German counter-attacks | 4 Jul 1916

Battle of the Somme

A huge rainstorm has blown in. Even if the BEF had been in position to launch a major attack on the German Second Line today, it may well have been postponed. The French advance to the south is suffering; they not only need dry weather, they need serious reinforcements, and they have neither. To the south, the BEF is starting to run into trouble again. They’ve taken most of Bernafay Wood and a few smaller areas nearby, but General Rawlinson is unwilling to move into the much more difficult Trones Wood without French support, which won’t be available in a couple of days’ time.

Once again I say: a bolder advance would have taken Trones Wood by now; but for all they knew at the time, it might also have walked right into undetected German positions and got slaughtered. The question of whether Rawlinson was being prudent or just dithering is unanswerable, and therefore a perfect Matter of Some Debate. A new plan is emerging, once they’re in position to strike at the German Second Line. North of the Albert to Bapaume road, offensives are to be abandoned for the moment. The main push will be a strike, very roughly from Contalmaison and Bazentin towards Pozieres, and from Longueval and Trones Wood toards Ginchy and Flers.

Meanwhile, the BEF has now secured La Boisselle; but that’s not the end of the story. Many Germans, cut off inside the village, are refusing to surrender. They have food, and ammunition, and a series of dugouts and cellars that are connected by tunnels. Here’s a new map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey

It’ll take another few days to winkle out all the last holdouts, and that while fending off German counter-attacks.

German counter-attacks

But those German counter-attacks seem rather easy to fend off, don’t they? Nowhere is the BEF going further backwards than about 50 yards at a time. There’s a simple reason for this, and it’s rooted in von Falkenhayn’s order to hold every inch of ground and to counter-attack wherever possible. In their desperate attempts to comply, mid-level German commanders are not allowing any time for units to re-organise themselves after they’ve been forced to retreat from a position. They’re scraping together scratch forces of whoever’s available, and throwing them right back into the fight again without any thought for unit cohesion, mostly with diminishing returns.

The only casualty figures that people remember from the Somme are the 60,000 British from the first day. However, now, as these piecemeal German counter-attacks are battering hopelessly against the BEF’s Stokes mortars and Lewis guns (and the French crapouillots and Chauchats), the German casualty figure is starting to rise sharply. It’ll take a good while to reach parity, but it seems that they’re determined to have a bloody good try.

Our little wet home in a trench

The BEF is now occupying a large number of German trenches; for the first time it becomes clear just how good they are. General Haig has just had word about this…

General Headlam visited the captured positions about Fricourt yesterday. Some of the dugouts were 30 feet below ground, and in places a double tier! Also there were places arranged for shooting upwards from below at anyone in the trenches. [He considered] the effect of the artillery shooting was good, and the fire accurate.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Lionel Ferguson of the 13th Cheshires is looking around some trenches elsewhere.

This trench was dug about 15 feet deep and duckboarded. We must have gone through a mile of this, which was just wonderful; each fire bay had a ladder to it, also a deep dugout quite near; and after all our bombardment the trench was little damaged. If it had not been for a big mine we put up, we should surely never have been able to penetrate this system. We then selected a dugout for company headquarters; the best thing in dugouts I have ever seen.

It had two entrances being about 40 feet deep, extending underground about 30 yards. The inside room was fitted up with glass-doored cupboards, these contained detonators and mining implements. A large stove was fitted, also a periscope looking over the old British line. In an anteroom at one end was an engine for working the electric light of the trench system. At the opposite end was a tunnel large enough to place about 100 men.

There are, still, by the way, occasional casualties crawling back across the original No Man’s Land to the old British front line. They’ve been surviving off the iron rations and water bottles of the dead.

Battle of Erzincan

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus. Vehip Pasha’s recently-reinforced Third Army has surely done more than could have ever been expected of it by now. The end begins now; there’s been a breakthrough near Dencik, and elements of a Russian division are now securing the road to Bayburt. When the men immediately around the road realise this, they begin falling back. Panic quickly begins spreading, battalion by battalion, as every commanding officer notices the men on his flank executing a hasty advance to the rear. Nobody’s in a mood to get captured, or to fight to the last anything.

Eastern Front

Quick check in with the Brusilov Offensive, which we last saw a few weeks ago beginning to stall out due mostly to the need to give General Brusilov’s men a rest. Now the Russians have joint offensives ready to go at last. To the south Brusilov himself is launching a battle on the River Styr, near Kostiuchnowka (yes, I copied and pasted that). In the north, General Evert has finally been bullied into attacking something. Let’s play a game; one of these two attacks is going to work, and one is going to end in horrible failure. Who do you think succeeded in doing what?

Yeah, so the Austro-Hungarians are on the run again, and only a large and determined rearguard stand from the Polish Legions, a very interesting unit who we’ll learn more about in 1917, prevents complete disaster. Evert, meanwhile, totally unwilling to learn anything from the debacle of the Lake Naroch Offensive, presides over another bloody slaughter. So that’s fun. Offensives on both fronts, yo! Give it another month or so and I’m sure General Cadorna will be ready to join in. As it is, he’s still ordering pokes at the edges of the Asiago plateau, mostly for the look of the thing.

This is not all of note, though. The opening of the Battle of the Somme has won the Entente a diplomatic coup. During the summer of 1915, there were intensive negotiations between the Entente governments and Romania. Although the Prime Minister, Ion Bratianu, eventually backed off after the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive got rolling, he did manage to secure an important concession in principle. If Austria-Hungary survives the war, it will be stripped of large amounts of territory in which ethnic Romanians live.

Bratianu now thinks he sees which way the wind is blowing, and now signals that he’s ready for negotiations to restart. He has three conditions; two of them are easy enough to satisfy, but the third, not so much. The first two are that the Romanian army should be supplied with arms, and that the offensives on all fronts will be maintained; they were doing that anyway. The third, on the other hand, is that Romania should be guaranteed that as soon as they join the war, the Bulgarian Army won’t just turn round and stroll over their large land border to the capital Bucharest, barely fifty miles away.

Why is Romania worth making such lavish territorial promises to? Simple. Their army, fully mobilised, and including men fit only for rear-area duties, is 1.2 million men strong. A free 1.2 million extra men is, at this point, absolutely nothing to be sniffed at. More on all that to follow.

The war at sea

Admiral Scheer, commanding the German High Seas Fleet, has now finished an official report to the Kaiser on the Battle of Jutland. It starts well enough, with some thrilling narrative and a hopeful suggestion that he’ll be ready to put to sea again in mid-August. But, after the sugar, there comes some less palatable assessments. “Even the most successful outcome of a fleet action in this war will not force England to make peace”, he suggests. Jutland has made him a born-again convert. Unrestricted submarine warfare, he says, is the only way of using naval power to win the war.

Battle of Mecca

Some British artillery pieces have now arrived at Mecca, to help Hussein bin Ali and his rebels end the stalemate in the streets. With no artillery of their own, the Ottoman garrison is now faced with a choice between surrender and death, and they will, over the course of the next few days, choose to surrender. The fight for the Hejaz is now well and truly underway; more to come from the Arab Revolt.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien, as a second lieutenant, is now learning very quickly how to supervise a working party. As working parties go, he’s being thrown in at the deep end. No easy jobs building supply dumps in the rear for him. His men are expanding an official cemetery at Bouzincourt, mostly to take men who are dying of their wounds at the aid posts in the old British front line. And as he’s doing this, he’s had no news of either of his two friends who led platoons over the top on Z Day.

