Joffre and Haig | Tanks | 10 Aug 1916

Sixth Isonzo

The Italian Army is now, three days too late, pulling its collective finger out for a jolly good bash at the Austro-Hungarians’ reserve positions behind Gorizia. General Boroevic’s reserves have now finally arrived from their billets far behind the line; the defenders are firmly installed. After a brief period of excitement, we’re now back in exactly the same situation we’ve been in for the past year. The enemy is firmly dug into new positions, just as resistant to attack as the ones they’ve just left. There are half-arsed attacks without proper artillery support or observation. Rinse and repeat for a solid week.

All General Cadorna can do is bleat helplessly about his subordinates’ alleged slowness in following imaginary orders to capture Gorizia and push on. Well, in private, at least. He’s also made sure to invite all his pet newspapermen for personal briefings on the glorious victory he personally has just won. And so soon after repelling the perfidious enemy’s attack on the Asiago plateau, too! By the time the papers are done, the worst general of the war will also be its biggest hero. For a little while.

Battle of the Somme

Generals Joffre and Haig are total BFFs about now, visiting each other’s headquarters and writing letters to each other to propose grandiose combined offensives. For reasons that remain hard to explain, apparently a good thing to do is to launch a major all-out push from High Wood to the north bank of the River Somme. With seven days to prepare. Ugh. While relations between the two commanders-in-chief appear better than ever, they’re both having a rather unpleasant day.

General Haig is trying every measure possible (short of taking actual responsibility) to get 4th Army commander General Rawlinson to do his job properly. His latest wheeze is to send chief of staff General Kiggell round with a rude message to the effect of “please take personal control and responsibility for the next attack”. Meanwhile, those ANZACs at Pozieres are being given orders to push north-west tomorrow, downhill towards Mouquet Farm. The blokes, incidentally, prefer to call it “Mucky” or “Moo Cow” Farm.

Meanwhile meanwhile, General Joffre’s problem appears to be General Haig. Or so his liaison officer at Haig’s headquarters is saying, in an absolutely devastating report. Words like “disoriented” and “disarray” and “slow” have been used with worrying regularity. He’s extremely offended by the “small, distinct attacks” that the BEF is carrying out. “As far as the English are concerned, the Battle of the Somme is dead.” He concludes with the damning observation that neither the Commander-in-Chief nor his army commanders are actually commanding; real authority is only to be found at corps or division level.

Tanks

Meanwhile. Everyone and his dog, it seems, has a complaint about how the tank development programme is being managed. There’s the few short-sighted twerps, of course, who can’t see what they’re for in the first place. Then there are the military geniuses, who are convinced that having seen a tank run once for half an hour, they clearly know exactly how to use them. This is causing considerable friction between the Staff and Lt-Col Brough, Colonel Swinton’s liaison officer. Brough, unlike almost anyone else at GHQ, has read Swinton’s Notes on the Employment of Tanks, and he’s insisted on advocating loudly for its principles.

This is deeply unwelcome. Brough has now been officially deemed “difficult” after just three weeks in France and will soon be replaced by a fresh, hopefully more compliant man. And not one who will complain about plans to stage a punishing series of tank tests in France, or proposals to use tanks as individual infantry support weapons rather than as a solid mass of metal. On top of all this, General Haig has just been sent a deeply annoying letter stating that there can be no spare parts for the tanks until 1 September at the earliest. Insert disgruntled Scotch groans here.

First Doiran

The French attack near Doiran Lake.

Yeah, good luck trying to find out any more about it, I had the devil’s own time. In theory the French have the requisite three-to-one advantage that’s required to get anything done. In practice? Seems that the defending Bulgarians gave them a jolly good spanking and sent them back to their trenches to think again. Still, these attacks aren’t necessarily supposed to succeed, just happen. I’m sure it was a comfort to the families of the dead. No, sorry, “wasn’t”. Wasn’t a comfort. At all.

Briggs Kilburn Adams

Briggs Kilburn Adams continues his ridiculous summer job as an ambulance-driver on the Voie Sacree.

Any number of cars have been smashed, and fellows are getting nicked all the time, for they are more exposed than the men in the trenches. One fellow had a blow-out, so he got out to fix it. Just then a shell took off the seat he had left. Another driver was lying underneath his car fixing something. A shell hit it and knocked the car away and smashed it to bits, while he was left there lying on his back in the road with his hands reaching up holding a wrench, more surprised than you could imagine, and without a scratch.

