Taking stock | 31 July 1916

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme is one month old. It’s been a long bloody month. I think I’ve said about all that can possibly be said about July on the Somme. Let us just round it off with a couple of observations from the big bosses. Interestingly, both General Joffre and General Haig are doing the same thing; they’re hectoring a subordinate.

Joffre is primarily concerned for the prospects of future cooperation with the BEF. He’s been getting a lot of messages recently from Generals Foch and Fayolle, repeating the earlier themes of the English amateurs who simply don’t know what they’re doing. The men on the spot are both angling for an independent attack to capture Peronne and its road and rail junctions. In strict strategic terms it is probably the correct decision, but Joffre must also consider politics and the need not to offend allies who they will need next year

The fundamental intention of the Somme offensive must continue to be supporting the British attack in the north. Our offensive in the south must remain secondary or subordinate to the results obtained in the north.

It will, of course, be much easier for Joffre to organise another big push to coincide with Romania’s entry into the war and the next battle of the Isonzo (of course that’s coming) if it can be presented as “we all attack together!” rather than “you get on with it, and we’ll get on with it”. There’s a big conference being planned at a chateau near the Somme. King George V and President Poincare will be attending, and there will of course be a spectacularly gluttonous dinner, no small task when General Joffre’s appetite is in town.

Haig and Rawlinson

After a month of falling short of objectives, General Haig is writing an extensive position paper. It would probably be slightly unfair to call it an extended bollocking for General Rawlinson. That’s not all that’s there. But there is plenty of it there.

To enable us to bring the present operations (the existing phase of which may be regarded as a ‘wearing out’ battle) to a successful termination, we must practice such economy of men and material as will ensure our having the ‘last reserves’ at our disposal when the crisis of the fight is reached, which may—and probably will—not be sooner than the last half of September.

The first necessity at the moment is to help the French forward on our right flank. For this we must capture Guillemont, Falfemont Farm and Ginchy as soon as possible. These places cannot be taken, however—with due regard to economy of means available—without careful and methodical preparation. The necessary preparations must be pushed on without delay, and the attack will be launched when the responsible commanders on the spot are satisfied that everything possible has been done to ensure success.

He also includes explicit instructions not to attack anywhere else…but they are allowed to conduct prepatory works for another offensive. I smell loophole. Watch that space. We’ve also got some instructions for Reserve Army, instructing them to attack only to capture Pozieres windmill.

The operations outlined above are to be carried out with as little expenditure of fresh troops and of munitions as circumstances will admit of, but in each attack undertaken a sufficient force must be employed to make success as certain as possible, and to secure the objectives won against counter-attack. Economy of men and munitions is to be sought for, not by employing insufficient force for the objective in view, but by a careful selection of objectives.

If only winning a battle were as simple as ordering the Army commander “Don’t fuck up” and leaving him to get on with it. These are not easy orders to follow. It’s like cooking for Goldilocks. Hurry up, but not too much. Prepare properly, but don’t dawdle. General Rawlinson is left to hold a conference to make some sense of these orders. I’ll not hold my breath.

Haig’s diary, meanwhile, is fabulously dull. There’s then a little space, and then an additional note, apparently added not too long afterwards.

OBJECTIVE
The war must be continued until Germany is vanquished to such an extent as to be obliged to accept whatever terms the Allies may dictate to her.

As far as we know, this has simply occurred to the Chief in his thoughts. As far as I know, this is the first time since 1914 that anyone has considered what “victory” might mean, and what it might look like. What a way to end one of the bloodiest months of the war.

Max Plowman

The engine of war continues ticking over. Max Plowman is training in the Bull Ring at Etaples, which by law I must refer to as the “notorious” Bull Ring.

We are on our way to the Bull Ring: two hundred of us, officers who have not been to the Front and are therefore due for a course of intensive training till some battalion of our regiments shall require us. Here we are, slogging along under the command of a captain, back in the ranks again, carrying rifles. This appears to be an indignity to some of these fellows; but it does not trouble me, for I have no gift for the assertion of authority, and find it easier to obey army orders than to give them. The responsibility of command is an effort which diverts thought from what are much more natural, if useless, channels.

These huts to our right and left are hospitals. And what is that, looking like an ungrown hopfield? A British cemetery, Lord! How many have died already! The ground is smothered with wooden crosses.