Alan Bott

We first met Lieutenant Alan Bott of the Royal Flying Corps early in June, with rumours of an imminent departure for France flying everywhere (hohoho). The rumours have continued for about a month; now, a serious development.

On July 4 a large detachment departs, after twelve hours’ notice, to replace casualties in France. Those remaining in the now incomplete unit grow wearily sarcastic. More last leave is granted. The camp is given over to rumour. An orderly, delivering a message to the Commanding Officer (formerly stationed in India) at the latter’s quarters, notes a light cotton tunic and two sun-helmets. Sun-helmets? Ah, somewhere East, of course. The men tell each other forthwith that their destination has been changed to Mesopotamia.

A band of strangers report in place of the draft that went to France, and in them the NCOs plant esprit de corps and the fear of God. The missing identity discs arrive, and a fourth Date is fixed, July 21. And the dwellers in the blinking hole, having been wolfed several times, are sceptical, and treat the latest report as a bad joke. “My dear man,” remarks the subaltern-who-knows, “it’s only some more hot air. I never believed in the other dates, and I don’t believe in this. If there’s one day of the three hundred and sixty-five when we shan’t go, it’s July the twenty-first!”

We’ll check back on July 21 to see who was right. At any rate, the role of the RFC on the Somme is often grossly overlooked in favour of mud and blood in the trenches. Having Bott around will help to correct that; once he finally gets out there, that is.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley has reached Ras-el-Ain. He’s survived the desert marches.

The column grew weak and slower, and at the end we had to use three carts to move the sick on in relays. The march to Tel Ermen was the worst. We were raided by Turkish troops on the march, and lost our boots and lots more. Above us the famous old town of Mardin lay perched up on its altitude, a high-walled and ramparted city of the Ancients looking over a waste of desert and enjoying a secluded life. We wondered how many treks like ours it had seen. We left more and more of the men and orderlies behind. The last stage was terribly trying, and we were doing forced marches by night and day.

We were done to a turn. Only the driving power of one’s will made one press on. At last we are arrived in the wretched village, but as I write I hear a locomotive puffing and puffing. We are on the railhead. No sailor after being tossed amid shipwreck in a frantic ocean ever felt happier to be in port than do we, to realize the long march is done. There are other marches ahead over mountains, but they are short, we hear. The desert is crossed.

I have just visited secretly a German NCO camp of mechanical transport close by. They gave me coffee and biscuits, and, in exchange for a khaki jacket and jodpurs, some tins of bully, a bag of coffee, and some cheese. They were on the point of giving me some more, but I had to go. They told me a lot about Germany, and of the German victory at Kattegat, of which I saw a description in a cutting just received by one of them. We believed, nevertheless, the German had in reality been well hammered on the sea.

The Germans couldn’t understand my incredulity, and said they didn’t see why they shouldn’t do on the sea what they had done on the land. Verdun, they said, would be taken in two weeks. They admitted the French defence was a surprise. Lord Kitchener’s death at sea I didn’t believe. Nevertheless, one feels one has reached partial civilization to be able to speak of France and the fleet, even to a German.

They’ll soon be moved on again, but as he suspects, the worst is now over. The “victory at Kattegat” is of course the Battle of Jutland.

E.S. Thompson

More bullshit to swallow for E.S. Thompson, the South African machine-gunner.

Anniversary of the July Strike. Cold morning. Shook blankets and had a good wash. Bought 4 chickens for supper tonight. Mac went to see his pals in town. Rest during the morning and had a shave. Paddy’s brother came along again and told us he was being sent back to the Union. He is suffering from heart disease. Read again during the afternoon and examined my clothes for ‘greybacks’ finding a good few. Mac returned bringing Alf and I a piece of shell each fired from the German gun. He told us that the ‘Supplies’ were betting that peace would be declared on Thursday. An armistice is supposed to be on.

The July Strike, in this context, was a major 1913 strike in and around Johannesburg by gold-miners. The government response, led by one J.C. Smuts (now transformed into General Smuts and presiding over the South African contribution to this giant cake and arse party in Tanzania), was to attempt to break the strike by force. July 4 was the day when railway workers called a sympathy strike and violent clashes followed on the streets.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has now been taken away from his gas duty at the Bois de Chenilles and sent to rear-area billets. Colonel Douce has just been promoted; there’s a new boss, and he’s intent on making his mark.

From dawn to dusk we had nothing but long exercises, maneuvers, and marches in a withering heat. It made us miss the trenches. This pounding and bashing came at the orders of the firm-handed colonel sent to the 296th Regiment, it was said, to shape us up, or to get us back into shape, because evidently someone had noted a slippage of discipline in the regiment. This was Colonel Robert.This terrible fellow stuck his nose into everything, watching, surveying first-hand to make sure that the numerous rules he issued each day at roll call were being observed.

What bothered him most of all was seeing the tail flaps of our uniform coats even a centimeter out of place, when they were folded back.
Even if you were a hero, brave as could be, or as smart as anyone, you were nothing but an idiot, a good-for-nothing, if you showed too much of the pocket underneath the flap.

The newly-restored Corporal Barthas, meanwhile, has been put in charge of a squad of new recruits in his battalion. Perhaps this is Commandant Quinze-Grammes’s idea of a punishment?

Some came right out of reform school; others, as delivery boys, had neglected to hand over to their bosses some money from a client; some, employed by the post office, had had the indiscretion to peek into the content of private letters. One of them had found nothing better to do than to kidnap a young miss of fourteen whose folks didn’t want to give her to him in marriage. Finally, there were those who, young as they were, had been convicted as pimps, and they proudly showed off the letters, packages, and money which their faithful “hens” sent to them.

To these kids precocious in vice, they had opened the prison gates in exchange for enlistment for the duration of the war. This was offered as a form of rehabilitation. Among them were a number of unfortunate orphans who, to free themselves from the tutelage of Public Assistance, had enlisted. They had been snared, dazzled by life on the front lines as depicted in the newspapers, and now they came to live out fantastic adventures and gather up stripes and medals with ease.

Let me hasten to say that these young rascals always treated me with respect and, I’d even dare to say, affection. It’s true that I didn’t use a rough manner. I reprimanded them as a comrade, as an older brother rather than as a superior in rank. I took an interest in their fates, writing applications for charity awards for these disinherited ones. And these poor little guys, many of whom would have only me to weep over their deaths, in exchange for my solicitude to them, took on a true and touching attachment for me.

He’ll have about two weeks in the rear, being drilled, getting to know his new charges, and letting them know he’s on their side.

Actions in Progress

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

Rain and raids | 28 Jun 1916

“Y” Day on the Somme

Just as most of the BEF’s part of the Western Front has been delivering intense artillery bombardments to disguise the location of the Big Push, the other three armies in the line are also raiding at night just as enthusiastically. Twelve or more raids per night, every night, from every army. The poor weather and the demands placed on the German air force from Verdun is also denying the defenders a great deal of critical aerial observation. And the men continue to suffer. They’ve been effectively confined to dugouts for four days, and after today there’s still two more days to go.

