Pozieres | Tabora | 3 Aug 1916

Pozieres

We have some fighting worth speaking of at the Battle of the Somme. The BEF’s 36th Brigade is aiding us in our attempt to remind people that it wasn’t just the ANZACs who fought up at Pozieres, where the artillery fire is still extremely unhealthy. The problem remains the same; capture trenches OG1 and OG2 so that Pozieres windmill, the highest point on the Somme, can be directly assaulted. First, the 8th Royal Fusiliers and 6th Buffs are launching a surprise attack on Fourth Avenue, another trench from which an attack on OG1 and OG2 can be supported.

It doesn’t seem like much, but the weight of artillery being thrown around at Pozieres is such that the Germans’ barbed wire has been almost completely destroyed and they’ve been unable to replace it. The men creep across No Man’s Land in the dark, and the defenders are so surprised when the Tommies suddenly appear in their trench in strength, they all surrender. It’s quite the stunt, although the war won’t be won by sneaking into a few hundred yards of trench at a time. Tomorrow the ANZACs take another pot at that dratted windmill.

Race to Tabora

Meanwhile, in Africa. At the western end of the Central Railway, there are seperate British Empire and Belgian Empire detachments now heading for Tabora, the only large settlement for hundreds of miles. The German commander General Wahle has a sizeable force at his disposal; there might just be a chance to isolate and capture it, which would be a much-needed coup. Wahle isn’t interested in leaving without a fight and has been sorting out some proper forward defences for the last little while. More to come when somebody wins the race.

Tanks

It has been said that the course of true love ne’er did run smooth. Neither too did the course of tank development, it seems. Albert Stern has just informed the new Minister of Munitions, Edwin Montagu, that tank production had been based on the assumption that all the initial order would be used in the field at once. Now it seems that General Haig wants to use a few as soon as possible. Problem! There are no spare parts yet. All the manufacturing capacity is being used on building machines, not spares. Only the engines have spare parts.

Mind you, this might not actually be a problem, depending on whose doctrinal views get the most traction. Stern himself, far from a tactical expert, thinks of a tank rather like a missile; extremely useful and destructive when pointed straight at the enemy and let loose, but useless after it’s arrived at its initial target and wreaked havoc. Missiles don’t need spare parts. He’s far from the only person thinking in this way. Opinions on the use of tanks are apparently like rear orifices; everybody’s got one.

Stern himself, incidentally, is unsatisfied with having to manage the Tank Supply Department through a committee. He’s used the wide-ranging powers which he granted himself back in February to dissolve the Tank Supply Committee entirely and reconstitute it as a powerless advisory talking shop. It is of course a reasonable principle of design to put all one’s eggs in one basket, having first made sure that one has built a really good basket. I suppose we’ll soon find out whether Stern is a good enough basket.

Oskar Teichman

It seems that Oskar Teichman’s men may finally be about to go into action at the Suez Canal. He’s discovered a major logistical concern, though.

Our General Headquarters at Ismailia was bombed during the morning. An advance guard of our composite regiment left at dawn to prepare a camp at Gilbaan. During the afternoon we received orders to march to Gilbaan at dawn on the next day. We heard that we were now in the Fifth Mounted Brigade again, under our own Brigadier. I realized that if we went into action on the morrow we should have no Field Ambulance with us, as ours would not be able to arrive in time, and that we had no claim on the New Zealand Field Ambulance, as we were no longer in that Brigade.

A reminder that a “field ambulance” is not a vehicle, although it is considered a mobile unit. The first line of medical support is the aid post. From the aid post casualties are taken to a field ambulance, which makes the decision whether the man can be quickly patched up and returned to unit, or passed back to the Casualty Clearing Station, an immobile large-scale facility.

Oswald Boelcke

German air ace Oswald Boelcke is in Bulgaria, inspecting their flying corps.

I went to the aviation field in Sofia; most of the machines were Ottos. In the afternoon, I went to the flying school. Our guide showed us as special attraction a Blériot, which he had. The school is still in the first stages of development. From there we went to the resort called Banje, which is nicely located. In the evening, I was at supper with a military attaché, and met Prince Kiril. He interested me very much, and talked quite intelligently about a number of things.

Like quite a few innovative thinkers, Boelcke’s writing only really comes alive when he’s describing his area of interest, aerial combat. Over the next few diary entries, we’re going to consider the principles he’s just outlined in his Dicta Boelcke, which will soon be required reading by all German pilots. Principle 1:

Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.

