttered apologies and “we’ll sort this out when the battle is over and we’re all still alive”.

Instead, in the true spirit of being a complete and total boil on the anus of humanity, the colonel selects 12 men from the company by drawing lots. Those men are then shot for desertion. A summary of events is soon heading back to the rear, almost as fast as the battalion will be going when they have to retreat again, not long afterwards. This is the first known use of decimation by the Italian Army in the war. Heavy, heavy emphasis on “known”.

Pedants everywhere rush to point out that this does not, strictly speaking, fit the definition of “decimation” as practised by the Romans. That was called “decimation” because of “deci” for ten. A unit that had committed some crime that was both unforgivable and collective, so that it might be impractical to punish the lot of them, would have to select one-tenth of its strength at random and execute them. The Italian Army will not strictly observe the one-tenth rule. But the important part, the part where men are randomly executed by their immediate commanding officers for offences that they might not even have been involved with. That’s what Cadorna has demanded the army do.

And that is what the army is going to do. Slowly at first, but then in greater and greater numbers, like a snowball rolling down a Dolomite. With not just official sanction, but official approval. Official urging. Entirely at the discretion of low and mid-ranking officers, with no oversight.

Those are the factors that make this unique. There are armies where there were summary executions. There are armies where, on extremely rare occasions, men were selected for executions by drawing lots. But it is only the Italian Army that made both of those things into official policy, and then pursued it with psychotic, homicidal vigour. With one decisive act, General Cadorna has moved smoothly from the list of the maliciously incompetent and into the ranks of the criminal and the evil. There is a direct line between his insane decrees and the crimes that were then committed in fulfilment of them.

This is evil that the more familiar boogeymen of the war never even contemplate approaching. We will be keeping an eye on this, as well as military executions in other armies, going forward. How can we not?

Battle of the Somme

And now we’re going to go see what General Haig is up to. (We will be exploring his opinion on executions later; but in short, he looks like a peace-loving tree-hugger next to Cadorna.) Having ironed some things out with the French yesterday, it’s time for a big conference with all his army commanders, which is actually far less Major and Important than you might think. The deception plan for the Battle of the Somme gets plenty of discussion. So do some of the finer points of 2nd Army’s effort, which will be a genuine minor push to improve the situation around Ypres a bit and sort out some of the more ludicrous parts of the line.

Meanwhile, a bit closer to the front, you may recall that two of our correspondents, Malcolm White and Evelyn Southwell, are part of The Rifle Brigade. Time for a long-winded story! The British Army was and is rather obsessed with traditions and quirks and giving various regiments or battalions the right to do certain things in an unusual way, because they’ve supposedly been doing it since 1733 or whatever. In the apocryphal words of the sergeant: “These traditions are old and well-worn. They don’t need much effort, son. You’ve just got to keep them and pass them on.”

The Rifle Brigade (yes, it’s a regiment which is called a brigade; welcome to the British Army) was founded in the days when being armed with rifles instead of muskets was noteworthy. One of their traditions happens to be that they do not march at the Army’s standard time of 120 paces per minute. They quick-march at 140 paces per minute. (They were originally supposed to be light, fast sharpshooters and skirmishers.) Tell you what. Just sit back, if you can, and have a think for five minutes. See if you can work out why a regiment that marches slightly faster than anyone else is becoming more and more of a problem as more and more battalions of Riflemen make their way to France.

Here it is. The logistics-wallahs of the BEF have now become, out of necessity, very good at planning everyone’s movements around France. There are in the region of 500 British infantry battalions in France at the moment (n.b. this is a back-of-the-envelope calculation). There are only so many roads that they can march down. Now add in supply trucks and all the other horses and motorised transport and artillery batteries and whatnot that has to use the roads.

Fortunately, the Army is good at marching. You march for 50 minutes in an hour and have ten minutes of rest. At 120 paces a minute, this means an infantry battalion marches at about one mile an hour as its standard pace, and can do so many miles a day. It goes some way to making the labyrinthine calculations and timetables a little easier. And then the quick-stepping Riflemen rock up, and they ruin everything.

More and more battalions are having their latest stroll through northern France very rudely interrupted as the front ranks of a Rifle battalion race up behind, and then get horribly tangled up with their own rear ranks. Both battalions then grind to a halt while the officers and sergeants have a frank exchange of views as to whose fault this is. It is said that the nickname “Black Buttoned Bastards” for Rifle regiments, in reference to their traditional black-buttoned kit, dates from this spring and early summer in 1916, as they roared around France tripping over everyone else.

Perhaps a couple of incidents like this are to blame for Malcolm White and Evelyn Southwell both having trouble marching their men places? They never do say exactly why it happened, you know.

