Mother | L19 | 2 Feb 1916

Mother

It’s time for the official trial of Mother, the British tank prototype, attended by the great and the good. This being the case, the trial is scheduled for after lunch. Thank God they’re at an important country house. Nothing has been overlooked. Albert Stern and Colonel Hankey have, in many ways, the most important duty of all. They’ve been assigned to babysit Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man who’s supposed to be paying for all this. McKenna gets his lunch at a club in London and is then driven, suitably lubricated and primed by conversation, to Hatfield in Stern’s Rolls-Royce.

The details of the trial are much the same as we’ve already seen; the tank drives around, goes up and down some slopes, crushes plenty of barbed wire, and generally looks mean. The well-refreshed McKenna effectively writes a blank cheque. The equally-refreshed Arthur Balfour insists on having a ride inside Mother himself. Minister of Munitions David Lloyd-George is deeply impressed. General Haig’s representative, General Butler, asks a number of questions that all come back round to “when can we have some tanks, please?”

Then there’s the question of Lord Kitchener. He may not have his former official power, but he’s still running the War Office, and the whole “war hero” thing means that his opinions will carry considerable weight. Kitchener arrived early and saw a private demonstration. He then sat alone with William Tritton for a comprehensive discussion of exactly what the machine can do. And Tritton’s sense of the conversation is that Kitchener was deeply skeptical, finishing with the words “without serious military value”. Colonel Swinton later overhears Kitchener talking loudly about how they’ll be knocked out by artillery before they can do any good. Lord K even leaves before the end of the afternoon display.

This reading of events is sometimes used as support for an argument of further resistance on the part of the Army against newfangled ideas. There is another interpretation, however. It comes to us via Wully Robertson and Kitchener’s aide General Whigham, who both accompanied Lord Kitchener to the trials. On their telling of the story, this was all an elaborate public bluff; Kitchener is appearing disdainful for security’s sake. By Robertson’s telling, Kitchener immediately approved an informal suggestion that an order should be placed for 100 tanks. And there is also the matter of a War Committee meeting tomorrow, at which Colonel Hankey will minute Kitchener reporting that he was “impressed by the trials”.

Mother will stay at Hatfield for a few more days at the request of the King, who would like a private ride in the thing. More soon as people work out what to do next.

Africa

An anonymous German official in neutral Washington DC was apparently heard, about now, to remark in relation to Africa that “nothing more to our liking could have been done if we had the ordering of [the Entente’s] military movements ourselves.” Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck is becoming extremely popular, and well he might be after all the men he’s tied up away from Europe over the past year and a half. He’s also conducting a major recruiting campaign among both colonists and Africans, and has raised the strength of his force in German East Africa to between 15 and 20,000 men.

And he’s got no intention of throwing in the towel; not now, not ever. His only objective is to keep fighting, no matter what the cost, to keep the enemy from being able to conclude the campaign and withdraw his forces. He’s quite happy, if it should come to that, to turn the theatre into a gigantic game of Whack-A-Mole, with his men as the moles. Defeating an enemy who’s trying to win is one thing. Defeating an enemy who only wants not to lose is quite another. It will be well to remember this as the 1916 campaign begins…

L19

The sad story of L19, the doomed German airship, concludes. Early in the morning, a British trawler, King Stephen, appears on the horizon, having seen the airship’s distress rockets. When the ship’s master sees what he’s being faced with, he refuses to take anyone on board and sails away. (Turns out that he only saw the signals because he was fishing somewhere he wasn’t licenced to be fishing.) The crew write last messages; the airship sinks with all hands a couple of hours later.

When the details emerge, the reaction will be somewhat predictable. The German press spits and fulminates at this most hideous and callous of events, which of course proves how hypocritical the supposed gentlemanly British are. The British press isn’t overly concerned that the crew of an evil baby-killing Hun airship got their just desserts, and what’s a score of dead Boche compared to the sack of Louvain, anyway? War crimes are as war crimes do.

JRR Tolkien

Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien is still in exile at Brocton Camp, cold, wet, and bored. His old school friend Rob Gilson, having joined the war rather sooner, has now made it to France as a platoon commander and today goes up the line for the first time near Armentieres. (He has a sweetheart at home and apparently never tried to find Mademoiselle.)