Of course, it’s harder to see anything when looking into the sun than when looking away from it. By “advantages”, he’s referring to a number of different factors (speed, height, surprise, and performance, among others). The more you have, the more likely you are to be successful. Boelcke was scrupulous about not attacking unless the situation was favourable.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is spending long days training at the Bull Ring, Etaples Base Camp. Evenings are his own, and the nearby seaside town, known either as Le Touquet or Paris-Plage, was a favourite haunt of artists in the quarter-century before the war.

We might be in England. Someone has had the good taste to open a tea-shop in Paris-Plage that, but for its military customers, puts the thought of camps and army routine a thousand miles away. The cretonnes about the windows are in strong simple colours, and the china might have come from a Cottage Tea Room. Half a dozen of us have walked and trammed to Paris-Plage solely for the luxury of feeling English civil ease again. What creatures of environment we are! We could buy the same food in the [Officers’ Mess] for half the money; yet no one would mistake us for dilettanti.

There is little attraction about Paris-Plage itself. The front is deserted: the normal life of the place is suffering war repression. Like every English seaside town during the war, Paris-Plage wears by daylight the fancy dress of last night’s dance. We wander round and the time hangs heavy on our hands. Nothing is more desolate than forsaken gaiety. Let’s jump on the little tram and go back to camp.

Cretonne is a heavy fabric often used in curtains. And, of course, Le Touquet has been reserved for officers. Other ranks are restricted to the other side of the river, in Etaples itself, which is rather less salubrious. Plowman won’t be here much longer.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson, you’ll be shocked and appalled to hear, is not only malingering, but also arsing around with his mates.

Pretended I was ‘indisposed’ so stayed in bed to miss roll call. Had breakfast in bed. Had a shave before parade which was a bathing one preceded by ‘surprise attack’ tactics. Had some naked races along the sands then a fine bath. ‘Baai’, a porter, got cuts for refusing to carry ammunition boxes. Heard the sergeant and colonel of the East African machine guns were shot for refusing duty and others given long terms of imprisonment. Got our orders for marching tomorrow.

Laid our waterproofs when Pintlebury came in and started a ‘rough and tumble’, making our blankets and ground sheets in a frightful mess. After he left we paid him a return visit and ruffled his tent, and 6 of them packed on to 4 of us.

Well, that was a quick swing from naked horseplay to reputed executions.

I say “reputed” because if there was an execution, the men do not appear in the official list of 346 executed men. (Of course, neither did Henry Pedris…) It’s also deeply, deeply unlikely that a colonel would be tried, never mind executed (of the official list, only three officers were shot, all of them second lieutenants; although Pedris was a captain). But who knows what lurks deep in the archives? It may be just another latrine rumour. Or it may not. And it’s almost entirely overshadowed the casual reference to what seems to be the brutal physical punishment of an African porter. What a cheery day.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge may not be a particularly good soldier, but he’s at least learned how to complain like one.

This morning a lynx-eyed officer discovered there were some weeds around his tent. At once a powerful fatigue-party of ten was detailed off to pull out the tares sewn by the Evil One. Must have been a [bloody] Hun, that “enemy!” We did the work most carefully. The first non-commissioned officer who had charge told us to pull out the weeds. When he grew tired of directing the complex and difficult operations and went to “see a man about a dog,” his successor ordered us to cut the weeds. The third NCO asked us to cut only the points.

Thereupon I used my scissors, whilst one of the men, a professional barber, instructed me in the gentle art of appearing busy. At intervals we asked the NCO, “What is a weed?” “Is this a weed?” Which cross-examination he did not like, but since there were some quaint flowers in the Officer’s garden, sown, not by the Evil One, but by a Captain with visions of Kew, the botanical lore of our NCO was sorely taxed. In the afternoon we had to scrub the officers’ tents.

As an aspiring literary type, Mugge is surely familiar with not doing much work. However, the concept of having to pretend to work to divert unwanted attention is a new one. The techniques have changed in the 21st century to meet the changing needs of the Army; the basic object, however, remains the same.

And we scrubbed! We swept and swabbed, we mopped and scoured. We scrubbed the wooden circular flooring of ever so many tents. It was hard work and aggravated by the total lack of utensils. You had to wait for the chaps in the next tent who used the one sound brush available whilst yet others bullied you for the one piece of soap and the hot water without which they could not start. There is a rumour about that tomorrow the sand will have to be dusted and that all the tents in the Division here, some three hundred, will have to be whitewashed. I am convinced it’s just an invention of the cooks.

