Etaples | 06 Jan 1915

Another day of minimal happenings (the Caucasus excepted) affords us an opportunity to look at a small French town whose name is soon to be written into British Army folklore.

Battle of Sarikamis

Entire divisions are surrendering to the Russians now. Hafiz Hakki gives the only order he can give; those who can, get out and get back to Erzurum. Between typhoid, frostbite, and bullet, there’s precious few who are in a fit state to go anywhere. Some of them are completely cut off from communications, and for want of orders will continue clinging desperately to their positions as long as possible. Grand retreats are always bad; this one will be no different.

Etaples

Bradshaw’s railway guide to France once described Etaples, somewhat dismissively, as “a decaying fishing port on a sandy plain”. English armies have been visiting the area for almost as long as there’s been such a thing as an English army. They’ve sacked the town, burned it, captured the castle, visited the castle as honoured guests, and glared warily across the Channel at Napoleon’s Grand Armee as it formed up.

In recent times, the town’s recovered its fortunes somewhat with the coming of the railways. The line itself links all the Channel ports now being used by the BEF for resupply with the rest of France, and there’s no shortage of open country. When the supply lines were moved back north from St Nazaire some months ago, there’s been a need to find a convenient location for a base in the area. Several locations will be experimented with; it’s Etaples that will eventually become the site of a major transit and training camp.

It has several advantages; plenty of open space for expansion, excellent rail links, a central location between the northern and southern ports. There’s also a conveniently-sited river splitting it off from a rather prestigious beach resort called Le Tocquet, extremely popular in peacetime with well-to-do Parisians. Le Tocquet will soon be appropriated for officers’ accomodation, in order to observe King’s Regulations and keep the officers from socialising with the Other Ranks.

In times to come, millions of men will pass through Etaples. It will become by far the most notorious camp in France, and it’ll even have its own mutiny. At the moment, however, it’s just another shitty, wet field in France. Territorial Army battalions are arriving almost daily as reinforcements, but they need to go somewhere while the Staff decides where to send them. So it is that the 1st London Infantry Brigade has arrived at Marseilles. They’ve been garrisoning Malta while they get themselves up to speed for war.

Now they’re boarding a northward train, with all the fun and games that train travel during the war entails. The blokes are busy writing “Don’t breathe on the windows” and “Non-stop train to Berlin” on the sides of their cattle wagons. The officers are rather put out to find that their carriages are unheated and don’t have toilets. All are in an excellent situation to observe the temperature dropping alarmingly as they trundle north towards Etaples.

They finally arrive, and are welcomed by a vicious hail-storm and ankle-deep mud everywhere. The camp is less than a mile from the station, but it takes then an hour just to form up by companies in the pitch dark, slipping and falling and swearing copiously. The march to Etaples then takes another full hour.

When they arrive, to modern eyes Etaples might have looked something like the world’s worst music festival. In theory, the tents have all been pitched in the lee of some trees. In reality, they’re on the seaward side, and with their openings pointing directly at the stiff sea breeze. And the creme de la crap is that there aren’t enough tents to go round. Nobody gets much sleep as fifteen or sixteen blokes at a time cram themselves into tents designed for twelve and with minimal spare room.

Alex Letyford

Meanwhile, Corporal Letyford is hard at work again.

6.1.15 Spend the morning trying to dry out our clothes. We are all covered in mud from head to foot. At 6pm I go with Captain Reed to the trenches, and we fix six pumps. Wading about in water to our waists until 2am.

History does not record whether he made it back to his shed before that night’s rain turned to sleet.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Champagne (First Champagne)
Battle of Sarikamis
Battle of Ardahan

Dar-es-Salaam | Miranshah | 29 Nov 1914

The focus remains on India, Serbia and Africa, as the Western Front simmers nastily.