E.S. Thompson

Things are steadily getting hairier for E.S. Thompson outside Kondoa Irangi. Mind you, some of it is his own bloody stupid fault.

The Germans must have brought up one of their big guns during the night, as they began hombarding the town as soon as it was light enough. They were shooting at a very long range and fired a good many shots. … After breakfast I cut up the fat and put it on the fire to melt. While pouring the fat from the dixie to the tin, I managed to spill half of it down my shin and into my boot. Alf thoughtfully rubbed flour over the burn at once, and the doctor put vaseline on and bandaged it up. All the morning it burnt and gave me particular ‘jip’. Later on the foot got swollen and a big blister formed on the leg.

The Germans began shelling again at noon. Heard that the Germans had shelled our hospital at Kondoa Irangi and that the hospital cook had been killed. The Germans shelled the trenches of the 10th Regiment at about 4 o’clock with shrapnel but could do no damage. Went to bed under my rock and was wakened by big black ants squeaking round my head. After some time they moved off and I slept well. The Regiment were awakened at 3am to build stone walls in front of the hill.

He’s had two separate opportunities to put himself in that hospital, and failed both times.

Oskar Teichman

Army medic Oskar Teichman continues observing life on the Suez Canal in Egypt.

Bathing in the Canal was most refreshing in the evening, but we were not allowed to swim across to the other side. A picket patrolled the opposite side of the Canal day and night to prevent native spies from placing mines in the fairway. Every night a detachment of the Bikaner Camel Corps dragged a sort of wooden sledge along the bank, so that footprints on the smooth track could be detected at once in the morning. By this means, at a later date, Turkish prisoners were caught after they had crossed the Canal.

After bathing, we usually remained a while and watched the evening steamers passing by. All neutral vessels had a guard of soldiers on board for the Canal passage; they were sent on board at Suez or Port Said in order to prevent the benevolent neutrals from sowing mines.

For the moment, things remain quiet. The Canal is supposed to be neutral to all vessels “in time of peace and war”, but the British Empire closing the canal is one of those breaches of international law that nobody really gets too annoyed about.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge continues waiting for something to happen, and achieves a moment of truly excellent insight.

Whilst my friends worry the Practical Joke Department at the War Office, trying to convince its supermen of the incongruity and deadly humour in their placing amongst the conscientious objectors a man to whom Heraclitus and Goethe seem to be nearer the truth, I am worrying about my publisher. I heard this morning from a member of the publishing house of Burns and Gates that a book like my Serbian Folk-Songs can be printed in a fortnight’s time; and three weeks would certainly be amply sufficient, taking into consideration all the difficulties of the present.

My publisher has had the manuscript since January. He also has drawn the subsidy fee from the Serbian Government, but he has not published the book yet.

He also reproduces another extremely lengthy statement from one of the absolutist COs in his company. You could probably today work out who he is from the biographical information given; in the 20s, Mugge (or the man himself, or both) thought it prudent to refer to him only as “Mr X, a greengrocer”. The statement goes on for about three pages; there’s some interesting stuff about how his tribunal allowed him to make arrangements to do agricultural work, which he then did, only for the police to then arrest him as a deserter and hand him over to the Army, and some more generic stuff about conscience, murder, and God.

It’s here where Mugge has his moment of insight.

Another conscientious objector has been kind enough to write down for me a statement of his case and his views. Though a rather lengthy document, and like the preceding one, not too clear, I append it here verbatim, as I did with the previous one, for I am convinced that as much interest will be attached later on to the opinions of the “common or garden” CO, [and not just] the few dozen leaders among them. These are gifted with powers of expression and will, I am sure, after the war, write books themselves or otherwise publish their views.

My NCCs represent the “mass,” they are small craftsmen and tradesmen, and most people are inclined to assume the “masses” to be dumb driven cattle, whipped into action by militarists or wheedled into it by intellectuals.

And he is absolutely right when he says this. Completely and totally. He gets it. The history books he wrote were all very much in the Great Man mode and had desperately little in the way of “insight”. Here, however, he shows a rare ability to think right outside the box. He’s foreseen the rise of social history 50 years ahead of time. I hereby promise not to make fun of him and his little quirks and pretensions in future. (Unless he does something truly and surpassingly stupid, or uses more than two obscure foreign-language phrases on the same day.)

And that’s not all. There is one more piece of news.

They collected our best boots this morning to be studded. We are going to France. The 3rd Eastern Company of the Non-Combatant Corps is going to France.

He’s going to beat Clifford Wells to France! Lordy and wow.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

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