The office people tell me that the War Office Practical Joke Department have not yet answered my application for a transfer to the Interpreters’ Corps. It is not fair to shut up like that. Hitherto each application, though not eliciting a real reply, has at least resulted in my transfer to another regiment. Now I seem to be a limpet.

Well, they’ve already thrown him into the Non-Combatant Corps and then pulled him out again. What else can they possibly do to him?

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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Bazentin Ridge | Mwanza | 14 Jul 1916

Mwanza

Back to Africa today, where the Force Publique gets well and truly stuck into Major Wintgens’s defensive positions outside Mwanza, on Lake Victoria. The battle goes all day and through the night; they’re trying to buy time for a promised British Empire force to do an end run around Wintgens and cut off his southern escape route down the Tabora road. On the plus side, they’re nearby with 2,000 men; on the other hand, most of the force is irregulars around a core of King’s African Rifles. Tomorrow, the result.

Battle of the Somme

So, here we go, then. Time for the attack usually known as the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. But, before we can delve into that, we’ve got to quickly duck out to Trones Wood, which at midnight is far from in BEF hands. General Rawlinson has sold this mildly crackpot scheme to his boss at least partly on the premise that Trones Wood will be in BEF hands by zero hour. And, by zero hour, due to sheer dumb luck, it indeed is. Chance placed one Lt-Col Frank Maxwell (VC) of the 12th Middlesex in Trones Wood at this time.

To talk of a ‘wood’ is to talk rot. It was the most dreadful tangle of dense trees and undergrowth imaginable, with deep yawning broken trenches criss-crossing about it. Every tree broken off at top or bottom and branches cut away, so that the floor of the wood was almost an impenetrable tangle of timber, branches, undergrowth etc. blown to pieces by British and German heavy guns for a week. Never was anything so perfectly dreadful to look at—at least I couldn’t dream of anything worse…

A naturally charismatic commander, through sheer force of personality, Maxwell gathers all the men he can find together and has them advance in line abreast, almost holding hands. German tactics for defending the wood have been entirely based on picking on small, isolated, scared, lost British platoons and squads. For nearly a week fresh men have trickled inside to be broken up and picked off one by one. Today is when Maxwell earns his brigade command by taking Trones Wood and then holding it all day.

Let’s go to the map now to remind ourselves of the plan.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

As befits a critical day, there are all kinds of clever shenanigans going on here in support of the attack. To begin with, there will be no preliminary barrage at all, as we’ve come to understand the term. There has been some wire-cutting artillery fire over the past couple of days, but no concentrated firing for more than an hour or so at a time, what the Germans call drum-fire. Just brief blasts, then lifts, then more blasts, then a longer break, and so on. This is Behaviour Modification, as trialled over the last few months at Ypres, finally pressed into service for a major offensive. There’s another push in the wreckage of Ovillers, and a successful demonstration (without anyone leaving their trenches) at Beaumont Hamel.

The final ruse is one that relies on information gained a few days ago, that the Germans are tapping the BEF’s field-telephone system. Having already given careful verbal orders to the relevant units, shortly before zero hour 4th Army HQ telephones everyone it can think of to inform them that the attack has been postponed. (The order is of course meant for the enemy to overhear.) It’s difficult to say exactly how effective all the individual deception efforts were. All we can say is that the men sneaked out into No Man’s Land almost entirely unmolested, and when they attacked after a final bombardment of only five minutes, they achieved almost total surprise.

The whole world broke into gunfire. It was a stupendous spectacle—the darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes—the flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, followed a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps.

There’s our correspondent Fraser-Tytler; after five minutes, his guns switch to an effective and generously-timetabled creeping barrage. From Bazentin to Delville Wood the defending Germans have almost no answer. Resistance is sporadic, quickly snuffed out with bombs. At 10:30am, Fraser-Tytler is watching cavalry and arse hortillery moving past Montauban and forward towards the battle. There is, for the moment, utter confusion among German high command, caught with their trousers down, right in the middle of General von Falkenhayn’s command reorganisation, literally as the generals are formally handing things over to each other.

