“Improving the position” | 18 Aug 1916

Bulgarian initiative and First Doiran

Quick recap; Romania has just signed on to enter the war. The French have agreed to lead an attack to pin the Bulgarian Army down on their southern border so they can’t just turn round and kick Romania’s back door in. They’re due to start properly in two days. Unfortunately, the Central Powers are well aware that something is going on, and so the Bulgarians have been on the move for a week. Around Lake Doiran they’re now heavily engaged with British, French, and Serbian Army troops.

Good news for exciting combat anecdotes from Flora Sandes. Bad news from just about any other point of view.

Battle of Verdun

The other day I mentioned that General “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men” Mangin has ordered a few limited attacks to recapture Fleury village and roll back some other recent German gains. Some of them fail miserably, but the headline news is that Fleury is French once more, and with gratifyingly few casualties even where attacks have been thrown back. Maybe there is a way to do limited position-improving attacks in this war after all! (It includes a lot of artillery preparation, including heavy emphasis on counter-battery fire, and the infantry only having to cross 100 metres or so of No Man’s Land.)

Battle of the Somme

Now then. In theory, what we have here is a grand joint Franco-British attack from High Wood to the River Somme itself. General Haig has shown almost no interest in it, preferring to concentrate on his Flers-Courcelette push. General Fayolle has set extremely limited objectives for his men, seeking to advance the line only a couple of hundred metres. General Rawlinson, meanwhile, has managed to ensure enough co-ordination for everyone to attack at the same time. Unfortunately, this means attacking in broad daylight, in mid-afternoon, and heading for trenches that are mostly far too far away.

At a lower level, there has been a sign of original thinking; the 4th King’s Liverpools are attacking between High Wood and Delville Wood. Good news; they’re to be assisted by a company of the Machine Gun Corps. Over the last few days, they’ve been digging machine-gun pits out in No Man’s Land; the MGC will then move in, occupy the pits, and lay down fire to keep the Germans suppressed during the final rush. It’s a good idea and proof that no, battalion and brigade commanders didn’t just witlessly keep using the same battlefield tactics (at least, not all of them). They’re trying to innovate and war better.

Bad news; the MGC has been formed to be specialists in operating the BEF’s heavy, water-cooled, crew-served Vickers guns. Their crews, hauling the heavy equipment and water supplies, have got caught up in traffic jams in the trenches. They were supposed to sneak out before the main attack and be in position well before zero hour. But when zero hour comes, Private Arthur Russell of the 13th Company MGC finds himself going over the top with the infantry. And he’s far from alone in being late.

The infantry commenced to scramble over the parapets and our crews of Vickers machine gunners to move up the saps in No Man’s Land. Almost at the same moment the German front which for several hours had been uncannily quiet, broke into violent action with a great crash of artillery, trench mortars, field guns, howitzers and siege guns—everything they had. At the same time their trench garrisons let off into the ranks of the attacking British troops a blaze of rifle and machine gun fire, and a shower of stick bombs.

Russell was in a crew of six; a shell lands almost on his head, killing four of his mates and leaving just himself and his ammunition carrier. Ted Gale, meanwhile, had been a rifleman with the 1st Rifle Brigade at the Battle of Mons two years ago. He’s since been kicked in the mouth by a horse and lost all his teeth, then had an almost-fatal bout of food poisoning after eating bad rations, then got promoted to Lance-Corporal and sent to the 7th Battalion. He delivers an example of how nasty it is trying to attack trenches positioned near the bottom of a reverse slope.

Our own guns had put down this terrific barrage but, because we were a bit higher up than the Germans, in order to hit them they’d had to sight the guns so that they would just skim to top of our trenches. There we were, crouching in this terrible noise, and these terrible shells going over just inches above. One fellow had the top of his head took off with one of our own shells. His brains were all over the place. The artillery couldn’t help it. They had a terrible job to get the elevation right. It didn’t do much for us to see that sort of thing before we went over!

Five minutes after we went over the top, we were finished. The German machine-guns went through our lines just like a mow goes through a field of corn. I don’t think we got two hundred yards. I was in a shell-hole with the Sergeant, who’d been sampling the rum. He kept jumping up and shouting “Why don’t we advance?” Nothing would keep him quiet. The third time he jumped up, they got him and blew half his face away.