Affair of Miranshah

We’re still extremely diffy on information about this skirmish. From what I can make out, Major Scott has managed to concentrate perhaps a couple of hundred sepoys at Miranshah, and he decides to lead them out against the vanguard of the advancing tribesmen. This apparently comes as a considerable surprise, and despite their overwhelming numbers the tribesmen appear not to have expected to meet any kind of resistance so soon. With that in mind, they turn round and go home to drum up more manpower. This will allow the Bannu Brigade, a strong force currently deployed on the south-eastern edge of the North-West Frontier (ahem) time to move up. It includes a cavalry unit and a Mountain Battery of artillery.

Dar-es-Salaam

This is something that I’m holding over from yesterday, having been distracted by Afghanistan and Sinai. The first thing to note in Africa is that Indian Expeditionary Force “B” is now being redeployed to British East Africa (now Kenya). The men are preparing to hurry up and wait while bigger nobs work out what should be done with them now.

The said bigger nobs are smarting considerably from defeat at the Battle of Tanga, to the point where Winston Churchill has issued and then withdrawn an order to “lay Tanga in ashes”. This general spirit has percolated downwards, and yesterday HMS Goliath and friends steamed up to Dar-es-Salaam to try to piss in some German cereal. They stopped several small German liners on various pretexts, intending to sink or confiscate them. The Germans were less than thrilled by this shameless display of British dick-waving, and in mid-afternoon opened fire. The British ships responded in kind, and then beat a retreat from Dar-es-Salaam. At that point they realised that rather a lot of men who had formed boarding-parties had been left behind and nothing could be done to save them from capture, some 35 men in all.

Today news of the latest comedy act at Dar-es-Salaam reaches that man Churchill, and naturally he makes a calm and sober assessment of the situation. He orders that if the prisoners are not released, Dar-es-Salaam should be heavily bombarded, and this is one order he won’t be withdrawing. Possibly the only person happy with the way events are developing is Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck. He hopes to be able to use all this nonsense to raise support for active operations against British-held territory. Certainly, the mood in Dar-es-Salaam among the white popultation is becoming more martial by the day.

Kolubara

Belgrade is being evacuated, the Serbian Army falling back as quickly as decorum and shellfire allows them to. The mood is reported as being one of resignation; most Serbs had never expected to hold Austria-Hungary off for as long as they have.

Brains Trust

Today the French Operations Bureau provides General Joffre with a more detailed proposal for his winter offensive. It emphasises an attack in the Artois region towards the railway junction at Douai, and then towards Cambrai. Supporting operations are also advised in Champagne, towards another railway junction at Mezieres, by way of Rethel. Their own experience on the defensive in Flanders has, if nothing else, impressed upon them how important good railway links are to a defender. The overall goal of the offensive would be to isolate Noyon and force the Germans to conduct a general withdrawal towards the line of the River Meuse.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Kolubara
Affair of Miranshah

Further Reading

Erm. No Daily Telegraph on Sundays. Usually here I’ve taken to looking at what the Spectator had to say this week, but currently their link to this week’s issue is broken. Because we live in the future, I’ve tweeted them. Hopefully they can put it right.

Austro-Hungarian Army | 13 Aug 1914

There are several interesting things to note about the Austro-Hungarian Army, which often gets a bum deal from historians looking to provide a general overview of the war; it’s usually written off in a few short sentences and then passed over for more interesting concerns.

Austro-Hungarian Army

The first thing to note about the army is that it’s completely unique among the belligerents. Due to the nature of the Empire, its army is strongly multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. For practical reasons, it’s necessary to organise the army along ethnic and linguistic lines. All soldiers are expected to learn 80 basic words of command in German. However, many of the regiments are from areas that have their own languages, and the everyday working language in these units is not German.

This brings about several difficulties that many other nations don’t have to contend with. For instance, it’s far more difficult for them to send out reinforcement drafts when units suffer casualties. You can’t just grab fifty blokes out of the nearest depot and send them off; if they can’t speak the language of their new regiment, they’re never going to fit in. Internal Army politics are deepening on this matter also. More and more Hungarians want the imperial army to be split into a German-speaking Austrian Army and a Magyar-speaking Hungarian Army.