There is a gap in the German line, maybe a mile wide, although narrower than had been hoped for. It’s right in front of High Wood, capstone of an important intermediate trench line between the Second and Third Lines (usually referred to as a “switch line”). At 500 feet above sea level, along with Pozieres, it’s the highest point for miles around, critical for observation purposes. The defenders are mostly falling back in disarray. The BEF’s 7th Division waits for orders. Is it safe for them to push on?

On either side of the gap, the Germans are still holding on by their fingernails to the Second Line’s reserve trenches, local commanders feeding in troops via Pozieres and Combles. However, there aren’t, as yet, any orders to garrison the Third Line in strength or to attempt to occupy the switch lines between them. Opportunity is knocking. And then there was a Decision, and lo! it later became a Matter of Some Debate.

High Wood

Here is what happened. In the morning and the early afternoon, several patrols go out from the Second Line to High Wood, reporting it variously as completely empty or else garrisoned only by light enemy patrols. These reports all make it back to higher command. 4th Army then emits a number of extremely unhealthy grinding and crunching noises from under the bonnet, as several people all grab at the gear lever at once, and succeed only in ramming it firmly into neutral several times. The infantry gets orders to wait for the cavalry; advance; wait for the cavalry; do a little turn; and then sing “Knees Up Mother Brown”.

There is no advance towards High Wood until the evening, when the cavalry shows up, at which point machine-guns have appeared in the wood and the German artillery is beginning to recover after rapidly fleeing its positions behind Bazentin. Heavy fighting follows, and the attackers end the day with a solid foothold in High Wood, but when surely there had been a chance for far more. For once we cannot blame imperfect information. By First World War standards, communications with the rear were good enough. Division and corps commanders had about as good an idea of the situation as ever they could hope to have.

Several things got in the way. The first problem is the breakthrough itself. It’s relatively narrow, and the Germans are now hammering the left in particular with stiff counter-attacks from Pozieres. If their position at Bazentin gives way, anyone trying to exploit the breakthrough is in extreme danger of being cut off. So the 7th Division is kept waiting in front of High Wood, watching, cooling their heels until nightfall.

Here’s where we see through the apparent similarities between British “the man on the spot is king” principles and, say, the true freedoms given to subordinate commanders by General von Mackensen in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive. If one of Mackensen’s men had been in charge, he would surely have said “stuff the orders, I’m going to get that wood” and gone after it. A British man on the spot may be king, but he is a constitutional monarch and must first and foremost work within his orders.

This all might have been okay if three cavalry divisions had swept through the gap at, say, 2pm. But at that time, two of them are still knocking around the wrong side of Albert, by now far too far from the battle to play any part today. One division, the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, was sent forward early in the morning, but of course it’s had trouble getting forward. Not all of this is caused by trouble traversing ground broken up by artillery fire, mind you. When General Rawlinson sent it forward he attached it to XIII Corps, expecting the breakthrough to come in their portion of front. But 7th Division belongs to XV Corps, and hours are lost finding the cavalry, re-attaching them to XV Corps, and sending them forward to their new starting points.

I wish now to pause for a moment and reflect on the deep, deep irony of most of the cavalry being held too far to the rear, on Haig’s explicit orders. Commanders-in-chief have, earlier in the war, been overthrown by their senior army commanders for similar mistakes. I do wonder what Sir John French, sitting in his gossip factory on Horse Guards Parade, made of it all when someone told him what had happened.

The Charge of the Deccan Horse

So, in the early evening, we find cavalry coming into action on the Western Front for the first time in rather a while. More errors in getting orders forward sees only one cavalry brigade actually attack. But when they do, it’s a real sight to behold: they’re riding into action, ready for a charge. I’ve got two views of the attack, both from artillery spotters. The first is from Signaller Leonard Ounsworth, spotting for a heavy howitzer battery.

A Morane-Saulnier, a French aeroplane that we had at the time, kept diving down on to the corner of the field on our left front. I saw this Indian cavalry, the Deccan Horse they called them, and this plane was diving down and up again. Suddenly the officer in charge of the cavalry cottoned on. He stood up in his stirrups, waved his sword above his head and just charged across that field—like a shot out of a gun, like bats out of hell. The two outer lots split, so they made a pincer and encircled them—it was all over in a matter of seconds.

The next thing we saw was thirty-four Jerry prisoners, some with heavy machine guns. They were waiting while the Cavalry got a bit nearer—my God, they’d have slaughtered them. The plane was trying to draw their attention, just diving down on top, I suppose distracting these machine-gunners, because a plane coming down close above your head is enough to draw your attention.