It is a strange and dreary looking place – wasteland and shattered trees and houses. What most impresses me at first is the appalling expenditure of human labour on merely hiding each other from each other’s devilishness. I had never grasped it with my imagination. It is one of the very saddest sights I have ever seen.

The Western Front is becoming host to more and more of these places, where battles have been fought in the past and are still close enough to the front lines for artillery to still touch them. So many shells have been fired that everything around Armentieres except the men and the rats is dead and barren.

Flora Sandes

Air raids over Durazzo continue. However, to the sharp mind, this is but another opportunity.

Some bombs had fallen in the neighbourhood of a camp of Italian soldiers, who had to vacate it. A company of hungry Serbians near by had with great presence of mind seized the opportunity to go in and clear the deserted camp of all the bread and everything eatable it contained, and they were heard to express a wish afterwards that there might be a visitation of aeroplanes every day.

Yeah, there’s currently a small Italian detachment running around Albania doing nothing of much consequence except embarrassing their government. (Presumably the blokes were all far too relieved at not being on the Isonzo front to care.)

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is up the line for the first time in months, but his optimism is still opting in.

In the trenches. Everything very quiet. We are in support, in a place called Maple Redoubt, on the reverse slope of a big ridge. Good dug-outs, and a view behind, over a big expanse of chalk-downs, which is most exhilarating. A day with blue sky and a tingle of frost. Being on the reverse slope, you can walk about anywhere, and so can see everything.

Have just been up in the front trenches, which are over the ridge, and a regular, or rather very irregular, rabbit-warren. The Boche are generally only about thirty to forty yards away. The trenches are dry, that is the glorious thing. DRY! Just off to pow-wow to the new members of my platoon.

He will later note that the weather was dry at the time; when the weather is dry, the trenches are dry, and when the weather is wet…

Evelyn Southwell

We’ve hit a rich vein of new correspondents here. There’s rather a couple of big battles coming up in the next few months, you see, and I’m trying to find enough so that I can be sure a couple of them, at least, will get through the other side. Lieutenant Evelyn Southwell is from Shrewsbury; before the war, he and a very good friend (of whom more later) were both masters at Shrewsbury School. Duty, King and Country, etc etc.

He’s been in France since October (arriving at about the same time as Bernard Adams), in the Ypres salient; but has been having about as dull a time as it’s possible to have anywhere near Ypres, having nearly died on only two occasions (once when nearly caught out in No Man’s Land with a wiring party, once when he caught pneumonia). Like Bernard Adams, he’s also recently been home on leave. He’s just come out of the line to Elverdinghe, north-east of Ypres itself.

We came out absolutely “flat-out” into the farm last night, the men quite exhausted after a bad time. I am tremendously happy to be here at rest for two or three days; so are the men. It was grand to see how they loved a rest in the mud of the road coming down last night, falling asleep constantly in some case.

As usual, I took my short airing down the road past the French, saluting and nodding like fun; there is not enough of that business. It has never failed to be the adorable time of the day, but to-day, after a certain amount of fairly real misery [-2 degrees Celsius], I strode down that road inhaling the air of the universe, and even I counted my breaths, fifteen yards at a time!

We’ll remember from one of Louis Barthas’s stints of rest that, for some reason, French Army units are often sent to rest behind BEF and Belgian-held sectors.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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Never work with children or animals | 28 Oct 1915

The King

Before we get into things today, let’s start with an extended metaphor. As we know, George V of Britain is in France at the moment, shoring up morale by touring the front and inspecting the men, particularly men who’ve just been fighting at Loos (when he isn’t facilitating a whispering campaign against Sir John French, that is). Today, the 12th Sherwood Foresters join other men of their brigade to parade for inspection. The King is riding his horse up and down the lines of men. What happened next?

The King rode along the first three or four ranks, then crossed the road to the other three or four ranks on the other side, speaking to an officer here or there. Our instructions had been that at the conclusion of the parade, we were to put the caps on the points of our fixed bayonets, and wave and cheer. So that’s what we did. “Hip, hip, hooray.”

Well, the King’s horse reared, and he fell off! He just seemed to slide off, and so of course the second “Hip, hip” fizzled out. It was quite a fiasco and you should have seen the confusion as these other high-ranking officers rushed to dismount and go to the King’s assistance. They got him up, and the last we saw of him was being hurriedly driven away.