The army is also using outdated equipment in many areas. Most notably, while Skoda has become a world leader in super-heavy siege guns, the Austro-Hungarian Army has only a few modern guns with the revolutionary quick-fire technology. (There’ll be more on quick-fire tomorrow when we have a brief look at the French soixante-quinze

gun and the implications of its introduction.) Worse, the vast majority of even their more modern artillery designs are still being manufactured with bronze barrels. Austro-Hungarian industry simply isn’t capable of providing the high-quality steel used in the current class-leading guns. The bronze guns are much heavier and have a shorter range to comparable steel guns. They’re cheaper to manufacture, but that hasn’t allowed Austria-Hungary to compensate for decreased performance with greater numbers. There are also issues with rifles. The standard-issue Mannlicher M1895 is one of the better issue rifles of the war, but there aren’t nearly enough of them. When reserve units are deployed in a month or two’s time, many of them will have to go forward with obsolete fifty-year-old Werndl single-shot rifles.

More worrying is the army’s terminal shortage of non-commissioned officers. The army lacks a robust NCO corps and, in consequence, commissioned officers have a lot of everyday administrative duties to attend to that in other militaries would be taken care of by sergeants. Now the army is at war, this is already proving a problem. Junior officer and NCO casualties will be a major problem for all the belligerents, but far more so for Austria-Hungary than anyone else because of the range of things they’re expected to do. Once it’s had the chance to lose a few offensive battles, the army’s effectiveness will begin to decline alarmingly.

One more thing. We’ve already had a look at the basket case that is Austro-Hungarian railways. There is one more thing to point out here, extremely important now the army is committed to invading Serbia through Bosnia. The Bosnian railway network is entirely narrow-gauge. No through trains are possible from any other point in the empire. They all have to change from standard gauge to narrow gauge trains at the border. Even better, much of the narrow-gauge railway network is single-track only, with a devastatingly low capacity compared to double-track lines. This is not what you want when you’re trying to fight a war against anyone.

Battle of Cer

General Putnik, not too worried about defending territory for no relevant gain, pulls back to the River Jadar, which cuts between two high ridges. The Austro-Hungarians are happy to let him go, for the moment; they’re securing their bridgeheads to ensure that the main bulk of their forces can get into Serbia easily.

The BEF in France

The British Expeditionary Force is meeting with a truly rapturous welcome. I could write at least half a book on their reception from the local French population between about the 9th and 19th of August. Cheering crowds line the streets everywhere. Men are pursued by civilians of all sorts seeking souvenirs. If there’s one funny story to cite, there’s a million; here’s one from a subaltern with the 2nd South Staffordshires.

Ladies pursued [the men] with basins full of wine and what they were pleased to call beer. Men were literally carried from the ranks, under the eyes of their officers, and borne in triumph into houses and inns. The men could scarcely be blamed for availing themselves of such hospitality, though to drink intoxicants on the march is suicidal. Men ‘fell out,’ first by ones and twos, then by whole half-dozens and dozens. The Colonel was aghast, and very furious. He couldn’t understand it; he was riding!

Dar-es-Salaam

The Governor of German East Africa, Heinrich Schnee, is going to great pains to be inoffensive towards the British Empire. However, his pains are not entirely sincere. A number of colliers and supply ships have slipped out of the port and evaded Royal Navy patrols. They’re even now heading for a rendezvous with Konigsberg.

von Spee and Emden

Admiral von Spee has gathered together the ships of the East Asia Squadron at Pagan Island in the Marianas. He’s decided to take his squadron all the way across the Pacific to go raiding in South America. This is surely the last thing that the Royal Navy will be expecting, given that he has a perfectly good base at Tsingtao. The Emden’s captain, Muller, requests to be put on detached duty, and von Spee agrees. Emden will stay in the Indian Ocean, causing trouble by itself.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Liege
Battle of Mulhouse
Battle of Cer

Further Reading

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.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)