And the second is from Lieutenant Beadle, spotting for the field guns. Sixteen Germans have been killed by the lance in addition to the 30 prisoners.

It was an incredible sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying. I’ve never seen anything like it! They simply galloped on through all that, and horses and men dropping on the ground. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight.

Brigadiers and division commanders are all sucked into a vortex of “wait, what do we do now?”, caught between common sense and orders. The cavalry dismounts with a foothold in High Wood and digs in. After a certain amount of shocked staring, a few individuals damn their orders and strike off in support. The approximate position at nightfall:

The switch line at High Wood is now being garrisoned, so it now appears on the map.

The switch line at High Wood is now being garrisoned, so it now appears on the map.

It’s a missed opportunity. How big, we really can’t say for sure. We can only speculate what might have happened if those three cavalry divisions had all got stuck in at once. They might have got lost, got over-enthusiastic, got massacred, got the VC, got to Bapaume, or all of the above.

Reactions

General Haig is quite clear what he thinks of the day’s events. First in his diary.

I saw General Foch at Querrieu. He is very pleased with result of our attacks. French openly said their troops could not have carried out such an attack, not even the XX Corps! [which did particularly well on 1 July]

Foch is extremely enthused by this success, on Bastille Day, no less. He’s been worrying that the perfidious English will be content with allowing the battle to bog down once they learn that the Germans are giving up on Verdun. The two men spend a lot of time today talking over the possibilities for the coming days. There are a number of nasty German strong-points east of Trones Wood; they’re creating bottlenecks for the BEF right and the French left. Joint attacks are planned to free the bottleneck, and General Fayolle will soon get orders to make another big push for Peronne.

Back to Haig, who we now find writing to his wife.

This is indeed a very great success. The best day we have had this war and I feel what a reward it is to have been spared to see our troops so succeessful! There is no doubt that the results of today will be very far reaching. Our men showed that they have the superiority to the Germans in the fighting, and the latter are very much disorganised and rattled.

The best day we have had this war. And the sad thing is, he’s right. Think about that for a moment, if you can.

JRR Tolkien

Today, JRR Tolkien is off up the line with his men for the first time. The battalion halts for a long wait in the shadow of Lochnagar Crater, and then moves on into the ruins of La Boisselle. By nightfall they’re waiting in close reserve, as yet another penny-packet push tries to throw the Germans out of their remaining positions at Ovillers. True to their general’s promise, they are fighting for every inch and look set to fight to the last man if required.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach, the laziest German in France, continues making friends and influencing people.

I still like it best being on observation duty with the infantry. When there isn’t actually any heavy firing, you spend rewarding hours with the company commanders and the men. With time I’ve really found my feet in the infantry world and become fairly independent as well, and I often get together with the infantry leaders to discuss the artillery preparations required for a patrol operation. And afterwards I accompany these friends of mine on their night walks through the trenches, when they are inspecting their sentries.

The way these good-hearted infantrymen, some of them ex-Landwehr, stick to their work and do their duty, is the highest personal fulfilment of one’s task in life, faith incarnate in the justice of our victorious cause! Meanwhile, the second anniversary of the outbreak of war has passed, but you don’t really think any more about our entering the third year of war, and still less about whether and when there is going to be peace again.

Ah, it seems we’ve found the limits of his optimism. The Landwehr is, like the Territorial Army, supposed to be used only for the direct defence of the homeland. Unlike the Territorials, it contains no first-line forces and in an ideal world would never have to fight. But, you know, shit happens.

Actions in Progress

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

Tanga | Mametz Wood | 7 Jul 1916

Tanga

We begin today with the settling of an old score in German East Africa. The Battle of Tanga, way back in November 1914, has, in many ways, set the stage for many of the set-piece battles that have followed it. A superior attacking force spectacularly cocked up a number of things and so allowed the defenders to hold out when really they shouldn’t have.

Today no such chances are being taken, although Tanga is defended only by the smallest of rear-guards. The Royal Navy’s cruisers have all been concentrated here for a punishing offshore bombardment; the defenders, job done, clear out as soon as honour allows. The amount of colony under German control is contracting; but Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck still remains at large. As long as he’s free and has men to lead, the British Empire will have to continue pouring resources into the area to prevent him from running around launching guerrilla attacks at will.