We march on in the heat till we come to a great open sandy arena. Out on to this plain we file, and now we are put through physical jerks by officers who have risen from the regular ranks; and now are drilled by sergeant-majors who have been chosen for this duty presumably by virtue of the harshness of their voices and the austerity of their manners. It is hot work, and there is a fierce, vindictive atmosphere about this place which makes its name of “Bull Ring” intelligible.

Later we climb up among the sand dunes on the other side of the road, and there practise firing rifle grenades and throwing those small egg-shaped cast-iron missiles known as Mills bombs. Here too we learn more of the methods of gas attack and defence, and practise the art of shoving our heads quickly into the clammy flannel bags that are dignified by the name of PH helmets. We finish the morning’s work by running obstacle races over a prepared course back on the arena.

In other times, all signs of our activity banishe’d, these sand dunes must make a place of delightful holiday. Even to-day one’s eyes wandered instinctively toward the blue estuary that lay below us, where the tiny white sail of a yacht moved slowly up-stream.

Yes, he actually wrote “banishe’d”. It’s funny; when he’s pleasing Columbo and giving us just the facts, he’s got a real talent for this “memoir” lark. Then he starts trying to write Literature and he sounds like a massive, massive berk, and I just want to poke fun at everything he says. He is right that in peacetime, Le Toquet is a well-to-do beach resort of considerable reputation, mind.

The PH helmet, by the way, has now of course been superceded by the Respirator Small Box. However, like the steel helmet, the modern respirator is issued as trench stores only, left up the line by units who are going back to rest for the next lot who are following them. There aren’t enough spare for people to train with them.

Neil Tennant at Basra

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the Royal Flying Corps has now arrived at Basra. On the way, he’s not been surprised to see a steady stream of hospital ships sailing the reverse route to India. He starts, of course, by whinging about the heat, and quickly moves on to whinging about everything else.

The place is famous at least for its climate; the humid heat hangs heavy on the lungs, everything is saturated, ink runs on the paper, and matches will barely strike. Endure the day, but the night brings no relief. There is no freshness in a Basra summer, and the ravages of prickly heat, mosquito, and sand-fly combine ‘to shrivel all impulse and desire. The town and its surroundings are intersected by canals and lagoons, and densely sown with date palms.

I had an interview with General Sir Percy Lake, and was generally busy learning the situation. The staff at GHQ looked tired and washed out, the result of long office hours in the hot weather. The strength of the RFC at this time in Mesopotamia was one skeleton squadron at the Front, and an Aircraft Park at the base. There was also a Kite Balloon section of the Royal Naval Air Service under Commander Wrottesly.

Here such arrears of work had accumulated that it was hard to know where to begin, and the men who were left had little life in them. It was only possible to work in the hours of dawn, for by nine o’clock the sun was getting up, and any remaining energy was necessary for bare existence. A large percentage of our staff were sick, the hospitals were overflowing, and very few reinforcements arriving in the country ever reached their units, but went sick at Basra, taking up valuable room in hospital that was needed for men evacuated from the front.

Lack of labour was seriously holding up the unlading of stores urgently required by the force up river; coolies were few and difficult, and troops were not to be spared from drafts for the fighting forces, fifty per cent, of whom had gone sick. The congestion of shipping in Basra harbour, as a result of this, was serious at a time when all the Empire’s resources in tonnage were necessary to fight the submarine menace. Some ships had been lying in harbour for months, and it was said that others had returned to India, having only cleared a portion of their cargo in order not to waste time when there was any space available.

Nine new aeroplanes which had been waiting a month to be unloaded were not got ashore till several weeks later. The base at Basra seemed to be congested with stores of every description, yet owing to lack of labour and shallow draft river transport, the fighting force were hard pressed to maintain themselves.

But it seems like he’s still justified in moaning. If things are like that now, imagine what it must have been like at the height of the Siege of Kut! Ye gods.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson still has no official orders to move, so takes himself off to find some entertainment, visiting an abandoned Schuztruppe position outside Kondoa Irangi. Of course, where one finds bored soldiers, one also finds bad life decisions…

Saw the observation post and the splendid look-out it held, also the well-dug trenches. Pieces of our shells were lying all over the place and there were many big holes which they had made. Saw the first howitzer shell that was fired and didn’t burst. Picked up a good many shrapnel balls then started back for home. Took some time to pick the black-jacks out of my puttees. … Hassett got hold of some kaffir beer and, after imbibing some, got very excited so we had a sing-song in his tent. In the middle of the proceedings the tent nearly caught alight amid great excitement.