Story from Corporal Edward Glendenning. That’s not gone well.

Serbia

Back to the endless parade of bad news. The Bulgarians are now in Pirot; the Serbian government is out of Nis and on the road to Kraljevo, as secure as anywhere in Serbia these days. They’ve got the army’s main arsenal at Kragujevac between them and the invaders.

Unfortunately, the invaders only have a couple of low ridges between themselves and Kragujevac. The defence of the town is in no way secure, and Kragujevac is even now being evacuated. As much ammunition as possible will be taken out; the sappers are wiring it for demolition (not the most difficult job anyone’s ever had to do) and will blow it up reeeeeal good tomorrow.

Third Isonzo

Sufficiently refreshed, the Duke of Aosta renews the offensive on the Carso today. Mount San Michele takes another kicking, and stands up to it again. Colonel Viola leads yet another fruitless assault on Hill 124. The defenders are starting to suffer now from exhaustion and attrition, with more and more sectors being garrisoned with Landsturm reservists instead of first-line battalions.

Meanwhile, snowdrifts or no snowdrifts, they’re attacking again on Mount Mrzli. The half-frozen men clash again and again, digging through the drifts, climbing around them. And, by noon, the Italians have bullied their way up and into the Austro-Hungarian trenches that defend the summit. There are almost no reserves remaining for the defenders. The barrel is scraped dry, rifles are swapped for clubs and maces, and in goes the counter-attack.

The hills around Gorizia see plenty of action today also. On the Podgora there’s a real Hill 70/Chunuk Bair moment, as two seperate units break through to the crest of the ridge and, for a moment, seem to have a free and clear run down into the streets of Gorizia. Sadly, there are no prizes for guessing what happened next; the counter-attack comes in, the tired attackers are unable to resist it, and they’re unceremoniously evicted back towards their starting points.

Mother

Man, each of these items could have led off any other day. This is the problem with a day-by-day telling. Sometimes you’ve just got a stacked day with a load of stuff that’s all really important and deserves equal prominence.

Anyway. The Landships Committee today begins building a full prototype version of Mother, its lozenge-shaped landship design, at the Foster’s ironworks in Lincoln. Shrewdly, its overseer William Tritton does not attempt to swear the construction and fabrication workforce to secrecy. Instead, the whisper is passed around that this enormous, ungainly “Water Carrier for Mesopotamia” is simply a ridiculous pet project of the boss’s that will likely be abandoned once proper trials begin. The boiler shop is soon referring to the thing they’re building as “that bloody tank…”

Gallipoli

General Monro has arrived in theatre at Sir Ian Hamilton’s old headquarters on Imbros. His chief of staff, General Lynden-Bell, records his first impressions of headquarters.

As we passed between the line of them Sir Charles said to me, ‘Did you ever meet such a down and out lot of fellows in your life?’ I agreed and subsequently discovered the reason why. They were not a united Staff – or in fact, as they knew, not a staff at all. I found the General Staff Officers thought themselves miles superior to mere Administrative and Quartermaster Officers and they were not on speaking terms.

Well, that’s a good start. Meanwhile, Admiral Keyes has just arrived in London, and early tomorrow will go straight to the Admiralty and start bending everyone’s ears about how he can totally force the Dardanelles all by his lonesome.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas and his grenadiers are off up the line, towards reserve trenches near Neuville.

We were drenched by these steady rains, slipping and stumbling along almost impassable roads and paths in the dark night. They finally stopped bothering us with their stupid rules and marching orders. Cursing, grumbling, complaining, each one of us marched along, dragging himself forward as best he could. To arrive where? In gloomy boyaux, full of mud, where we argued with each other over half-collapsed holes which our predecessors had dug. Only the officers had halfway-decent shelters at their disposal.

A few slabs of sheet metal, some planks placed across the top of the trench and covered with earth, would have been enough to give us a shelter, if not comfortable, at least sufficient to protect us from the glacial wind and the downpours. But no. There, like practically everywhere else, nothing had been planned for, nothing had been ordered, by some colonel or other or by Generalissimo Joffre, to shelter the human cattle against the bad weather.

Winter is coming. Expect a lot more of this sort of thing.