In other news, there are still more than a thousand Schutztruppe at large around Lake Victoria. Their base at Mwanza is surrounded by mountains and is very easily defensible. It’s also the northern end of an important road to Tabora, on the Central Railway. Men from the Force Publique have now located Major Wintgens and his men. They’re important enough that between British and Belgian Empire commitments, about 5,000 men will attack in a week’s time.

Battle of the Somme

As the final Germans are winkled out of La Boisselle, the timetable for further attacks is just slipping, and slipping, and slipping. An attack on the now-critical Trones Wood has been consistently delayed, first for lack of French support, and now due to the on-again off-again blasts of rain. Four days ago it could almost certainly have been taken unopposed. Now the Germans have poured men into the wood. They’ve barely had time to dig trenches, but Trones Wood is tall, and home to overwhelmingly thick undergrowth, and they’ve had over a year of occupation to draw up detailed maps and gain local knowledge.

Meanwhile, over to the left, a couple of divisions are now trying to push towards Contalmaison (again), and through Mametz Wood. It’s far from the finest day in the Army’s history. Orders have arrived late and lack clarity. The constant need for artillery fire is starting to run shell supplies worryingly low. The problem has changed, mind you; it’s not that there are insufficient shells, just that most of them are stuck at the ports, unable to move forward because the logistical arrangements aren’t good enough. (More on that to come.) Let’s just have the map again.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Mametz Wood

Shells are not all there’s not enough of. The attack is supposed to be a divisional attack. As in, the division will attack as a whole. However, it’s been so poorly planned and executed that out of a division of (nominally) about 15 battalions, only two will go over the top towards Mametz Wood. Before they do, Sergeant Albert Perriman of the 11th South Wales Borderers is trying to feed his men.

For fifty-two of us I was allocated one and a half loaves of bread, a piece of boiled bacon weighing about 16 ounces after the Somme mud had been removed, a small quantity of biscuits, some currants and sultanas and a petrol tin of tea. As I displayed the rations which would not be the ‘last supper’ but the ‘last breakfast’ for some of us, I reminded my lads of the parable of the ‘loaves and fishes’, adding that as I had not the miraculous powers of Our Lord Jesus Christ, section commanders should toss up, the winner taking the lot.

At this, one of the lads said, “Say Sarge, the buggers do not intend us to die on a full stomach, do they?”

There’s about 500 yards to cover between the new front line and the fringes of the wood. The ground is rather undulating, which cuts both ways. On the one hand, it protects the blokes from direct observation after they’ve gone over the top. On the other, when they crest the last ridge, there’s still 150 clear yards to go before they’re in the trees. And there are German machine guns in the trees. Here we have a rare example of machine guns, not artillery, being the deadliest force on the battlefield. The men are forced to take cover and then retreat.

A second attack in the afternoon is broken up by artillery fire; Sergeant Perriman’s platoon had already been ordered forward again in an attempt to take the machine guns by surprise and capture them.

Shrapnel and heavy machine-gun fire all around us spelled instant death. My officer was the first to go. I was a yard or so behind him when he fell. He fell without uttering a sound. I examined him and found he was dead. I took over, but for short duration. I became the second casualty. I received multiple wounds—in leg, stomach and hands by shrapnel. Unable to continue, I handed over to the senior NCO and I managed to crawl back the best way I could. Progress was slow and painful.

Slow and painful, indeed.

Contalmaison and Ovillers

There are similar scenes at Ovillers. This is another occasion where some men went over the top and were immediately cut down by machine-gun fire. Of interest to our story is the presence of the 7th Royal Sussex. Before his adventures with the War Office, Maximilian Mugge was in the Royal Sussex’s permanent training battalion, and he might very well have been involved with this. Apparently, through sheer force of elan and bad German shooting, they and some Royal Fusiliers (another contender for Mugge-dom) succeeded where thousands had failed and shoved a pair of companies into the German trenches.

Comrades followed, the attackers bombed their way up the trenches, and then came the counter-attacks. By nightfall they’ve captured and held, er, a large chunk of half the German trenches. At Contalmaison they initially pushed right into the village, but their reinforcements were broken up, and counter-attacks threw them back out again. This all is really very worrying, for reaons we’ll explore as the battle continues. I’d do another map, but the line’s not gone far enough to warrant it.