On the other hand, the rain of shells is being accompanied by a rain of rain, and if there ever was a time to be trapped indoors while it rains cats and dogs, it’s surely now. Over to Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler.

Heavy rain continued all the morning, and the country is rapidly becoming nothing but a slimy bog. We hear that the great Z Day has been postponed, as it would be quite impossible to attack over the ground in its present state. Today has been rather an unfortunate day, as there were several [shells exploding immediately after being fired] all around us, which caused many casualties. Besides, the enemy shelled Maricourt very severely.

Gee, postponing an offensive because it’s raining too hard for the ground to be passable by laden men. What an idea. Hope they don’t forget that that’s a thing they can do in years to come. Er, so there is another thing to note about the rain. Wet ground greatly increases the chance of shells not exploding when they land. The artillery is firing more time-fuze shells than ever before, many of them designed to burst in air to cut barbed wire, but there’s still a whole load of contact fuze shells out there as well. A contact fuze needs a firm impact with ground in order to explode. Soft ground is quite capable of just swallowing shells whole without ever providing enough pressure to detonate them…

Battle of Verdun

It’s another horrific day for Henri Desagneaux.

The Boches pound our positions, we take cover, some try to flee, we [officers] have to get our revolvers out again and stand in their way. Our nerves are frayed and it’s difficult to make them see reason.

Usually I don’t heckle combat accounts, and certainly not a relentless, hideous, horrible one like this. But I do have to say here, I am not sure that what you did was to make them see reason, Lieutenant.

At midday, while we are trying to eat a bit of chocolate, Agnel’s orderly has his back broken. The poor chap is groaning, there’s nothing we can do except wait for nightfall and then take him to the aid post. And will we be able to? The stretcher-bearers are frightened and don’t like coming to us. The nights are so short that they can only make one trip. One trip, four men to take one wounded on a stretcher.

It’s an inferno, the Boches are undoubtedly preparing to attack us. Shells scream down on every side, a new panic to be checked. At 6pm, when we are dazed and numb, the firing range lengthens, and suddenly everyone is on his feet, shouting “The Boches are coming!” They attack in massed formations in columns of eight! These troops, who moments ago were in despair, are at their posts in a twinkling. We hold our grenades until the Boches are at 15 metres, then let them have it. A machine gun which survived the avalanche of shells is wreaking havoc.

The Boches are cut down. We see dozens of dead and wounded and the rest retreating back to their trenches. Only about 9pm is it quieter. Our shell-holes are lakes of mud. It’s raining and we don’t know where to put ourselves. Our rifles don’t work any more. We can only rely on grenades, which are in short supply. Still no relief. Another 24 hours to get through. We lie down in the mud and wait.

Now then. These men have been out in the open for 13 days, barely any sleep, barely any food, barely any water. Twice as long as the Germans on the Somme will have been under continual fire when that battle starts, and then in deep dugouts. While it’s just shelling, French morale is at mud bottom. (I’d say rock bottom, but there appears to be no rock here.) But then, as soon as the alarm comes, this little knot of defenders pulls itself together, drags up the remnants of the last remaining kitchen sink, and throws everything they’ve got at the enemy.

That is not a promising sign for the Somme.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is writing his final letters home before going up the line for Z Day. He’s just had confirmation that the attack has been postponed and they will not be going forward today. It’s raining continuously where he is, well to the north of Fraser-Tytler.

It’s possible that mails will be interrupted a bit in the future. So, if you do not hear from me, I want you not to be unnecessarily anxious about me. There is nothing I can tell you,except that I am happy and very fit. The weather is fresh and the wind in the West, and it is beautiful weather, except for camping. For every now and then comes a heavy downpour.

News of Leslie Woodroffe’s death. I could never have thought that they would send him out again. He was so very much a part of [Shrewsbury School], and is still. Do you think that we all continue to have our part in the place after death, even when not remembered? I am very jealous of mine; and though I know such an article of faith is called animism or some such horrible name, yet I cling to the idea of becoming, after death, more completely a part of Shrewsbury than when I was an unworthy, active member of the community ; not by what I’ve done there, but by how much I have loved it.

It is inevitable, just at present, that we should think such things, and impossible, at present, for me to express them legibly or intelligibly. I expect Leslie Woodroffe thought something of the same sort, but I expect also that he met death easily, for I think he trained himself to self-sacrifice. Oh! I meant to say that there are five officers in this Company, and three of us are quoting “The Wrong Box” pretty frequently, much to the annoyance of the other two.

No surprises that The Wrong Box is popular just at the moment. It’s a black comedy novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (yes, the Treasure Island guy) and his stepson. The plot revolves around two brothers who are due to come into a lot of money if the other one dies first; hilarity ensues.

Madur

Near Trebizond, Vehip Pasha’s Third Army has finally evicted an extremely stubborn Turkistani battalion from the Madur mountain. From his perspective, further attacks have an excellent chance of cutting the Russians off from their newly-captured port. However, from General Yudenich’s perspective, this is neither here nor there. His own general offensive is nearly ready to begin, and when it does the attackers will have to retreat or be encircled. At this point, losing a mountain here or there is of singular unimportance to the Russian calculations. We’ll see who’s right.

Haig and the ANZACs

General Haig is dealing with one of the many knotty problems that the Commander-in-Chief has to deal with. It seems that for PR reasons, the Prime Minister of Australia, Billy Hughes, would prefer the Australian divisions currently resting loudly (more on them in a moment) near Boulogne be called the “Australian Army”. Haig gently points out that the “Australian Army” would be about half the size of any other BEF army. (He’s also mulling over the possibility of creating army groups along the French model.)

If an opportunity arose of using the two Australian corps independently under General Birdwood for any operation, I would try to do so, and then call the force the “Australian Army”. … Everywhere I found the troops in great spirits, and full of confidence. … Several officers have said to me that they have never known troops in such enthusiastic spirits. We must, I think, in fairness, give a good deal of credit for this to the parsons.

Mmm, you’re not really helping yourself in the “defending against accusations of turning the Army Chaplains’ Department into political commissars” stakes.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas, you may recall, has been employed on secret duties near Chenilles in Champagne. Not being stupid, they’ve soon worked out the secret.

[The work] consisted of digging shallow, projecting trenches with no more than two or three steps at the end. You didn’t need to be a wizard to figure out that these were shelters for preparing an emission of asphyxiating gas. Soon this was Polichinelle’s secret, and everyone added to it: we were going to launch these gases along the whole Champagne front; the gases we had launched up to now were nothing but simple insecticides, but these new ones would strike down the Boches to a depth of twenty kilometers.

Already in each regiment they were forming teams of “courageous” men to go explore, after the emission, the places where this breath of doom had passed. Special gas masks would be issued to them at Suippes, Mourmelon, and Châlons, and experiment after experiment would be carried out on the harmfulness of the gases and on the effectiveness of the gas masks.

Polichinelle is the commedia dell’arte character who in English is called Punchinello. He shares his secrets indiscreetly with the audience, so Punch’s secret is no secret at all. (Or, for our Australian readers: the secret you keep when you’re not keeping any secrets.)

E.S. Thompson

Speaking of bullshit latrine rumours, here’s one from E.S. Thompson, still in hospital at Kondoa Irangi.