This is beer is brewed from millet, known to the South Africans as kaffir corn because it’s what the black Africans grow. Oh, those loveable cheeky self-immolating racist chappies! If only all racists could be so obliging.

Incidentally, they haven’t heard the news, but after just about riding his horses and his men into the ground, General van Deventer is now at Dodoma on the Central Railway. They’re all horribly tired and unfit, and two men and a dachshund could probably have captured the entire South African Horse. However, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck’s men have been forced to scatter to avoid their advance, and they’re off in the middle of nowhere trying to get themselves back into some kind of order, having just been pushed off their railway. As long as the South Africans can get some supplies forward and they don’t all starve, which is far from guaranteed, this is a major coup.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Let us now have a last horror of war to see the month of July out. It starts well enough; they’re being relieved. Unlike the life of an infantryman, full of marching up the line and back from the line and up the line again, a gunner stays in his gun-pit in the same area of country for months or more at a time. In a hot sector like the Somme, Fraser-Tytler’s men have been working hard with very little respite since the New Year. Aside from the odd week’s leave, this will be the first time since January that they’ve had any real guaranteed rest.

I lunched with Peter Fraser-Tytler at his battery, and then went to see Victor Walrond, who commands a battery in the same division.

This will be the last time our correspondent sees his brother alive. On the 3rd of August, he’ll be killed by counter-battery fire near Montauban, somewhere close to the positions that our man is just quitting. He returns to his battery, but. Weak stomachs and large animal lovers should probably look away now.

Just as I reached the road behind my position, three passing gun teams were done in by a single big shell. I finished off as many of the horses as I could with a revolver, which I took from a very erratic-shooting subaltern. … An orderly bringing a message had come up with two horses and was holding them beside one of the gun-pits. I was just thinking of sending them away, when I heard a close shell coming and jumped for safety into the mess at the bottom of the 12-inch shell-crater. As soon as the shell had burst, I looked out just in time to see a red lump rising out of a red pool.

It was the horse-holder. I pulled him into one of the dugouts and got a party to clean him and then report damages. He was practically untouched, and he told them that he lay down with reins in hand when he heard the shell. It must have burst on the back of one of the horses, as there was no crater. As soon as the shelling stopped, we began to clean up, finding one head, three legs and one hindquarters at distances up to a hundred yards. The remainder of the two horses was in small fragments over the whole position. It was indeed indescribable.

The horse holder seemed quite unshaken, and having been fitted out with clean clothes, went back on foot. The rest of the afternoon did not pass with the same good luck. Captain Stevens, Officer Commanding the next battery, got knocked over by a big shell. Although apparently untouched, he died of shock an hour later. Then a few minutes later, Gibbs, commanding the battery in front of us, was fatally wounded while trying to get his teams out of the position.

I am the only battery commander left out of the five neighbouring batteries. I remember I always used to say jokingly that crawling about with a telephone in No Man’s Land was safer than staying at the guns.

And so ended July 1916. May we never see its like again.

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

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Sir Douglas Haig | Wieltje | 19 Dec 1915

Sir John French

The niceties and bureaucratic obligations have all been completed. Today it’s time for Sir John French to formally hand over command of the British Expeditionary Force to Sir Douglas Haig, and return to Blighty. There is a brief but far too long meeting, described by most observers as either polite, awkward, or frosty (according to personal taste). Apparently this meeting also settled the question of what Winston Churchill should be doing in the war (with hindsight, battalion command in a quiet sector is pretty much exactly the right place for him).

Sir Douglas Haig

And then the old man is off and the new man is taking guard to begin his innings. There is plenty to be said about General Haig, for he is a singularly odd man, but we’ve also got all of 1916 to do that in. For now, we’ll settle for observing that he’s bringing an understated but infectious wave of optimism with him. It’s not a raging torrent; more like a slow flood that leaks in under the door with deceptive gentleness before firmly coating everything inside with a cloying sheen of muck.

For one thing, the views that he’d advanced to get rid of his predecessor seem to have been sincerely held. From his letters and diaries (more about the diaries to follow), he’s apparently quite convinced that for a brief moment at the Battle of Loos, it might have been possible to achieve a really major success. If only that rotten Sir John French had let him have his reserves when he’d asked for them! Never mind that the Germans’ second trench system was almost fully intact, or that the artillery was having all kinds of problems delivering supporting fire.