Let us once again glance briefly across the hill, where we find General Burkhardt, whose division is defending Ovillers. “The crisis has been overturned for the time being”, he informs his bosses, before going on to reassure them “My order is this: hold out to the last man!” Well, there might not have been major success for anyone today, but it is rarely a good sign for an army when anyone in it is issuing an order to hold out to the last man. The Germans have prevented a major disaster, so far, but as the battle continues to develop, higher command is far from confident that the situation is in hand.

Briand and Romania

The French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, is extremely enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing Romania into the war on the Eastern Front. The sticking point in negotiations is, at the moment, Romanian prime minister Ion Bratianu’s third request: an absolute guarantee of security against a Bulgarian attack. No problem, says Briand. On the Eastern Front, isn’t it so that the Germans are completely unable to reinforce Austria-Hungary because of the twin demands of Verdun and the Somme?

More importantly, hasn’t he been a vociferous supporter of operations at Salonika? Do they not even now have 400,000 men there? The Serbian Army now ready and fully returned to the battlefield, just waiting to attack the perfidious Bulgarians and retake their homeland? Bratianu, faced with this line of French argument, smells bullshit. I do not think he knew of the assessment of Generals Sarrail and Milne that no attack would be possible without supply that clearly was never going to come. However, he’s dead right to be suspicious about all this. Negotiations continue; more to come, but not for a while.

Emilio Lussu

More hair-raising adventures for Emilio Lussu. Local attacks are continuing on the Asiago plateau; they’re intended to function as a diversion, to make Austro-Hungarian commanders think that General Cadorna has lost his appetite for the Isonzo front. Never before has it been more appropriate to observe “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” Today’s wheeze: get some Bangalore torpedoes up under the Austro-Hungarian wire. There’s just enough time before that for Lussu to have a pleasant chat with a friend, and then immediately see him shot through the head by a sniper.

They were the same as we’d used on the Carso front, two metres long. Wire-cutting pliers arrived, too. The wire-cutters and the tubes had done never done us any good, but they arrived just the same. And brandy arrived, lots of brandy, so we were on the verge of a new operation. … We chose our soldiers from among volunteers. The regimental command offered a reward of ten lire for each volunteer.

Lussu has a wonderfully detailed narrative of the process of crawling into No Man’s Land, assembling a series of metal tubes with the explosive torpedo on the end, and then poking it hopefully at the enemy barbed wire. However, to quote it it would triple the length of this entry, so. The attack the following morning is, of course, a complete failure.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

It’s another lazy day for our battery commander friend Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler.

A very wet day. As things were idle at the guns, Maclean and I went forward to study the Hun second line over the ridge, as seeing the country with one’s own eyes certainly helps in unobserved shooting. On the way, we went into the village of Montauban. In the “Petit Parisien” of the 2nd July was the glowing headline, “FOUR FAIR VILLAGES OF PICARDY LIBERATED FROM THE INVADER”. One of them was Montauban. Today this village is not a pleasant place.

It is almost impossible to trace the line of the streets, hardly a wall higher than a few feet still stands. All around reeks with the indescribable stench of stale high explosive and unburied remains. The distilled spirit of death, brooding over the whole hamlet. During an extra-heavy rainstorm we sheltered in a dugout, formerly Battalion HQ of a Bavarian unit. The room was filled with papers and books, and it was interesting to read their typed reports of the effect of our bombardment up to the 26th of June.

After that, words seem to have failed them.

Le Petit Parisien is a major French national newspaper of the day that closed down in 1944. Many French-speaking British officers take it when they can get it; it’s not dissimilar to the Daily Mail.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge makes an observation that to modern eyes is not exactly original, but good on him for coming to it.

Conversation in tent either swear-words or incoherent rubbish. A. is usually not taking much notice of what B. says, considers B.’s sentences as a necessary evil and troublesome interruption with which he has to put up for courtesy’s sake. And, at times these interruptions of B. stimulate one’s memory, thinks A. B.’s attitude is the same.

Our social system is so rotten that it is no wonder men will fight. What have they to lose? Nabboth in my tent had 24 shillings a week ere he joined up; Nicholson and Titch consider 28 shillings very good pay indeed. And then think of the long hours, the monotony, the rough surroundings! Indirect (economic) pressure accounts for many of the volunteers in every army, I think.

“Naboth” would be an exceptionally unusual surname for an Englishman. A man of that name appears in the Bible, and he is (just about) a small tradesman of the sort who might, many thousands of years and miles later, found himself in the Army. (Of course, so was Jesus, although I’d bet he would have applied to be a conscientious objector.)

Actions in Progress

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