Out of a company of nearly 250 men, Gale and 22 others return. He had been wondering, as he lay in a shell-hole and looked back up the hill, why the other company he could see lying in No Man’s Land weren’t coming forward to help. Of course, once darkness fell and he was able to get back, he soon realised it was because they were all lying dead…

It’s not all total failure. This time, the orders have accounted for the possibility of not being able to get to the German trenches. Of course, that’s what the staff would like, but for many units, if you can just shove forward to within 200 yards of the enemy and survive long enough to dig new trenches under cover of darkness, that’s now a win. I’m torn between sighing despairingly at the lack of ambition, and nodding approvingly at a sensible reaction to a difficult situation. (Yes, a truly sensible reaction might well be to stop entirely, but you can go tell General Haig that and I’ll be over here watching.)

Neil Tennant

Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Tennant is getting to know the pilots under his command in 30 Squadron.

There was ” Bert” sometime cavalry officer planter in Burma artillery brigade commander in South Africa; now hawk-like observer,mess president and cocktail-mixer-in-chief; there was little that “Bert” did not know or could not do; his joy and the youthfulness of his heart were those of a boy, his manner that of a courtier. “Bert” became famous through the land. Then “D.H.,” otherwise “Mark 2,” being the youngest of a famous pair. Life was not serious for “D.H.” The ground hardly knew him, but when it did it smiled; he feared neither God nor Man.

Thank God, someone with a little indiscretion. Tennant earlier gave his full name, and it’s quite clear that “D.H.” is Lieutenant Hereward de Havilland. His older brother Geoffrey is currently chief designer for Airco; in 1920 he will set up his own “De Havilland” aircraft business at Hatfield.

His mate was “Oo-Er,” a vermilion machine and the terror of the Turk. When by chance on the ground, he would play golf round the aerodrome, a palpitating tyke following in his train. In the dog days came “Chocolo,” which is short for “Chocololovitch” (after a soldier comedian who sang a song of that name), a broth of a boy with a brogue of Fermanagh. He presented himself from his Indian unit at a time when there was no vacancy for embryo observers; however, as a result of the difficulties of transport for his return and a determination not to budge, “Chocolo” remained for two years.

Then there was “Bobby,” an imperturbable representative from Caledonia. Bobby was stolid; when threatened with expulsion after appalling crashes, he would remain quite stoically undisturbed with a grin on his face. He said little. The only times that Bobby blossomed to the outside world were on such occasions as New Year’s Eve or St. Andrew’s Night, when our friend would become suddenly brilliant, the central figure of the evening; after which he would retire into his quiet canny shell until another Festival came round on which he thought it fit to blossom forth once more.

Later on he distinguished himself by shooting down a Hun in aerial combat and received the Military Cross. Questioned by the General as to how many he had crashed, Bobby replied: “Sixteen; fifteen English and one German, sir.” His next crash, alas! was his last.

Toffs at war, my friends Toffs at war.

Oswald Boelcke

Oswald Boelcke is in Berlin, becoming ever-more-monosyllabic as he goes. Fortunately, we’ve still got the Dicta Boelcke to review. Principle 4 is “Always keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.”

It sounds obvious, but Boelcke has learned by experience that in the heat of battle, it’s all too easy to become distracted for a moment and then lose sight of whoever you were chasing. He’s also seen enemy pilots escape impossible situations by pretending to spiral out of control, and then recovering from the spiral after their opponent turns away, thinking he’s won. The importance of having all this common sense written down as a reference for new pilots can’t be overstated.

And, although his published diary doesn’t mention it, the head of the German army’s air service, General von der Lieth-Thomsen, has just convinced the Kaiser to send Boelcke back to flying duty. Boelcke will spend the next ten days assembling his pick of the best German fighter pilots to form a new elite squadron, which will become commonly known as “Jasta 2”.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson heads out into the bush with some mates to supplement his rations. Oooh, I wonder what he’s going to fuck up this time? So many options.

…After walking around in a large circle I bagged a guinea fowl and in following up the flock put another shot at them, but missed. When going to see the result I suddenly came across a herd of about 8 koodoo. One saw me, gave a bellow and turned to run but I let him have it and the bullet went between his hind legs, hit him in the stomach and came out at the breast. He scampered off and I thought I had missed him but, afterwards, I heard him grunting and throwing himself about, so I went up to him and watched him die.