This is a deeply worrying line of thinking. It slots into the narrative that’s been building for the BEF since First Ypres, at which they were seemingly on their last legs and at the Germans’ mercy, only for the said Germans, completely unaware of the situation on the other side of the hill, to end the battle and seize a draw from the jaws of victory. So close to it, and yet so far away.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle and the Battle of Festubert have now, in the BEF’s institutional memory as driven by its Chief, been joined by the Battle of Loos, as incredibly frustrating fingertip failures. This will drive the BEF’s current (and considerably energetic) attempt to do war better for the next six months. Everything will be coloured by that “so near, and yet so far” framing.

And this framing will, understandably, severely impair the BEF’s ability to improve its methods to a point where they can actually break the deadlock of trench warfare. In many ways, they are evolving. However, what they need is a complete revolution, nothing short of a complete re-imagining of what an “offensive” is, and what it involves. “So near, and yet so far” implies that one’s basic methods are sound and require only fine-tuning in order to achieve success.

With Kitchener’s Army on the way to France in great numbers, this is the exact opposite of a promising thought to take us into 1916.

Ypres salient

Meanwhile, Zee Germans are considering the same basic question, “how the hell do we win this thing?” We’ll go to General von Falkenhayn in a couple of days. However, in the meantime, Duke Albrecht, commander of the German Fourth Army at Ypres, is doing him a little favour. The Army has been carefully studying the use of gas in 1915. There have been two major offensives in 1915 in which gas was an important factor.

First, we have Second Ypres, where the Germans’ use of chlorine against unprotected Canadians and Zouaves blew an enormous hole in the Entente trench lines and nearly resulted in a major disaster. Second, we have the Battle of Loos, where the BEF’s use of gas against prepared Germans with good gas masks helped them to break through the first German line and capture Loos itself, but did not result in anything like the breakdown as occurred at Ypres.

Science, unfortunately, moves on, and the German Stinkpioneren (yes, it means what you think it does) have a new toy to play with. This is phosgene, a gas similar to chlorine, but much more lethal. During the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive they held a few trials of a phosgene-chlorine cocktail, which seemed to work well enough. But now another question needs answering; might the new cocktail have a similar effect as the chlorine at Second Ypres?

With General von Falkenhayn restricting major operations while he prepares for the Battle of Verdun (again, more on that to follow very soon), today’s “attack” is little more than a raid, kept carefully limited in scope to avoid (as happened at Second Ypres) creating another major battle by accident. It’s also been very poorly concealed, with deserters and obvious preparations tipping the BEF off that something smelly is afoot, and everyone in the sector is on a standing gas alert.

The resulting day’s fighting, not nearly big enough to warrant the name “battle”, proves useful all round (except of course to those who died in it). The Germans quickly conclude that while gas is situationally useful, it’s now no longer a wonder weapon that can break holes in the enemy line on its own; they also have useful experience in deploying gas that might be used later. The BEF has been tipped off to the new gas, and is now becoming more aware of the need for a new gas mask to replace the old P and PH Helmets. They have been effective against the phosgene, but not as much as they could have been. It’s also obvious now that the new cocktail of gas is far more lethal than the old; casualties and deaths from the gas will mainly be attributed to men who were slow to put their masks on.

Incidentally, on the point of masks, there is a new design currently being trialled by the artillery. It’s called the Respirator Large Box, and the concept is going to prove an important one. Previous British helmets have basically been a large sack with eyeholes that’s been soaked in neutralising chemicals; they’re extremely unpleasant to wear and the air inside quickly loses its oxygen and becomes foul as the user breathes.

The new mask has a tight headpiece linked by a long hose to a large box of neutralising chemicals. A constant supply of air comes through the box, is neutralised by the chemicals, and then flows up the hose. It’s clearly a good design, and far more pleasant to wear (for a given value of “pleasant”) than the other helmets. However, there is one rather obvious issue that’s keeping it out of trench issue; the large box, which is heavy and cumbersome and not suitable for wear by the infantry. Fortunately, the boffins are now working on a Small Box variant…

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! 1914 is now available! 1915 to follow as long as y’all buy 1914!

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.)