Heard that Colonel Freeth paraded the regiment and made a speech in which he said that they were going into town to be re-equipped and that the hard work was over now and we would soon be homeward bound. He also thanked them for doing their duty so well. Major Hazeldene visited the hospital. There are rumours that the 7th and 8th Regiments are to be disbanded but I think it very unlikely at this stage.

Yeah, for once I’m on his side. This all is completely without foundation. The sort of thing that puts a bloke’s back up if he should hear it too often.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley has been allowed a short halt at Nisbin. On arrival he tries to follow up a rumour of a dead officer. This leads to a discovery.

I was led through a doorway of matting hanging from the mud-brick wall into a courtyard, where through an opening in the wall I saw a sight that staggered the imagination.

A bare strip of filthy ground ran down to the river some two hundred yards off. Along the wall, protected by only a few scanty leaves and loose grass flung over some tatti work of branches through which the fierce sun streamed with unabated violence, I saw some human forms which no eye but one acquainted with the phenomenon of the trek could possibly recognize as British soldiery. They were wasted to wreathes of skin hanging upon a bone frame. For the most part they were stark naked except for a rag around their loins, their garments having been sold to buy food, bread, milk, and medicine.

Their eyes were white with the death hue. Their sunken cheeks were covered with the unshaven growth of weeks. Some of the men were too weak to move. The result of the collection of filth and the unsanitary state in the centre of which these men lay in a climate like this can be imagined. Water was not regularly supplied to them, and those unable to walk had to crawl to the river for water. One could see their tracks through the dirt and grime. Three or four hard black biscuits lay near a dead man. Other forms near by I thought dead, but they moved unconsciously again. One saw the bee-hive phenomenon of flies which swarmed by the million going in and out of living men’s open mouths.

I talked long to [an officer] who understood some French, and told him how this sort of thing was destroying the name of Turkey and how for these things the day of reckoning must come. He was more moved by the latter than the former, knowing that in Turkey officials may be sacrificed for any caprice of another person. An Armenian was there also, and I much despised him for expressing horror to me of “les barbares” when the Turk was outside, but obviously siding with him when together.

I know, I know, there’s no way that Mousley could possibly know anything about the Armenian Genocide yet. But it still makes me grind my teeth. Incidentally, the railway he’s heading towards is of course the same one that our old correspondent Grigoris Balakian (of whom more when space permits) is now working on.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is out of the Non-Combatant Corps back in the ranks. From his latest comedy place name (it’s a joke about the Field of the Cloth of Gold), I am certain he is now in a camp near Balinghem. These days Balinghem has a large field hospital and its name, along with Tatinghem, has inspired three more hospitals named “Mendinghem”, “Dosinghem”, and “Bandagehem”. Mmm, that’s some seriously good crap punnery.

My new mates are, of course, quite a different type. At first, after a rather prolonged though compulsory stay with the gentle-spoken Conscietious Objectors, the sudden plunge into the atmosphere of strong language is as bewildering as the high-dive on an October morn. Instead of the genial criticism of some officer, calling him a “Silly old fool”, the worst language to be heard amongst the COs, here he is annihilated by the grim “Hie nothus constuprator!” In fact the various members of the word-family to which the most objectional adjective belongs occur again with deadly monotony in almost every sentence. “B” and Cicero’s “stercus curiae” are merely “also rans” compared with the great “F” group. The result of damnable social system and silly education!

For the present I am attached to the 12th Division. My tent corporal is a youngster of about eighteen – could be my son – from Northamptonshire. Nice boy ; worked in a shoe factory. We are only eleven at present in our tent. Every one of my tent-mates has been “out” at the front. Glorious material to study. At present they are all “off,” for outside the camp-gates the Australians are running innumerable Crown and Anchor games. “Shove it on, milads!” “Shove it on!” “Up she goes!”

My advisor on dead languages has very little idea what “Hie nothus constuprator!” is supposed to be, but “stercus curiae” is very probably something like “full of shit”. Nice to know Mugge can swear as long as it’s in Latin! Also, the apparent information about which unit he now belongs to is entirely useless and in fact outright aggravating, for reasons which I’ll go into when there’s not a major offensive starting in three days’ time.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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Somme postponed | 26 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

The weather has turned nasty over the Somme battlefields. Heavy summer rains are starting to blow in from the south, and they’re forecast to continue for a good few days. Generals Foch and Rawlinson confer and agree that they must wait for the rain to stop, and then allow the water time to drain away. “Z” Day is to be delayed once more, for a final time. After all the haggling and chopping and changing and changing back, we have now arrived once more at the men going over the top on the 1st of July 1916.

And the guns continue firing. The noise is now so loud that when the wind is right and a lot of them happen to fire in sync, the noise can be heard in England. This is causing a number of immediate practical problems, as Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler tells us.

Every order to the guns has to be written on slips of paper, it being absolutely impossible to hear the spoken word. The Hun commenced to reply, and what with frequent [premature detonations], the valley became pretty unhealthy. In the afternoon I went down to the front line in order to engage a portion of our zone which was difficult to see from our Observation Post. However, we had not been shooting long before some of our very heavy howitzers started a combined shoot on the Hun front line. However marvellous as a spectacle, this show did not conduce to accurate observation of our own small stuff.

About three o’clock the Huns started to reply in earnest and things became very sultry. We all got hit by some splinters, and Gunner Ryding had a wonderful escape, a razor-like splinter 15 inches long grazing the back of his neck. By 4pm the [telephone] wire was cut in many places, and I retired to my OP to continue the shoot from there. On arrival I found that Lowe, my OP subaltern, had gone off with four fractured ribs. A shell exploding near the OP had blown him down the 15-foot shaft, and although his fall was broken by the telephonist’s head, he managed to hurt himself pretty badly.

Here’s a problem that nobody appears to have considered beyond digging slit trenches in an attempt to protect their telephone lines. How do you keep the guns firing accurately once enemy return fire starts cutting the wire? I suppose it’s not so important right at this moment since everyone has a detailed firing plan. What happens when the guns are needed for on-call infantry support, though?

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the hill, it sucks. A lot. A whole honking lot. Here is Private Eversmann, who’s been underground near Thiepval for two days now.

They went at it left and right with heavy calibre guns and hammered us with shrapnel and light calibre pieces. Only with difficulty and distress have we obtained rations today. Two of my comrades got fatal hits while fetching dinner. The uncertainty is hard to bear. They have just found another of my comrades on his way back from ration carrying, a dear chap, three days back from leave and there he’s gone.

The German dugouts are generally equipped with at least two days of iron rations for just such an eventuality. For now, the men endure.

Battle of Verdun

The line at Verdun has almost entirely re-congealed. Here’s the map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

The attacks against Fort Souville have been suspended for the time being. Relentless artillery fire continues; it’s finally beginning to impact the concrete fort’s structural integrity. Everywhere else, there’s very little movement. The remnants of Fleury village, now reduced to a few scattered piles of shapeless rubble, are being brutally scrapped for. It’s often said that from now until mid-August, the rubble will change hands on sixteen different occasions. This is one of the purest expressions you will find of war as waste of life, senseless war, unthinking war, war for war’s sake.

I would say that, just to the west of Fleury, Henri Desagneaux is not doing well. Then I reconsider.