When it was nearly dead and stopped kicking I cut its throat then started back to camp. Great excitement when I brought in the guinea fowl and greater excitement still when I told them about the koodoo. After having some breakfast and cleaning the guinea fowl John, Smikky, Rose and I with 2 boys started out, having a few shots on the way, but hitting nothing. As soon as we arrived at the koodoo we ‘gutsed’ it and cut it up into 4 quarters, keeping the liver, kidneys, heart and tongue. The rest of the entrails and the neck we gave to the boys.

Rose and I carried one of the quarters and Smikky and John the other, the 2 boys carrying the forequarters. We went back through the bush nearly getting scratched to death by the thorns and arrived back at the camp very thirsty. We kept a hindquarter for ourselves and gave the other to the other 3 messes, a forequarter to Paddy, the other forequarter to the natives; a sirloin cut to Mr Parsons and another to Dick’s Germiston friend. Fried buck cutlets in batter and tea for lunch.

Cleaned my rifle and had a shave. Heard No. 4 platoon of the Motor Cyclists had been ambushed. Paddy found my bullet in his portion of the buck and returned it to me through Bibby. Did clerk duty on the post for about 2 hours. … Went to bed fairly early and slept fairly well but had pains in the stomach during the night.

Outstanding, Private Pyle! I think we’ve finally found something you do well! A koodoo (these days usually rendered “kudu”) is another species of antelope.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is soon to be going up the line near Delville Wood, not too far away from where Max Plowman is getting his first taste of trench life. Like Plowman, he’ll be spending much of his time in reserve trenches; he writes to his friend H.E.E. Howson.

We go up into the trenches tomorrow, so I’ve not time for a very long letter. One can, I think, feel more quietly and happily about our dear Man now. At least, I feel much happier than at first. I think his wonderful letter must lead that way. Our bit of the line will not be what is known as a soft job, though our present intentions after arrival are somewhat doubtful. But I would like you to think I’m fit and well and happy, and not to be anxious at all.

I too hope that if I go to one of the deadliest parts of one of the deadliest battles in history, my friends will not worry about me. He’ll need more than a little luck to avoid being grabbed for one of those stupid “minor” attacks to improve the line in front of Delville Wood…

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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Latema Nek | 10 Mar 1916

Latema Nek

From a British Empire perspective, there is precisely one good thing about the latest development in the invasion of German East Africa. This is that the enemy’s operational command is still being exercised by Major Kraut. And that’s only because he has a funny name.

There is only one road into German East Africa. It runs south and west from Mbyuni, past Salaita Hill, through Taveta, and then on to Kahe. The surrounding terrain is about as inhospitable as it can possibly be, particularly between Taveta and Kahe. If you want to move men through the area, they must take the road. There is no alternative.

Which is a problem, when the road runs through a tight little nek, a gap between two hills, Latema and Reata. Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and Major Kraut (tee hee) have had this all planned out for some time. It’s the best strategic position for hundreds of miles, a true chokepoint. To the northwest is heavy bush that’s all but impassable. To the southeast, a giant swamp that is impassable. And now the hills are being garrisoned by 2,000 Schutztruppe, with all the machine guns and artillery pieces from Salaita Hill.

And towards this position, even more formidable than Salaita, marches E.S. Thompson and the 7th South Africans.

Bibby rather bad with his dysentery during the night, passing blood. He reported to the doctor, who decided to send him to the hospital at Serengeti.

We moved off and crossed the river at 5 pm and then marched about 7 miles to Lake Chala. We arrived at dark and entrenched ourselves. The scenery was grand, very tropical looking. We walked back through a banana plantation and saw some monkeys running about in the trees.

The modern Tanzania-Kenya border runs through the middle of Lake Chala.

Meanwhile, to the west…

General Stewart is having serious difficulties. We’ll recall that he decided to press his infantry ahead through Mount Kilimanjaro’s heavily wooded western foothills without its artillery or mounted support, as they’ll be of little use to them. Attempting to follow, the mounted troops have today been mugged by two companies of Schutztruppe. This is just about the first anyone’s seen of the enemy since leaving Longido. After considerable fighting against well-hidden opponents who are very familiar with the ground, they retreat for the day. That’s a hard day’s worth of marching up the swanee.