Mesopotamia

There’s been a lot of discussions going on in quiet committee rooms as a lot of obscure people try to decide whether or not General Nixon’s plan to advance on Baghdad is a good idea. (The correct answer is of course “wait, what happened to safeguarding Basra and the supply of oil?”, but nobody seems to have raised that.) Suffice it to say that after a lot of very boring discussions about such fripperies as “supply lines” and “medical facilities”, General Nixon has received an answer along the lines of “Go on then, if you really think it’s a good idea”.

Nixon passes the word on to General Townshend, with the desire to begin advancing on Ctesiphon, location of the last Ottoman defensive position, by mid-November. I’m sure everything will go swimmingly.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Third Invasion of Serbia
Morava Offensive
Ovce Pole Offensive
Third Isonzo

Further Reading

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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. 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.)

Caterpillar tracks | 04 March 1915

All the usual war news, plus an update from the Landships Committee.

First Champagne

Still going badly for the French. Herbert Sulzbach notes laconically that “The trenches that we lost before have been re-captured by assault.” Still the French brass hats order attacks to continue, be followed up, be pressed as hard as possible.

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Caterpillar tracks

The Landships Committee has started holding regular Friday meetings, and today’s sees them come down firmly in favour of a design that uses caterpillar tracks (of a sort). They’ve adapted a design by William Tritton and based on a bridging machine. It’s now evolved into something more akin to an armoured personnel carrier, with chaintracks built by a company called Pedrail. It’s a decent first stab, but hindsight shows the design to be not nearly radical enough.

As much as anything else, the designers lack a proper appreciation of what the conditions at the front are like. They envisage the APC grumbling across No Man’s Land, and then possibly letting men out short of the enemy barbed wire to cut it, shielded by large armoured side-opening doors. They’re still thinking in terms of a machine to get men into enemy trenches. Quite how the APC is supposed to move and what it should do after it’s let its load of men out is left to the imagination. Still, at least they’re moving in the right direction with tracks instead of wheels, although the Pedrail chaintrack isn’t quite what they’re looking for.

Forcing the Dardanelles

The Marines are planning to make another lot of landings today to prevent the Ottomans doing anything with the fortifications at Kum Kale and Sedd el Bahr. Sadly, their opponents have been planning for just such an eventuality. When they land, all the Marines can do is take casualties before they’re forced to leave. And to add insult to injury, the forts have already been entirely disabled by earlier operations. They have noticed one useful thing, though; there is a large contingent of German officers among the Ottoman defenders.

Meanwhile, the Russians are starting to mass an invasion force in Crimea for use once the Navy has finished the job. Hopefully they won’t have too long to wait.

Battle of Neuve Chapelle

More men are leaving England every day, most of them bound for the front. A fair number of those are raw Territorials, heading for quiet sectors to relieve more experienced men who are going to Neuve Chapelle. Munitions are flooding into the area. Advance groups of staff officers are arriving from all the different battalion and divisional staffs to make arrangements. It’s a hive of activity, and with the Germans occupying the high ground, there’s only so much that can be done to keep it secret.

The BEF brass hats are fully aware of this, and are going to do the best they can to achieve surprise by way of deception. The troop movements all along the front are going some way towards this. Battalions are being moved into sectors of line away from Neuve Chapelle by day, and taken out of them at night. To the north of the line, near Wytschaete and Messines, 2nd Army is doing the best it can to simulate preparations for an offensive.

Plans are also made for “demonstrations” in the sections of line next to the actual attack, to further mislead the Germans as long as possible. In this sense, a “demonstration” involves digging forward saps as though you’re going to attack. You then get all the blokes to shout and make a lot of noise and open fire with rifles and machine guns as though you’re laying down covering fire. It sounds rather silly, but the French have already been using demonstrations to great effect, and they’ll soon become a standard deception tactic.

The paper

There’s an interesting moderation of tone in the paper today, with a series of articles taking a rather gloomy view of the current situation, certainly by their excitable standards. “Grim Outlook from British Lines”, “Zone of the Dead”. Granville Fortescue, the Telegraph’s propagandist-in-chief with the Russian Army, attempts to counter-balance things with a full page of his usual patent bollocks, but the Western Front today is apparently not an optimistic place.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Champagne (First Champagne)
Forcing of the Dardanelles

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day.

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