Our heavy mortars bombard Thiaumont. We must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. [The army] attacks incessantly. It’s four days since we we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning, during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun. Filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing, I am unrecognisable, frighteningly dirty.

Henri Desagneaux is still alive. Therefore, he is doing well.

Caucasus

In command of the Ottoman Third Army, Vehip Pasha has been gathering intelligence for his next move. The staff thinks they’ve found a weak point in the Russian deployment, off to the north. There seems to be a chance of attacking towards Surmene, not far from Trebizond, and cutting the Russian main body off from the port they’ve just captured. A nasty high-altitude brawl breaks out on the Madur mountain. As planned, they seem to have caught a Turkistani battalion isolated and outnumbered, but mountain fighting is never easy and their opponents aren’t particularly minded to go anywhere. More soon.

Emilio Lussu

Emilio Lussu’s adventures continue as the Italian army attempts simultaneously to harass the Austro-Hungarians in the foothills of the Dolomites while avoiding being shot for cowardice. His battalion’s machine guns have gone missing somewhere, so he goes back half a mile into the hills to find them. That’s not all he finds.

General Leone, [riding a mule alone], was climbing a rocky slope between the 2nd Battalion and our machine-gun unit. As the mule was moving along the edge of a steep drop, about 65 feet, it stumbled and the general fell off. The mule, unpeturbed, kept walking along the edge of the cliff. The general was hanging onto the reins, half his body dangling over the precipice. With each step, the mule yanked its head from side to side, trying to shake him off. There were a lot of soldiers nearby who saw him, but nobody made a move. I could see them all very clearly. Some of them winked at each other, smiling.

A soldier rushed out from the ranks of the machine-gun unit and threw himself on the ground in time to save the general. Without losing his composure, as though he had trained especially for accidents of this kind, the general re-mounted his mule, continued on his way, and disappeared. When the soldier’s comrades reached him, I witnessed a savage assault. … The soldier fell to the ground on his back. His comrades jumped on top of him. Punches and kicks slammed into the poor wretch, who was powerless to defend himself.

Lussu can’t watch any longer, and breaks it up. The man’s lieutenant appears, and offers a few quiet words of counsel.

“You imbecile! Today you dishonoured our unit. You should have done what everybody else did. Nothing. And even that was too much. A dumbass like you, I don’t even want in our unit. I’m going to have you thrown out. What were you supposed to do? You wanted to do something? Well then, you should have taken your bayonet and cut the reins and made the general fall off the cliff.”
“What? I should have let the general die?”
“Yes, you cretin, you should have let him die. And if he wasn’t going to die…you should have helped him die. Go back to the unit. If the rest of them kill you, you’ll have got what you deserve.”

The man’s eventual fate is unknown.

Conscientious objectors

Those British MPs who have been looking out for the rights of the conscientious objectors have just heard of the men who were recently sentenced to death and then reprieved. They’re not happy, and today they’ve managed to get the Prime Minister into the House of Commons so he can listen to them shouting. Mostly he just sits there and hides behind his air-raid shelter Harold Tennant. Over the next week or so, they’ll face several sessions of outraged questioning, and determinedly fail to answer the questions. The Government has a war to fight, after all.

Maximilian Mugge

Meanwhile, Maximilian Mugge has been transferred…somewhere (more on that in a moment). At any rate, it’s out of the Non-Combatant Corps and back into the mass of the Army.

Heard this afternoon that I was to be transferred to the 111th Royal Musketeers. I always held the Practical Joke Department was, after all, cruel to be kind; they only want to provide the scribe with a unique chance of studying all sorts and conditions of regiments. It is so much nicer to be amongst the “men,” without the incubus of shallow-brained and drawling staff-officers and the smell of petrol. Little pleasantries are unavoidable.

Only on the 24th of May my people [in England] were informed that ” Pte. Mugge has been transferred to the Non-Combatant Corps…no other transfer can be sanctioned,” and the present surprise packet states that Pte. Mugge has been irregularly transferred to the NCC, and will now be dispatched to the Musketeers; which is as much of an apology as you can expect from those high and mighty Infallibles!

That this last letter from the playful gods took a fortnight to get from Whitehall to Boulogne is in harmony with the dignity essential to all action on the part of the first cousins of the [Servants of Peace]. This War Office letter is dated the thirteenth of June, and to-day we write the twenty-sixth.

Couple of notes here. Where it says [Servants of Peace] up there, there was originally a wanky ancient Greek word. Fortunately I know someone who knows a bit of ancient Greek, and we’ve decided Mugge was probably trying to make a “Ministry of Peace”-style gag.

The “Royal Musketeers” is, again, almost certainly the Royal Fusiliers. Beyond that, I’d need to start trawling war diaries to find out who was where at the right time. British battalion numbering does not go as high as a one-hundred and eleventh battalion of anything. The 11th (Service) Battalion RF is currently preparing to attack Montauban; Mugge is not going anywhere near the Somme. The Fusiliers don’t have any Territorial battalions; there is a 1/11th London Regiment, but they’re in Egypt. Git.

Malcolm White

Malcolm White is touring the area that he’s going to be attacking when Z Day finally comes.

The Divisional General addressed the Battalion in the morning. In the afternoon I went up to the Sucrerie to reconnoitre a communication trench for carrying parties. I had a good view of the German lines round Beaumont Hamel, and the fountains of earth and smoke and ruin which spouted there. At 10 pm we moved to a bivouac a mile to the south of Beaussart, where the ground is shaken by a 15-inch howitzer close by. I begin to have a sort of pre-Bumping-race feeling from time to time. Heavy rain poured at intervals, and the men had no cover.

White competed in intercollegiate “bumping” or “bumps” rowing races at university, and then coached them while teaching at Shrewsbury. It’s a distinctly odd form of mass racing which involves a long line of boats, all chasing each other, and physically bumping into other boats to overtake them. What White is describing here, the rest of England knows as butterflies in the stomach.

Evelyn Southwell

White’s friend Evelyn Southwell has finished his time at the divisional school of instruction, and now finds himself in a rather odd part of the line with the 9th Rifle Brigade. I’m trying to find out where exactly it is, but wherever it is, it appears to run directly through a ruined village.

I am in the trenches, and also in a house, very much as before as regards situation. The first floor is not, and the roof is one of the never-was-es by all appearances, and the ground. And oh, I saw the Sussex at Boulogne, with all her bones stove in, without a trace of emotion. I have seen too many ruins before now in this game, and one is very like another; a house that is no house has too often been an everyday sight.

And so, when I came here, I found this billet a shade more demolished than anything I thought possible, the whole air rather more [sad] and sinister; but that was all. I could stand all that, and even the piano (shade of Ivor Atkins!) shattered to bits, and the keys choked with brick-dust, but one thing was just a fraction too much, and when I saw it I confess I caught my breath for a moment. It was a child’s marble, chipped, and past all hope of rolling…

They are quaint places, these trenches, that wander in and out of houses, and in a way rather picturesque. Summer fights its way in even here, and you may find your face brushed with a yellow cornflower, sticking out of the side of a field as you plod along through the trench, and remember better days.