Another fellow was famous for being the rottenest driver in that section. In one of the worst places he stalled his engine. While he was down cranking it, a shell went through his car killing one of the wounded fellows. The driver got his Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire! If he had been a decent driver he would have been out of the way and would not have got it.

Aeroplanes are as thick as flies about here. Just now I can see three playing tag, pretending one is a German and chasing it.

He’ll soon have to go back home and get on with his university studies at Harvard.

Max Plowman

Max Plowman is moving forward, closer to the Somme, leading his platoon on the march. The 10th Green Howards have received another reinforcement-draft, but they’re still comfortably below full strength.

There is a boy from D Company doing Field Punishment No. 1. His outstretched arms are tied to the wheel of a travelling field-kitchen. The Regimental Sergeant-Major has just told me that the boy is there for falling out on the march. He defended himself before the Commanding Officer by saying that he had splinters of glass in his feet; but the Medical Officer decided against him. Quite possibly the boy is a liar; but wouldn’t the army do well to avoid punishments which remind men of the Crucifixion?

And these two men being marched up and down in the blazing heat, under the raucous voice of the provost-sergeant, they disturb all peace of mind. I do not know from what offences they are doing “pack-drill,” but it is depressing to see them, loaded with rifles and full packs, going to and fro over a piece of ground not more than twenty yards long, moving like automata under that awful voice.

Volunteers going into battle! I think with almost physical sickness of the legends that sustain our armchair patriots at home.

Field punishment is sometimes excused by people who take great pains to point out that the Manual of Military Law expressly prohibited tying men in a way that caused physical harm. And yet, it’s still happening; this is a stress position. Funny how that happens despite the regulation, isn’t it? I’m sure the fire-breathing colonel approved.

Oswin Creighton

Padre Oswin Creighton has switched camps and finds his new surroundings, at Witley Camp in Surrey, much more to his liking than Romsey.

I had such a warm welcome here. The officers are so friendly. No one knew I was coming, but they made me at home at once. They are all young fellows with very strong Manchester accents, analytical chemists and such like. Several of them were out at Gallipoli. One remembers me at the Depot. We talk a great deal about Gallipoli.

Later. – I am with the 5th Lancashire Fusiliers now. It is a quaint sort of job, but I am getting into the way of looking at all these jobs from an explorer’s point of view. Almost nothing of a religious nature seems to have been attempted among the men here, and there is the usual sense of the utter estrangement of the Church from them.

Creighton has his work cut out for him. Unfortunately, his mother didn’t think the details, if ever he wrote of them, to be of much public interest, so edited them out of the published collection of his letters. Thanks for that.

Maximilian Mugge

The full nature of Maximilian Mugge’s predicament has now become apparent. He’s washed up at Pease Pottage Camp outside Crawley, home of the 30th Middlesex Regiment. But his latest unit is even stranger than the Non-Combatant Corps.

When I had recovered from the first shock and regained my breath. I turned to the pale faced clerks in the Orderly Room Tent and said, ” Then I take it, this is not a Regiment at all! This is a political concentration camp!”

“Hush! hush! You mustn’t say such a thing”, exclaimed a horrified staff sergeant but the six feet of formidable and dirty picturesqueness of my appearance as an expeditionary soldier overawed these knights of the pens, and nothing happened to me.

One of my tent-mates who had arrived from a fighting unit a few hours before me was crying bitterly half the night. He was English bred and born, spoke no other tongue but that of Shakespeare, had volunteered in 1914, had been wounded in the Mons retreat and here he was, as he cried, “Treated like a bloody Hun!” It was heart-rending to listen to that boy’s agony, his sighs and curses and groans.

I doubt anyone wants to read six paragraphs’ worth of incoherent swearing in response to this concept, although I did type some of it out and then delete it again. This is exactly what Mugge says it is; a quarantine battalion for people considered too dangerously German to be allowed in the rest of the Army. More details will emerge in due course as our correspondent gets his righteous anger into high gear.

I really, really, really don’t want to nitpick the guy today, but. I do have to make the observation that it would be all but impossible for a man to volunteer in August 1914 and then end up on the retreat from Mons. I do hope someone hasn’t been, ahem, improving their story slightly. I suppose it’s possible that he joined the Army in the early months of 1914, but usually when people talk about volunteering “in 1914”, they mean they volunteered at the start of the war.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Bitlis
Battle of Romani
Battle of the Isonzo (Sixth Isonzo)
Battle of Doiran (First Doiran)

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

Retaking Mont Sorrel | Mecca | 13 Jun 1916

Battle of Mont Sorrel

At the Battle of Mont Sorrel, the Germans are not overly concerned by another 30-minute Canadian artillery bombardment. Leaving only a few sentries, most of them take shelter in such dugouts as haven’t been pulverised by 10 days of withering fire and counter-fire from both sides. There’s still a good couple of hours to go before the danger hour around dawn. There’s nothing to concern them.