There is a line of communication, of sorts, to General Smuts. His reaction to the news is extremely volatile, and he’s quick to find fault with everything Stewart has done, from his rather more comfortable vantage point. If Stewart can’t make it through to Moshi and Kahe, the main Schutztruppe body will simply keep retreating as it chooses, picking the ground on which to fight at every stage.

Battle of Verdun

Lots of planes fly, lots of people die. One of them, sadly, is Commandant Macker. Having successfully charged German machine-guns two days ago, he now tries the same thing and nearly makes it across No Man’s Land again. But then the spell breaks, he falls dead on the German wire, and the French counter-attack is so badly affected that the Germans launch a counter-counter. By the time that’s done, they’ve return themselves to about where they’d been a couple of days ago. The First World War, everyone.

Back at GQG, General Joffre continues bloviating energetically. With the Battle of Verdun apparently now under control and the BEF relieving his 10th Army, his primary concern is the maintenance of his reserves for the Battle of the Somme in the summer. To that end, he’s written a paper for the Council of National Defence, outlining how totally important it is that these reserves not be affected. Generals Foch and Rawlinson have barely begun planning the battle, and already things are going badly wrong with it.

Joffre has also accepted without comment General Sarrail’s conclusion that no attack at Salonika is possible for the near future, it being favourable to him anyway.

A German air force?

Over on the other side of the hill, the Germans are now scrambling to counter the new threat posed to them by the Nieuport 11 “Bebe” fighter, and new French pursuit tactics. The comfortable air superiority they’d enjoyed at the start of the Battle of Verdun is fast becoming a distant memory. Something Must Be Done.

Of course that includes designing and fielding new models of plane. However, just as it had taken the French months to react to the now-outclassed Fokker Eindecker (which by the standards of modern aircraft development is a ludicrously fast pace), it’ll take the boffins a while yet to react to the Bebe. However, there is a highly interesting meeting today between General von Falkenhayn and Major Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen, the army flying corps’s chief of staff.

Junior his rank may be, but he’s thinking very, very big. His proposal is for nothing less than a new, unified, independent military service with its affairs overseen by its own government minister, on the same level as the Navy. Major von der Lieth-Thomsen is trying to invent the world’s first modern Air Force. And his boss von Falkenhayn has very quickly been won over by the idea.

Sadly, it takes more than the Chief of the General Staff’s approval to get things done. The proposal will soon get tangled up in a sadly predictable round of bureaucratic squabbling. The Bavarian Army in particular is extremely suspicious of the idea, seeing it as nothing more than yet another Prussian plot to run everything forever. The Saxon and Wurttemberg Armies are also still trying to preserve their identity as best they can.

And then there’s the Navy, the Kaiser’s favourites. Their admirals have a whole string of arguments about how naval aviation is completely different to land aviation and should remain separate. They may even have had a point, as demonstrated by the continuing existence of the Fleet Air Arm as part of the Royal Navy, rather than the RAF. In any case, any effort at reform is going to be stymied for quite some time.

Grigoris Balakian

Another crappy day on the march for Grigoris Balakian. It’s a long day’s travel, enlivened only by conversation with Captain Shukri, in which he talks at length about how clever the current government policy is. Shukri compares the deportation policy very favourably with the Hamidian massacres between 1894 and 1897, in which Armenians and others were attacked in their homes and often were able to resist. Now they obediently line up, collect together all their possessions, and march out into the middle of nowhere to be killed and robbed with brutal efficiency.

The caravan arrives at a village not far from Bogazliyan and starts settling in for the night. Shukri summons Balakian.

He said to me in a mysterious tone, “I’ve got bad news for you. Hearing that [another caravan] will pass through here, hundreds of villagers have assembled in the vicinity and are ready to attack us. We are in great danger.”

He suggested we take a little walk, and accompanied me to a small valley near the spring above the village. There, my God, before my eyes were the swollen and dismembered bodies of murdered men and women. Many of the heads were detached from their bodies, and in some cases their bowels were spilled out. All had been stripped bare, hands and feet or legs thrown far from the torsos.

Such proximity to death made me feel weak. As my already tired legs became wobbly, I fell to the ground. I did not, however, lose consciousness. In the wink of an eye, all the notable events of my life flashed before me like a motion picture and I became bewildered.

Captain Shukri rushes to his assistance. The piggy bank is not exhausted yet. Balakian promises him anything he wants in exchange for their lives. A suitably large bribe is arranged. Shukri is a man of some reputation in the area, having been with the Jandarma there for thirty years, and he’s able to disperse the mob. They’ve survived another day.

Louis Barthas

We’ve been away from our favourite grognard for far too long. Let’s rectify that! When last we saw Corporal Louis Barthas, he was freezing his cobblers off, swimming round some trenches near Vimy, trying not to die. In this cause, he refused a direct order from the martinet Captain Cros-Mayrevielle to put men to work in a trench that the Germans were watching with a machine gun. Happy news arrived a couple of days later; the English will begin reliefs soon. It’s followed by Sergeant Marc, with a paper in his hand.

“Barthas, I have some bad news to tell you.” I grew pale. Perhaps it’s illness or death of a loved one, announced by telegram. “What is it?” I said with anguish.

He held out the paper to me, and I read: “Corporal Barthas is broken in rank and assigned to the 15th Company.”

I let out a breath. So that was all! I tore off my stripes and tossed them into the mud. I felt a sense of deliverance from remorse, liberated from chains. By accepting a rank, however minor it may be, one took on a bit of authority, of this odious discipline, and one was in some way complicit in all the misdeeds of this loathsome militarism.

As a simple private, I recovered my independence, my freedom to criticize, to hate, to curse, to condemn this same militarism, the cause of this ignoble, worldwide killing spree.

Captain Cros has been clamping down on insubordination recently, having had Private Vacher arrested for calling his lieutenant a “toilet seat”. (I am not making that up. Buy his book for the full story! It’s very good.) The blokes are currently out of the line: Private Barthas, as he is now (and no longer a grenadier, either), is quickly bored while in the rear. More tomorrow.

Herbert Sulzbach

Lance-Sergeant Herbert Sulzbach of the German artillery, currently stationed at Evricourt near Noyon, has remembered again that he has a diary.

I often go back to duty as an observer in the trenches, and I’m fond of life with the infantry. Our OP is now opposite Utteche-Ferme, among some rocks. Spring has come, and out there the birds are still singing and still aren’t bothering about shot and shell. We have to live in our stuffy holes while it’s getting green outside, and enjoy the peace and quiet as much as we can in spite of it.

Aerial dogfights continue, and several of them end sadly for us. The French try diversion tactics to take the pressure off Verdun. We are kept standing to continuously. Red flares go up in the air, whereupon we lay down a devilish curtain barrage.

More soon. This is still fundamentally a quiet sector.

Clifford Wells

Clifford Wells, the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, has a rather dull turn of duty guarding the Folkestone Water Works in case somebody tries to steal it. Don’t worry, one of his men is about to enliven things a little.

I have to inspect the guard three times a day, and visit all the sentries twice by day, and twice by night. There is a wonderful echo here, and I enjoy listening to the sentries passing the call “All’s Well” every half-hour by night. Two of them are so situated that their call cannot be heard at all from the guard-room, but the echo can be heard distinctly.

Last night as one of the reliefs was loading before going out, I had to caution the men to keep their rifles pointing in the air while loading them. I had scarcely finished speaking when bang! a bullet went sailing up into the sky. Through carelessness a man had let a cartridge slip from the magazine into the breech, and had accidentally discharged it.

I should point out that this discharge may be accidental, but it’s not an Accidental Discharge, which by Army rules only occurs when a weapon is defective. This is a Negligent Discharge, and although Wells is too polite to say whether it was a true bang-fuck (in which it goes “bang” and you go “fuck”), we can assume he put the culprit on a charge. And right he would be too; war is dangerous enough without your mates letting off random rounds all over the place.

I have been granted a certificate as Instructor in Grenade Work in consequence of passing the four weeks’ course. My inability to draw well prevented me from attaining very high marks, and in a way I am glad of this. It is, unfortunately, customary to keep in England as Instructors in various kinds of work, the officers and NCOs who make the best marks in the courses.

This is unfortunate because it leads many to try to make only enough marks to pass for fear lest, if they did too well, they would be kept as Instructors and not sent to the front. I am glad that I did my best and that, through no fault of mine, I am unlikely to be kept in England as an Instructor.

Well, aren’t you a conscientious little boy? Major Bloodnok will be around soon with your Canadian OBE.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now available for pre-order!

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.)