Ivor Atkins is a well-known organist of the day; SS Sussex we saw being torpedoed by UB-29 on the 24th of March this year.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Bayburt | French infantry tactics | 20 Jun 1916

Offensives in Anatolia

We begin today with a return to the Russo-Ottoman fighting on the Caucasus front. Quick recap: the Ottomans have sent significant reinforcements to this front to oppose General Yudenich’s Army of the Caucasus. When the process is complete, they’ll then have two separate armies on this front (Second and Third) and be able to launch an offensive to push the Russians back towards Sarikamis. Indeed, Third Army recently gave the Russians a bloody nose and is now looking to follow it up with another firm punch.

It’s an adroit plan, with only three minor drawbacks. First, minister of war Enver Pasha has not seen fit to appoint an army group commander to ensure that Vehip Pasha and Izzet Pasha, the two commanding generals, are pulling on the same rope. Second, while Third Army is back to something vaguely near its strength before the Erzurum Offensive, Second Army currently has only two out of a planned four corps in theatre. Third, and most importantly, General Yudenich has no intention of allowing his enemy time to get themselves sorted out.

He’s spent the last little while planning a fresh offensive. Facing a weakened enemy, he now doesn’t need to do anything sneaky or risky like advancing through almost-impassable mountains during winter. The basic strategic concept here is simple and very resistant to contact with the opposition. This time he’s looking to thrust out of Erzurum towards Bayburt and then to the Third Army’s new headquarters at Erzincan. This new offensive is due to go in at the start of July. Which is annoying, because we’ll be just slightly distracted with the Western Front in early July, but I’ll try to check back in here as soon as possible.

Battle of the Somme

In preparation for the French contribution to the Battle of the Somme, General Foch is now writing a long doctrinal memo for general distribution. He’s still one of the French Army’s most respected tactical thinkers, and there are a number of interesting thoughts here when compared to how the BEF will be attacking. He begins by insisting that no infantry assault take place without proper artillery preparation.

The infantry, having no shock action, cannot attack in a mass formation. The number [of men attacking] is no indication of the power of its action. Real combat is a struggle of long duration. To conduct it to the decisive result, the infantry must be able to endure. Commanders must conduct battles with a strict economy, and ask soldiers to do only what they are capable of doing.

Yes, this is the same Ferdinand Foch who as commandant of the French Ecole Superieure de la Guerre wrote a stack of books and monographs on the need for aggressive infantry attacks and the critical value of elan and the bayonet. His memo also includes considerable battlefield advice; come 1917, the BEF will be enthusiastically adopting these ideas.

Put simply (possibly over-simply), in 1915 attacking infantry generally acted as a large group of riflemen who had a few mates tagging along to help, and they were armed with grenades or machine-guns. This is now changing. On the Somme, the French infantry is now built around its grenadier squads. The hand grenade has been recognised as a crucial weapon when fighting in the trenches, because it can be thrown over the lip of the trench and then back down on the other side of a zig-zag. (This negates some of the advantage of digging zig-zag trenches, which are built that way so that one infantryman can’t fire one rifle bullet down 300 yards of trench and shoot multiple men.) Grenades can also be thrown into dugouts and other such points of resistance to encourage the enemy to surrender.

So now the French infantry’s platoon and squad-level tactics are entirely based around protecting their grenadiers. Riflemen defend them at short range, fighting hand-to-hand or with short-range rifle fire. Machine-gunners defend them at medium range, and then called-in fire from one’s own trench mortars and field guns defend them at long range.

Now, quite a few individual BEF low-ranking officers have noticed how valuable grenades bombs are, especially when they find themselves under attack without any. Quite a few battalions will go into battle on the Somme with orders for rifle and machine-gun squads to deliver the grenadiers bombers onto the enemy. However, thesee thoughts are not quite obvious enough yet for any red-tabbed generals to have noticed them. Don’t worry, in a month or two they’ll have it good and figured out! Mostly. Sort of.

Use of tanks

You might recall that there are two schools of thought about when tanks should first be used by the BEF. General Haig approves, but he appears to be almost too enthusiastic, determined to see the new weapon in action as soon as possible, regardless of their numbers. The latest forecast for completion of the initial order of 150 Mark I tanks is 50 by 1st August and the rest by “early September”. Quite a lot of people, including Colonel Swinton (one of the chief minds behind the tank concept) and Colonel Hankey (secretary to the War Committee), are convinced that throwing small numbers in as soon as possible would be a huge mistake. Tanks should instead be kept back and used all at once in a large surprise attack.

About now, the Tank Supply Committee’s training area at Elveden is hosting a Frenchman usually known as Colonel Estienne, who is to French tanks as Colonel Swinton is to British ones. He’s come with the intent of getting some kind of agreement on synchronised tank production. The Schneider CA1, France’s first tank, is shaping up to be (relatively speaking) somewhat faster and lighter than the British Mark I. Estienne is proposing that this division be maintained; the Tank Supply Committee should focus on developing heavy tanks, while the French develop lighter ones.

He too is extremely concerned by the idea of the BEF throwing them in as soon as possible. His idea is to keep them secret until 1917, when the French Army will have 400 Schneiders, and then launch a combined offensive to achieve maximum surprise with the new weapon. It’s a very, very seductive idea, and we shall examine it later in more detail. For now, suffice it to say that everyone is perfectly polite to the amusing foreigner.

Henri Desagneaux

At the Battle of Verdun, Henri Desagneaux now has food, but no water; the men are reduced to trying to catch rainwater in empty cans. It’s now high summer, which isn’t helping.

By day, the heat is overpowering. We are surrounded by flies and corpses which give off a nauseating smell. On the alert the whole night. Our position is critical. The ravine cannot be occupied because of the shelling. The Thiaumont works are being bombarded continuously. On the left, Bras and Mort Homme are being shelled. The morning is calmer, but at 1pm the firing starts up again. It’s a battle of extermination, Man against the Cannon.

10pm: Great commotion, red and white flares, chatter of machine-guns, thunder of artillery. 400 metres from us, a new attack is unleashed upon our lines. Every man is at his post waiting, the whole night through. Will the Boches rush us from the top of the ridge? Shells explode, all around men fall wounded. We are blinded by the shells, by the earth they throw up. It’s an inferno, one could write about such a day minute by minute. Orders to stand by arrive.

And still the main German hammer is yet to fall.

Oskar Teichman

In Egypt, Oskar Teichman has had some rather unpleasant orders.

It was decided that two of us, accompanied by two sergeants and twelve men, should march to Katia, in order to re-bury and identify some of our dead. A few days after the battle these had been buried by the Australian Light Horse, but news had reached us that the wind had uncovered the graves in the exposed position.

At 10.30 pm, a message came through from Ismailia stating that a cyclone was approaching the Canal area at 90 miles an hour, and that our tents and huts would be blown away unless strengthened. A few minutes later every tent-peg in Kantara was being driven deeper into the sand, and the tapping of the mallets resounded throughout the camp. Everyone stood by for the expected cyclone; this, however, never arrived. It is supposed that it must have taken a different course, as, with the exception of a stiff breeze, nothing occurred.

The battle mentioned here was one of many small actions during the recent Ottoman recon-by-fire exercise of the Suez Canal defences. Katia is far enough away to require a few days of marching.

Edward Mousley

In Mesopotamia, Edward Mousley has yet more marching ahead of him. They leave Mosul today, heading vaguely north towards the slowly-advancing Berlin-Baghdad railway.