Or so they think. Just before 1:30am, the supporting artillery begins launching smoke shells into No Man’s Land. Even if some of the defenders work out what’s going on and call for support, it’s now no good their sending up flares. Light loses against smoke; the attacking Canadians achieve almost total surprise when they go over the top. By dawn, only a very few German strong-points on Mont Sorrel and Hill 61 are holding out; by midday, the line has been restored to more or less what it was on June 1st.

The Sunny Subaltern’s battalion went over. “A” Company lost several officers killed and wounded; and a Lieutenant Joyce, commanding several Lewis guns, wrote a letter to his brother nearly a year later in which he claimed to have found the bodies of a chaplain and several wounded men in a former aid post, all with fresh bayonet wounds. He also admitted that he subsequently ordered one of his guns to shoot down a lost party of “about 50” Germans, who were attempting to surrender. Lashings of war crimes aside, it’s been a most successful day all round. Not even the inevitable counter-attack can dent the Canadians’ enthusiasm.

If they keep this sort of thing up, both General Currie and Canadians in general might just earn a reputation for themselves. More soon.

Battle of Mecca

Brains are currently winning the Battle of Mecca against rebel brawn. The single battalion garrisoning Mecca has fought well and intelligently, fighting sharp delaying actions for as long as possible and keeping the rebels out of the town fort. They’ve just lost control of the government offices and the captured deputy Governor has just ordered them to surrender, but the (apparently unnamed) commander sees no reason to do so while there’s a chance of holding out long enough for help to arrive.

Hold out they will, with the rebels unable to get inside the fort while it’s defended by modern rifles and grenades. An appeal from Hussein bin Ali to the British will follow; and, at some considerable length, a few artillery pieces will wind their way from Sudan to Mecca via Jeddah. In the meantime, there’s an uneasy stalemate.

Voie Sacree

Today it is Henri Desagneaux’s turn to travel on the Voie Sacree.

We travel by car and are put down at Nixeville, 6 kilometres from Verdun. We bivouac in a wood in a lake of mud. The guns fire angrily. It’s pouring down. At 3pm we are ordered to stand by to leave. We don’t. We spend the night and the day of the 14th waiting, in torrential rain, with mud up to our ankles. Our teeth chatter with cold. We are very uncomfortable. Although the troops have been stopping here for the last four months, there is not one single hut or shelter. We camp in individual tents in thick mud. You should hear what the men say about it!

Well, why not tell us what the men say, huh? Still, knowing Louis Barthas, I rather think I can guess.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser-Tytler has now completed the process of moving his gun battery to Maricourt Valley.

Except for one or two violent spasms, things might have been peaceful. At 11:40pm a tremendous roar commenced, as every Hun gun along the whole front sprang to life simultaneously in a beautifully timed opening. A moment later a man dashed into my dugout to say that Number 4 gun pit had blown up. In 30 seconds Maclean and I were doing an unpleasant 1,000-yard sprint through the mud to the guns. I am not sure what was worst, the Hun shells coming pretty fast all round, or the scalp-raising blast of the French 75mm guns behind us, their shells only just clearing our heads by a few feet.

The pit hasn’t quite cooked off its shells yet, but it’s merrily on fire. Fraser-Tytler’s men spend the night alternately manning the three operational guns and slopping mud and slime down into the burning gun-pit. At one point a second German shell appears, and somehow turns out to be a dud, sinking without trace.

Georges Connes

Georges Connes is still grinding along on a painfully slow journey to incarceration at Mainz. Now in Germany, they have a chance to observe conditions on the German home front.

Already they only sell “ersatz” items limited in quantity for each customer. We are not reated any differently from the other people. The waiters just politely refuse to sell us more than the regular ration. Certainly we are already far from the relative abundance of the canteens at the front, and these are hard times for Germany. Everything that is still edible is sent to the front and also to the metallurgical plants. Hunger, which will rarely leave me for several months, is starting to hurt.

Hard times, Georges Connes, are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got four or five kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Battle of Mont Sorrel
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

Suez Canal | The air war | 8 Jun 1916

Suez Canal

Over the past week or so, we’ve been hearing news from correspondent Oskar Teichman about an Ottoman buildup at El Arish to oppose the British buildup that he’s part of. One aspect of the build-up that he isn’t in a position to know about, though, is the increasing number of air assets being sent to Egypt by both sides. The Royal Flying Corps in particular is increasing by orders of magnitude, and they’re not just going to the Western Front. A few squadrons have been spared to go to Africa, to Egypt, and to Mesopotamia. Their role is going to be vital in the months and years to come.

The Ottomans, not to be outdone, have established an airfield at El Arish, and they’re starting to skirmish with the local RFC squadron in an attempt to prevent the British observers doing their work. More to come!

Voie Sacree

Here’s an interesting little footnote from the Battle of Verdun. The Germans have three squadrons of what I suppose we have to call “bombers”, although they’re mostly general-purpose types which bombs are thrown out of rather than purpose-built machines. About now, they’re launching the first bombing run on Bar-le-Duc since the start of the battle. Never mind that it’s quite clearly the start of the Voie Sacree. Never mind that the road itself is more visible to German observers than a dog’s penis. Which raises an interesting question.

Through the entire battle, the Voie Sacree was almost entirely ignored by German bombers. Their efforts were confined to bombing the trenches, road and rail junctions immediately behind the trenches, and Verdun itself. It’s a small road that’s permanently on the verge of being destroyed just by natural wear and tear from the constant flow of trucks. It should have been possible to at least drop a few bombs on it over the course of nine months. And yet they barely tried. This is one of the great unanswered questions of the war. Nobody’s quite sure why they didn’t do it.

It’s sometimes pressed into service to support the theory that Verdun was only ever supposed to be an attritional battle; you can’t do attrition if fresh troops can’t be brought into the sector to be killed, after all. Perhaps there’s something to it. We do also have a highly arresting quotation from General von Hoeppner (via historian Alistair Horne), soon to become head of the German flying corps. Apparently his later verdict will be that “we did not exactly know what should be required of aviation”. This aspect of the battle will likely remain a highly curious footnote for a long time yet.

The war in the air

It’s a very air-y day, isn’t it? Seems like a perfect time to note a few other things. General Foch’s army group is now concentrating its air assets to support General Fayolle’s 6th Army. Based at Cachy, their main component will be eight dedicated fighter squadrons to maintain air superiority, with a couple of dedicated artillery spotting and observation squadrons. This will be the first Entente offensive of the war where control of the air is being taken this seriously.

On the other side of the hill, the Germans are still at a major disadvantage over most of the Western Front. That might be about to end, though. Enough recon flights have made it over the BEF’s part of the line to provide considerable intelligence of what’s about to happen. Unfortunately, it’s not just the army in the Somme sector that’s detected build-up preparations, although the Somme sector is the only one with serious railway construction going on. But on the question of aerial superiority, testing of the prototype Albatros D.I fighter is now complete.

A general production order for the planes has now been placed. Even at the Germans’ painfully slow production speeds, they could have several squadrons’ worth by August. And sure, they still might not be enough against the ever-swelling number of Bebes available to French fighter escadrilles, but against the hodge-podge machines of the Royal Flying Corps? That’d be bad news for the Battle of the Somme, assuming the BEF hasn’t broken through before then.

The French 6th Army

Speaking of Fayolle and the 6th Army, the general has just distributed a memo with his interpretation of the French Army’s new “deliberate battle” doctrine. This is the first chance they’ll have to test out the new theories, which Fayolle’s boss Foch has done so much to champion. Much as both of them are skeptical about the upcoming offensive, they’re determined not to let this sink their clever ideas. Time for a well-placed memo.

It is not a matter of rushing across enemy lines…but of a battle organised and directed from objective to objective, always with an exact and consequently effective artillery preparation. It is the commander who has the responsibility for determining the successive objectives; that is his principal task. Some officers have feared that this method will break the spirit of the infantry. In reality, that which breaks the spirit of the infantry is the presence of intact [defences] where enemy machine-guns intervene on the flanks. This is why the desired goal is to destroy the enemy’s defences before each attack.

There is a certain irony in this message being sent out by a general serving under Ferdinand Foch. It was, after all, Foch who firmly entrenched the cult of the offensive and the importance of elan into the French army in the first place. And now, here he is directly patronising an effort to throw all of that thinking out with the garbage. It’s a funny old war. But it is important to note how receptive to new ideas Foch has proved to be. Even though it was his theories that led to the debacles of 1915, he’s not put out the barricades to defend them. Instead, he’s observed and adapted to events.

Brusilov Offensive

Lutsk is now in Russian hands once again. Their 8th Army is not content to rest on its laurels, though. And now it’s time for a very important point. They’re having to plan joint swings to the north and south. They can’t just drive west because the army to the north hasn’t attacked (for reasons which will soon become clear) and the army to the south has achieved only minor gains and is still bogged down in horrifically costly fighting, advancing a couple of hundred yards at a time.

Lutsk may have provided an unqualified success, and put the wind right up the Austro-Hungarian Brains Trust. However, that success has, for the most part, not yet been replicated by the other three armies in this battle. There have been further clear victories at Sopanow and Jazlowiec, but at a far higher price in blood. This is not, at the moment, going to lead to a Gorlice-Tarnow style complete and total dislocation of the Eastern Front. Unless something else should happen, that is…

Malcolm White

Working near Beaumont Hamel, Malcolm White is the latest victim of the Germans’ psychological sign warfare.

Again wet, but a dry night for work, and we deepened Dog Trench undisturbed, though at times I thought the enemy must see us on so clear a night. They did see a party of C Company, and shelled with about ten whizz-bangs rapid. But no casualties. We are told that the enemy have put up a notice in front of their trenches, saying, “We know you are going to attack here. But you won’t do it before Peace.”

He’s also exchanging rather disgustingly cute (but too obtuse to bother reproducing them) letters with Evelyn Southwell. They’ve both sent letters that have crossed in the post, referencing the old poem “June (was with her glancing grasses)”, by Walter Headlam. Just as they did at the same time last year, when Southwell was at a training camp near Andover and White was yet to join the Army. Everyone say “awwww”. Awwww.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge and his friends in the Non-Combatant Corps have been favoured with a visit from a churchman, usually known as F.B. Meyer. It’s important to note that Meyer is not a regular padre; nevertheless, Mugge is not best impressed by the experience.

The 3rd Company Eastern NCC was given a half-holiday, apparently due to the visit of the Reverend F. B. Meyer, the Baptist parson. He arrived about half-past twelve, accompanied by some of the local Brass Hats, Camp and Company-officers. Delivered a short address. Told the COs that he had a message of good-will and sympathy, etc., etc., from the General Public in England, especially from the late lamented Kitchener; appreciation of their willingness to do their best as far as their conscience allows them, etc.

Seemed to cheer up the COs wonderfully, and for hours afterwards they stood about discussing the great man’s words. Personally, I think the visit is due to some questions in the House a few days ago…

Mugge is not wrong to be cynical. Meyer is here, together with the Quaker Hubert Peet, at the direct request of Quaker MP Arnold Rowntree. You might recall from a few days ago that some “absolutist” conscientious objectors (including the Richmond Sixteen) were being forcibly sent to France, but got a message out. Meyer and Peet are now in France, on the pretext of visiting all the NCC companies, to find out how many absolutists have been sent to France and what’s being done with them. More on that very soon. For now, suffice it to say that they’ve arrived in the very nick of time.

I have no more patience with Christianity as a State Institution. No nobler ideal has ever been propounded than that set before Mankind by [Jesus]; no viler set of temple-servants has ever disgraced a cult than the hypocritical canting priests of Western Europe. There are a few, very few, exceptions, of course, but the overwhelming majority are political props, “pillars of society,” sellers of cheap soothing-oils. The least these priests might have done in the beginning of the War was to have revived a mediaeval practice; they should have threatened to suspend all baptisms, all marriage and burial services unless…! The fear of the metaphysical still sways the masses!

The European priesthood could have stopped the War had they chosen to do so!

But they betrayed their Founder’s Ideal. Demetrius, the international Financier and Silversmith, raised a cry against Love, and the frantic priests of Diana crucified Christ once again.

He’s referencing the book of Acts, chapter 19, and is basically accusing most of the priests of Western Europe of worshipping false gods and being bad Christians. I wonder how he’d feel if he’d stayed with the Royal Sussex and met a padre like Woodbine Willie or Kenneth Best? And the concept of priests going on strike against the war is not entirely without precedent. In days of yore the Catholic church was known to issue interdicts, a religious ruling that a person or group couldn’t participate in certain important rituals until they stopped doing something the Church didn’t like.

Some of these rulings came from the Pope, but they could also have been issued by surprisingly minor churchmen. So it’s not quite as ludicrous a suggestion as you might think. Only mostly.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
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

Return to Fort Douaumont | 22 May 1916

Battle of Verdun

So, time for the latest fruitless attempt to achieve something at the Battle of Verdun. And, with General Mangin in command, we can surely expect more proof of his maxim “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”. For five days they’ve been hammering Fort Douaumont and the surrounding area with artillery fire. Get the coffins ready, yo. And, tragically, it takes only eleven minutes for the French to be inside the fort. Just as I told you; another great debacle from the hands of General Nivelle and his lackey…

…wait, what? Inside the fort? Hold on, I’ll clean my glasses and read that again.

Um. Well. I was right the first time. Eleven minutes after going over the top, the more lucky French attackers have forced their way back into Douaumont and spend most of the day clearing it out. (The less lucky are dead in No Man’s Land from the vicious German defensive artillery fire.) But in the afternoon, it looks good enough for Mangin to rush round to General Nivelle’s headquarters and yell triumphantly “Douaumont is ours!”

Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire led an attack for the very first time today. A friend died as he led his own platoon over the top. Joubaire then had a full day of fighting. In the evening, he finds a relatively quiet, lonely room inside the fort. And, after jotting down some standard vomitous patriotic stuff about glory and heroes, his thoughts take a darker turn.

But for how long is it going to carry on? You wonder with anguish when and how this unprecedented struggle will end. There is no solution in sight. I wonder if it will end simply for lack of fighting men. It is no longer a case of one nation struggling with another. It is two blocs of nations which are fighting, two civilisations which are in conflict with each other. People are suffering from the madness of death and destruction.

Yes, humanity has gone mad. We must be mad to do what we are doing. What massacres! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be so terrible. Mankind has gone mad.

More tomorrow.

Battle of Asiago

Speaking of quick success. The Italians are now falling back on their last prepared defensive system before Asiago itself, built around the Kempel Ridge. A thousand metres high, a sheer cliff drops from the top of the ridge into the Assa valley, through which runs the only road to Asiago. Detailed plans for taking the ridge were drawn up long ago, ready for use by the first available division. Now they’re swinging into action, driving the Italians before them. Prisoners are mounting fast. Italian artillerymen are abandoning their guns, the ultimate shame for a gunner.

There’s a last defensive position to overcome before Asiago, but there’s also no indication at all that the battered remnants of 1st Army will be able to occupy them effectively. Still, the Austro-Hungarians are a long way from Venice. The battle continues, but these are the levels of straws we must now clutch for a pro-Italian stance.

Battle of the Somme

More high-level shenanigans, as General Joffre officially admits for the first time in correspondence with the BEF that the French are going to have to scale their participation in the Battle of the Somme right down. That was pretty much a given once it became obvious that the Germans weren’t moving from around Verdun any time soon, of course. But it’s worth remembering that the BEF committed to providing one-third of the manpower for the offensive. And it was originally to be fought on a far, far greater scale. The BEF might never have fought on what we think of now as the Somme battlefields, had it gone ahead as planned.

Events, dear boy! Events!

North Sea

See previous statement! We’re just a day from the High Seas Fleet setting sail to force a war-changing battle in the North Sea, and now events have intervened once more with the German Navy. They’ve already had to delay their sailing while a number of dreadnoughts had their condensers switched out. Now there’s a problem with one of the most important ships in the fleet, the battlecruiser Seydlitz, who hit a mine while on last month’s raid on Lowestoft. She should have been ready to go out by now, but the damage to her hull has proved more difficult to repair than it might have been.

Bottom line, the ship will be ready in about five or six days. Now we remember that, with the submarines out on patrol at the Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow, Admiral Scheer is on the clock. If he doesn’t sail before the end of the month, his submarines will run out of fuel and return home, meaning yet more delays. If he sails immediately, without Seydlitz, and something goes wrong…

So the operation is postponed again to the 30th, butting right up against the time limit imposed by the U-boats’ fuel tanks. More to follow!

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has finally made it out of the line. No sooner do they arrive at today’s billet than Lieutenant Breton summons him.

All Lieutenant Breton wanted to do was to congratulate me immediately for my courageous conduct on Hill 304! Surprised and confused, I mumbled that I hadn’t done anything extraordinary. “No, no,” he said, “Lieutenant Lorius reported to me that you volunteered for a perilous reconnaissance, replacing a courier on the very day of our being relieved.”

Fierce antimilitarist that I was, to be congratulated as an exemplary soldier was almost as painful to me as a wound would have been. But adding it all up, for my future well-being it would be better that my bosses had esteem and consideration for me, which would help wipe out the warnings and black marks which Commandant Leblanc and Captain Cros-Mayrevielle had amassed next to my name.

Ah, a stroke of luck. For our favourite grognard, this surely can’t mean anything good. So it proves. A bicycle messenger arrives and goes straight to Commandant Quinze-Grammes. For once, the feelings of the commandant, his lackey, and the men are entirely in accord.

The commandant read the fatal note and stood speechless; over his shoulder, Captain Cros-Mayrevieille read it, too, and made an indecipherable grimace; I could see no good coming out of any of this; there was something ominous about it. It was nothing less than an order from Colonel Douce, ordering us to take the road back to Hill 304 immediately. The Germans were once again massing for an assault, and our two front-line battalions were poorly positioned.

Not good. Very, very, very not good. The commandant decides that there is time at least to get stuck into the gluttonous dinner he’s been anticipating for the last two weeks, before setting out again.

Suddenly, a cloud of dust rolls down the road and stops in front of us. It clears away, and a handsome automobile appears before our eyes. On the hood and the sides are painted a square with red stripes: it’s a divisional staff car, and from the door which an orderly hastens to open descends our divisional general, General Andrieu. His face radiates joy. At the sight of him, the commandant and the capitaine-adjutant-major interrupt their repast and rush up to their big boss, bowing and saluting, grimacing with smiles. “I bring you good news,” the general calls out. “The division is relieved!”

Embarrassed, the commandant puts the colonel’s message in front of him. “Oh, the devil,” the general says, scratching an ear. “This is serious.” He took a look at us, a look filled with pity, then got back into his car, saying, “I’m going to Corps headquarters in Bar-le-Duc. In an hour you’ll be all set.” This hour was, for us, an hour of anguish; the anguish of a condemned man who is awaiting his final judgment of life or death.

50 minutes later, the general’s car returns, and the driver has the official order. They will indeed leave. Just as soon as the transport arrives to take them off down the Voie Sacree once more.

Finally the liberating vehicles arrived, and disgorged onto the roadside clusters of soldiers who silently examined our cadaverous faces, our untidy uniforms, our coatings of mud, our shaggy beards, all of which made us look like highway robbers. They posed few questions, as they looked at us and listened to the incessant rumbling of the cannonade in the distance. Even the stupidest among them understood where they were going and what was awaiting them. They surely envied our lot, and on our side we surely pitied them. But to each his turn, and to each his destiny.

They, of course, have already experienced this meeting from the opposite side.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson might have a nasty case of the squitters, but that’s no reason to be excused marching. Certainly not when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you need to march to have any hope of arriving somewhere that might help.

Dick and I being both crook, marched on slowly at our own pace. When we camped we just had time to make some tea when we were told to move off again and marched to Galley Camp, a lovely place on top of the hills. Our next camp was in an open space. Boiled vegetables and cold bully comprised our dinner. All lights had to be out at 8pm and some of our chaps were sent out on outpost. Very cold night and no overcoats. Total 16 miles for the day.

Yeah, strident criticism of this man’s weeping, open racism aside for a moment. I do not think I could march 16 miles from anywhere to anywhere on boiled vegetables and corned beef while the world was also trying to fall out of my bottom. Never mind doing it in Africa during the rainy season. This is, at the least, a great physical feat.

Maximilian Mugge

He may have been exiled to the Non-Combatant Corps for reasons that are yet to become clear, but at least it means Maximilian Mugge gets a new group of people to enjoy observing.

There is an early Christian touch about some of the NCCs. Most of them are really gentlemen, in the sense of Cardinal Newman’s definition. I have never seen so many prayer books; before going to sleep some men read page after page in their Bibles. Somehow or other I like the quiet and determined faces, but feel the most violent dislike towards some of the show-people who kneel on their beds in the sight of all to pray.

In the Dry Canteen where all the NCCs are dining together I listened to some very interesting discussions. Said one CO to me, “If you are in the hands of the insane, you simply do what you would do in an asylum, if you were the only sane man there!” The majority of the NCCs are Christians (though very few of the Church of England), but there is a good sprinkling of free-thinkers and socialists. They come from all over England. Amongst my acquaintances are two men from Letchwood and from Ilford.

Now, sometimes I bag on Mugge for misunderstanding some important point of his adopted country. However, if there were ever proof that he’s truly English at heart, it’s this “most violent dislike” for the sanctimoniously pious. If his reaction isn’t yet to turn away and mutter “oh, come off it!”, it surely will be soon.

(Cardinal Newman, a famous English convert to Catholicism in the days when people really cared about Catholics having a dual loyalty to the Pope and the King, wrote a long paragraph which explores the notion of “a gentleman is a gentle man in all regards”.)

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago

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

LZ85 | Hill 304 | 5 May 1916

Salonika

The big news for today is from somewhere else, but first, the Gardeners of Salonika have actually done something! Over the past few months, the Zeppelin LZ85 has been cruising around, merrily bombing whatever it feels like. Hermann Kuck was a machinist on board the airship.

We were again over the harbour installationss at about 3000 metres height. The searchlights got us at once. The defence fire grew stronger and the incendiary exploded all around our ship. We had dropped some of our bombs, Oberleutnant Scherzer took the ship around for another run. … Our ship was hit in the middle by a direct hit which destroyed at least half the gas cells. Immediately it broke in half and fell downwards. We plunged down without any control. Our fall lasted about five or six minutes.

The crew do their dutiful best to hide, but they’ve come down right in the middle of a marsh and are soon forced to surrender. They’ve done something! The defenders have done something!

Battle of Verdun

Anyway. We have news from the Battle of Verdun. I’ll go to the terrible MSPaint map. See if you can spot the change. It’s very small.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey.

An unnamed French machine-gun sergeant has been trying to defend Hill 304.

The pounding was continuous and terrifying. We had never experienced its like during the whole campaign. The earth around us quaked, and we were lifted and tossed about. Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trench no longer existed, it had been filled with earth. We were crouching in shell-holes, where the mud thrown up by each new explosion covered us more and more. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died while splashing us with their blood.

It really was a living hell. How could one ever survive such moments? We were deafened, dizzy, and sick at heart. It is hard to imagine the torture we endured: our parched throats burned, we were thirsty, and the bombardment seemed endless.

And, after nearly two months of dogged resistance, finally the German attacks are too strong, and too quick. This time the inevitable local counter-attack fails. Hill 304 is in German hands. They’re crawling further and further up the Mort Homme, ten metres at a time. The French, of course, call for reinforcements.

Louis Barthas

Oh, fuck.

At 6 that evening we were eating our soup when some news went around, killing our appetites. The order had just been given for the regiment as well as the whole division to depart in auto transport at 7 pm. One hour later we piled into trucks which carried us off into the night. One time we had a stop. They turned off the headlights on the right, and a little farther along they turned off those on the left, and finally at the first glimmer of daylight they got us down from the trucks. We had arrived.

They’ve given so much praise to the truckers of Verdun who advanced so boldly toward the line of fire, but you’d be right to praise the cautious prudence of those who were transporting us. They dropped us near Clermont-en-Argonne, in the valley of the Aire, at least thirty kilometers from Hill 304.

He’s not wrong to point out that the Voie Sacree should be praised as a feat of logistics and organisation, not personal bravery. It didn’t even take very much artillery fire, or aerial bombing, during the battle. (More on that to follow.) Anyway. I would just like to remind everyone here that Louis Barthas has never been over the top, or been directly in the way of an enemy charge. He’s watched other people attack. He’s had orders to attack that were never carried out. He’s been shelled and shot at more times than I’d like to count. He’s sneaked out into No Man’s Land under cover of darkness or fog.

But he’s never yet been over the top in anger. His personal, private resolution never to kill or fire on a German has never been directly tested. This might be about to change. More soon, obviously.

Bernard Adams

Nothing of importance has occurred for Bernard Adams, but he too is dodging some German crumps. He’s the battalion sniping officer, but he appears to have provoked some unwanted attention.

“Swis-s-sh—bang. Swis-s-sh—bang.”
“That settles it,” said I, as I scrambled hastily down into the trench, preceded by the sniper I had with me that day as orderly. I more or less pushed him along for ten yards, then halted. We faced each other both very much out of breath and “blowy.” The whole place was reeking with the smell of powder, and the air full of sand-bag fluff.
“That settles it,” I repeated. “I always thought that was a rotten post; and I object to being whizz-banged. ‘A sniper’s job is to see and not be seen.’ Isn’t that right, Morris?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Morris, adding with a sad lack of humour “They must have seen us, sir!”

Adams quite sensibly resolves to move the post a safe distance up the trench, and goes into arse-numbing detail about how exactly a sniper’s post is built.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has finally arrived at Arusha.

Had a shave and wash then had to run about town to find the Machine Gun Corps who were buying cigarettes. Had to wait a long time then went to draw rations and got mixed up badly. Arusha is a pretty town with a picturesque Fort or prison. There are primitive sort of gutters along the main streets. There are a fair number of Dutch people and German children and women still left in town. A South African Horse man told me that there were a good many Dutchmen fighting with the Germans against us.

After lunch the Major and Lieutenant Crothall left for the camp where the Regiment is 8 miles off.

“Dutch” in this context is almost certainly an Afrikaner, not a native of the Netherlands. And hey, at least there’s no reason for them to go anywhere else through the rainy season. Right? Right?

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun

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