For transport we were shown a set of a dozen untrained, wild and unharnessed camels, altogether the most savage and nasty brutes I have ever seen. They were unapproachable and snapped and gyrated and then trotted away. If a kit were fixed on they proceeded to brush it off. One or two had a rotten saddletree without any girths, bridles or head-straps there were none, only a piece of rotten rag or rope being around the animals’ heads. We had, however, already laid in a stock of the best rope we could get, and having first fitted this into the jaws of the brutes, proceeded to fix on our kit.

I was very amused at the efforts of the Turks to help us. They tied the kit actually on one camel’s neck, and our Indian bearers went one better by tying it on to his legs. However, finally we got most of our kit on board, and then the fun started. First one and then another got loose, as the servants were too weak to hold them. Soon the road was a procession of fleeing camels dropping bundle after bundle in their headlong flight. This pantomime went on for hours.

It was awfully hot. An hour later, blinded with perspiration and dust and in the last stage of exhaustion, we set out again, having done only about four miles of this terrible trek of which we had heard so much and which was now said to be worse than the other we had just finished. We plodded on … then went on in two columns, one of which got lost and did several miles too much, joining us before the dawn in time to start again. The camel pantomime continued.

This is how it was if you were an officer, and therefore merited improved treatment. I can hardly bear to think about how this march must have been for the men.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is being rousted out of his close reserve billets in Champagne and sent somewhere new.

We were marched up to the trenches to carry out some work upon which an impenetrable mystery hung. They split us up as we got close to the front lines, in the middle of a pine forest called the “Bois des Chenilles” [Woods of the Caterpillars]. I don’t know why, because I never saw one specimen of this creature there. I was ordered to put myself at the disposal of the railway station at Chenilles. This station, in a clearing eight hundred meters from the front line, was filled with all sorts of entrenching materials brought up every night by the narrow-gauge Decauville trains.

But the locomotive prudently stayed at one station farther up the line, and the freight cars were hauled up at great effort by some thin and skeletal horses. The Chenilles station chief, a big-bellied slacker who never left his lair, had plenty to say to everyone, in full voice, gesticulating with an air of importance no way inferior to that of station chiefs in the biggest stations in Paris. He chewed me out because I was late, and didn’t let us go until around midnight without paying us a simple thank-you.

Ah, a mystery. J’aime a good mystery.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is about to leave the divisional school and go back to his battalion. He’s still mourning the loss of his friend and fellow Shrewsbury School master Leslie Woodroffe in this letter to another Shrewsbury man.

He was of course, as you say, a man with a vast number of friends. One meets them constantly and unexpectedly out here, in many Battalions. He gave me very valuable help in several ways both before and after joining, and I have always felt under rather a special debt to him. Can you not imagine how gloriously placid he would be in a big bombardment?

We were all distressed at the news here, in this very composite crowd (one officer per Battalion throughout the Division), and what his loss will be to the Regiment I cannot imagine. And to Shrewsbury no less, I fear. Somehow it seems always the best that are the first to go, even if only by a miserable stroke of luck such as this.

And the war goes on.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide

Brusilov Overture | Fort Vaux | 4 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

The great summer offensive plays its overture today. Today is given over entirely to artillery barrages. The Austro-Hungarian generals remain unconcerned; if this really is the prelude to an attack, the Russians will surely make like they did at Lake Naroch and precede it with a multiple-day bombardment. Surely. It stands to reason. Another drink? Why not, indeed. Nothing to be concerned about just yet!

As it happens, here’s another thing General Brusilov’s staff has figured out. Not only is there a point past which artillery barrages start bringing in sharply diminishing returns, they’ve also realised that it’s far more feasible to use these bombardments at least partly to suppress the enemy, then cross No Man’s Land and capture them in their dugouts and shelters before they can open fire. The battle proper opens tomorrow. Which is convenient, because today is seriously stacked with other news.

Battle of Verdun

Another French attempt at sending fresh men into Fort Vaux fails miserably. On the other side of the hill, the Germans have sent fresh flamethrowers forward to deal with the situation. Fire and smoke rips through the confined tunnels, and inevitably their defenders retreat. For a moment it seems as though the Germans will follow the fire right into the rest of the fort, but the French have access to the most unlikely of weapons. The fort has a few portable hand-operated fans, in case the natural air circulation breaks down. When the flamethrower attacks come in, someone keeps enough about them to crank up the fans.

And the fire blows right back on the Germans. More vicious fighting. More horrific deaths. One of the access tunnels has caught fire. The other is re-occupied in the nick of time. Some thinking follows, and that tunnel is then blocked and blown up and generally made completely inaccessible. They can’t get at the other tunnel, though, owing to the fire…

Then follows another blow, this one much more critical. The fort has run out of water. The meticulous records insist that they should still have enough water for a little while yet, but as it turns out, some of the men who previously occupied the fort did not care much for accurate paperwork. The records they handed over to Raynal were completely inaccurate. They’ve gone from being able to hold out for a long time to come, to being on the verge of dying of thirst. Anyone who isn’t still fit to fight is to leave, and Raynal is desperate to establish communication with Fort Souville by signalling lamp, the only means of communication left to him.

Mamahatun Offensive

Baack to the Mamahatun Offensive in the Caucasus, which we’ve unfortunately been short-changing due to sheer lack of information. The Ottoman Third Army has been attacking tired and disorganised Russians for the past week, with quite a bit of success. Had there been plentiful reinforcements to throw in, they might have kept up the successes and forced a major retreat towards Erzurum, possibly splitting General Yudenich’s main body apart from the men at Trebizond.

There were not plentiful reinforcements. The men who attacked were the plentiful reinforcements. They were supposed to be the core of the new Third Army, and now they’ve been fighting, taking casualties, tiring themselves out. They’ve now been mostly fought to the stop by equally plentiful Russian reinforcements. Another fresh division has dodged a lurking German U-boat and landed near Trebizond. This is deeply worrying; the offensive is called off, having mildly worried the Russian commander-in-chief. Vehip Pasha’s staff now begin trying to work out whether they can do anything to oppose Russian control of Erzurum.

General Yudenich, meanwhile, has already turned his opinion to “what do I do next?” The offensive caught him somewhat by surprise, but now the situation’s back under control. Planning begins for the next major offensive. It’s not particularly complicated; Yudenich intends to shove a lot of men down the Erzurum-Erzincan road and split Third Army in two. Annoyingly, he’s timetabling it to begin on about the 2nd of July, when something else a bit bigger might be going on.

Battle of Jutland

I like to imagine a large transparent box sitting in the Admiralty’s operations room. The assembled admirals, as they sit in their latest conference, are all trying very hard to ignore the box. Inside is Winston Churchill, returned from the trenches, snoozing quietly. There’s an IV drip in his arm, administering a careful flow of Pol Roger champagne to keep his blood alcohol level just so. There is a sign on the box. It reads “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS”. And this is not just an emergency; it’s an emergency that requires an exceptional public speaker.

There is, however, no hammer. A minion must be sent out to get one. But they’ve now broken the glass, given Churchill everyone’s reports, and instructed him to please do something about this damned German narrative. It doesn’t take him long to figure out the obvious interpretation. The Grand Fleet might have lost a few ships more, and considerably more men, than the Germans. But the battle ended with both fleets exchanging fire and the Germans running the fuck away very fast. That is not, traditionally, how the winning side marks a great victory.

Churchill’s analysis pushes that angle as hard as possible. However, it does offend the British newspapermen. They’re all horribly offended that a politician (and a failed First Lord of the Admiralty at that) has been given access to secret documents and they have not. They all remember the political machinations on the Western Front in 1915, the Shell Crisis, the wrangling over the Battle of Loos. If the Army can attempt to cover up the scale of a major loss, and the reasons for a loss, why shouldn’t the Navy? What the Admiralty needs now is a few clear days to push their angle hard and without distractions.

Lord Kitchener’s mission

Maybe now is a good time to be out of the country. In Russia, Lord Kitchener will surely have to field fewer damn fool questions about Jutland, if nothing else. With a little luck, he might even be able to see the Russians winning a major victory, and find out how it might be done. Maybe they can work out some deal to send the Russians more supplies, somehow. Nobody in the Cabinet seems to like him any more. So, very quietly, he leaves London today by sleeper train, heading for Thurso, and eventually for Scapa Flow. We’ll pick the mission up if anything ever comes of it.

Tanks

Colonel Swinton of the Tank Supply Committee currently has the unenviable job of trying to train the first tank crews with precisely one machine; the prototype, Mother. The good news is that Mother’s engine is working fine and crews can now start learning how to move a tank about a battlefield. The bad news, a minor flaw I’m sure, is that Mother has no sponsons (she had them at the trials; they were probably removed to be used as templates for the manufacturers) and no guns to fire from them. By the end of the month they will have five whole tanks, but still no hint of sponsons…

Georges Connes

A long way from all this, Georges Connes has just been ordered to march about 25 miles to Stenay. Fortunately, Connes’s group includes one Commandant Mercier. Mercier may not have much left after being captured, but he still has his dignity, and he evidently is an accomplished bullshitter.

Speaking firmly, he states to the German officer that we are too tired to walk. He further argues that the French transport German officer-prisoners by car (how does he know this?) and demands the same treatment. His request is immediately fulfilled. Five or six peasant carts arrive, each one led by a soldier, and we board as we like. Personally, I believe that the German officer from whom we requested something reasonable and easy didn’t see any reason to refuse. As for the privates, they will walk. No carts for them.

[In Stenay] I spent dismal days, the most sinister of my captivity. The joy of knowing we won’t be killed doesn’t sustain us for very long. One soon gets used to no longer dying. Already I can forsee where our main suffering will come from. We will suffer more because of one another, being crowded and without privacy, than from our guards, who we rarely see. German authority seems to be represented by a vociferous officer who walks about the courtyard yelling all the time. He is typical of those barking officers who constitute the major strength of all the armies of the world.

Damn, I really wish now that he’d written memoirs about the first part of his war.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge has finished moving to wherever it is in France he’s going. It has a town and some docks. I’ll let you know where it is once I work it out.

After a long and weary railway journey lasting several days we have arrived in a “hutted” camp. Why a journey which in peace-time would have taken not more than eight hours should require four days, passes my understanding. I am glad the journey is ended. Last night, for the first time since Tuesday morning, I put off my clothes. What a relief ! And no more climbing of hills with that kit-bag on one’s back. After half-an-hour of it I always feel like Sinbad the Sailor must have felt when he carried the Old Man of the Sea. The THING grows heavier and heavier.

To-day is a rest-day. To-morrow I presume will see us hard at work. Loading, unloading, road-making? Went with John and Fair into the town. Found it awfully hard to walk on cobbled pavements or on flag-stones. Whenever we encountered a slope in the rather undulating streets of the older town, we began to move about in all directions like a crowd of drunken roller-skaters.

The trouble is his brand new boots with hob-nailed soles. I’ll lay very good odds that he’s never worn hob-nailed boots before in his life.

Bernard Adams

Nothing of importance is happening for Bernard Adams at the Bois Francais. He continues going in and out of the line, preparing for the Battle of the Somme. They’ve recently thrown a very good concert party for the men in Amiens, and been visited for the occasion by the music-hall star Basil Hallam. They’re due back up the line tomorrow, but now is the time to eat, drink, and make merry. They’ve even invited the grizzled old sweat Captain Jim Potter of the quartermaster’s department round. Captain Potter, in the tradition of senior Army quartermasters, was commissioned from the ranks after winning two medals in the Boer War, and therefore is a most entertaining dinner guest. After dinner, they sit around talking about this and that.

“A good entry tonight in Comic Cuts”, I remarked. “‘A dog was heard barking in Fricourt ad 11pm.’ Someone must have been hard up for intelligence to put that in.
“A dog barking in Fricourt”, said old Jim, marked. “What’s that, Corps stuff? I never read the thing. That’s what it is to have a Staff. A dog barking in Fricourt!”
“The Corps officer didn’t hear it. It was some battalion intelligence officer that was such a fool to report it.”
“I’d like to meet the fellow. The first fellow I’ve ever met yet who has a just appreciation of the brain capacity of the Staff. You or I might have thought of reporting a dog’s mew, or roar, or bellow. But a dog’s bark we should have thought of no interest whatever to the, er, fellows up there, you know, who plan our destinies.” And he gave an obsequious flick of his hand, to an imaginary person too high up to see him at all. “The Staff”, he went on, with the greatest contempt. “I saw three of them in a car today. I stood to attention. Saluted. A young fellow waved his hand, graciously accepted my salute, and passed on, leaning back in his limousine. The Brains of the British Army, I thought. Pah!”

This is the best entertainment that Jim Potter can offer, so Adams and his chums continue winding him up. Do you think there might be a push soon, Jim?

“Of course there will be a push. The Staff must have something to show for themselves. ‘Shove ’em in!’, they say, ‘rather a bigger front than last time. Strategy? Oh no, that’s out of date, you know. Five-mile front. Frontal attack. Get a few hundred thousand mown down, and then discover the Boche has got a second line. The Staff. Pah!” And no more would he say.

More drink is taken. The young men round the table begin arsing around and engaging in small doses of High Spirits until the wee hours. At great length, the drink runs out, and they eventually retire to bed.

As I opened the door of my billet, I heard a strafe getting up. “In” tomorrow, I thought. I lost no time in getting into bed, and yet I could not sleep. I could not help thinking of the jollity of the last few hours, the humour. Most of all I thought of old Jim, the mainspring somehow of it all. And again I saw the picture of the concert a few nights ago, the bright lights of the stage, the crowds of our fellows, all their bodies and spirits for the moment relaxed.

And lastly I thought of Private Benjamin [one of his snipers], that refined eager face, that rather delicate body, and that warm hand as I placed mine over his, squeezing the trigger. He was no more than a child, really, a simple-minded child of Wales. Somehow it was more terrible that these young boys should see the war, than for the older men. Yet were we not all children wondering, wondering, wondering? Yes, we were like children faced by a wild beast. “Sometimes I dislike you almost,” I thought. “Your dullness, your coarseness, your lack of romance, your unattractiveness. Yet that is only physical. You, I love really.”

And in the darkness, I buried my face in the pillow, and sobbed.

And the war goes on.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Mamahatun Offensive
Battle of Mont Sorrel
Brusilov Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide