von Knobelsdorf | Iringa | 21 Aug 1916

Nyasalanders in Tanzania

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Nyasalanders’ campaign in the south-west of Tanzania is proving to be rather a curate’s egg. In engagement after engagement they’ve forced the enemy Schutztruppe back, caused casualties, taken few in return. In theory they should now be well-placed to march hard to Iringa, and complete a grand encirclement. In theory. Unfortunately, that’s just slightly beyond their capabilities, especially as they’re now at the end of a 200-mile supply line, surviving on half rations, their numbers worn down by disease.

So what we’ve got here is just another load of men marching a very long way to very little practical effect. They’ll make Iringa in a week, and then General Smuts is going to have to seriously re-assess this campaign. There’ll be no quick six-month victory, and no grand pivot of resources to another theatre just yet.

German command structure

There is an important German command change today. As chief of staff of the German 5th Army (officially commanded by the Kaiser’s son), General von Knobelsdorf (no sniggering) has played a key role in the Battle of Verdun. He’s the poor sod who’s been trying to achieve General von Falkenhayn’s wishes, and also to figure out what they are, which is not an easy job. He’s been advocating for continuing attacks even despite the Battle of the Somme.

This is an unwelcome opinion, and today he’s been called away from the battle. There are two pieces of news. First, he’s been awarded the Pour le Merite, a major German decoration. Yay! Second, he’s been re-assigned to the Eastern Front as a corps commander, a clear demotion. Boo! The knives are well and truly out in Berlin at the moment. This will not be the last change of command before the end of the month. Every option is on the table, and the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, has now fully taken up lobbying for the supposed dream team of von Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Over the last couple of weeks, both the Chancellor and von Hindenburg himself have been bombarding Kaiser Wilhelm II with letters on the subject of von Falkenhayn’s many inadequacies. The Kaiser, however still appears to be listening to von Falkenhayn, who’s been firing back with both metaphorical barrels. So today Bethmann-Hollweg goes to Pless Castle, where the boss has his headquarters. He’s going to spend the next three days personally trying to browbeat the increasingly-indecisive monarch into actually taking a decision. More soon!

Procurement

The current arrangements in Britain for tank design and production have both advantages and disadvantages. We’ll hopefully recall that Bertie Stern is now in undisputed control of the Tank Supply Department of the Ministry of Munitions. This gives him plenty of opportunity to drive things forward and use his own authority to drive design and procurement decisions. He doesn’t have to refer to the War Office or to GHQ in France before doing things. Today he uses that authority to do something both useful and unwise.

He’s convinced that when the tanks finally go into action, their potential will be obvious and there’s going to be an immediate request for as many machines as possible, as soon as possible. This can’t be done as simply as snapping one’s fingers, of course. Skilled workers have to be recruited. Supplies of steel, fuel, and other raw materials have to be earmarked. Guns, engines, caterpillar tracks, and all kinds of other components have to be manufactured. Factory space needs to be available for the manufacturing process.

Therefore, on his own authority, he today authorises the construction of an extra 1,000 machines of a similar type to the Mark I tank. (They won’t have to be identical, mind you, and two upgraded Marks are already being designed to improve on the Mark I design.) Unfortunately, he’s done so without informing anyone in the Army. He reasons that he has the support of David Lloyd George, now Minister of War; that should be more than enough support. This is deeply politically unwise. More soon, alas.

Robert Pelissier

The tone of Robert Pelissier’s correspondence has just taken a rather unhappy turn. On the Hartmannswillerkopf there was plenty of time to think and to describe daily life. Now he’s arrived in the Somme sector; and his latest letter to a friend in America, where he taught before the war, well…

We are not very far from your English cousins. They and we are bombarding with a continuity which quite beggars description. There is a canopy of steel over our heads just about day and night. We are so used to the constant reports and hisses that we don’t pay any attention to anything that falls not in our immediate neighborhood. You have had plenty of thunderstorms this year. Well, a barrage is like the most furious thunderstorm you ever heard, only it goes on and on by the hour and when it turns to ordinary bombardment it’s like an ordinary storm. (Living in New England is fine preparation for war.)

I cannot give you any details about important things because we do not know what is going on and the papers are stuffed with mere trifles. Will write you at length when we get back to some sane region.

No more lyrical descriptions, or meditations on American foreign policy. He was like this up in the Vosges when things got hot. More soon.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has not only shot an antelope big enough to feed all his mates for a week, he’s also survived his birthday without some near-death scrape. Maybe this is a sign that I can stop poking fun at him all the time?

Fooling about with Bibby. Put my foot on a tree stump and skinned it. Rather painful for a while.

Sad trombone. Sad, sad trombone.

Rather chilly wind sprang up so put on my overcoat and started a letter to Mother. Mossy Green came in to see me, but could not stay long as he is leaving for Kilossa this morning. Started on our rainy season house, getting the zinc from an old blockhouse started by the Motor Cycle Corps. My guard from 2pm to 4pm, after which went to town, but my foot was rather painful.

You don’t say, chief. You don’t say.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is censoring his men’s letters, and provides an excellent cautionary tale against reading too much into the contents of captured letters and diaries.

Some of the men’s letters are very amusing, their comments on the war, their food, the French people, etc. Yesterday a chap asserted positively that the war would be over by November. In a letter this morning another man said he was counting on being home for Christmas, 1925. One very funny letter was written by a man who was most indignant at having been transferred to a kilted battalion. He did not object to kilts per se, but he objected strenuously to “scrubbing his knees every day.” Not one letter that I have read has been anything but confident as to the outcome of the war, and all are cheerful.

I had the experience of wearing a gas helmet the other day and walking through gas ten times as powerful as one is likely to meet in the trenches. I could breathe without difficulty, but found the helmet hot and uncomfortable, which, of course, is unavoidable.

If ever there is a slow day again in this war, I’ll dig out some personal accounts from men who were posted into kilted regiments, and found they actually preferred wearing kilts in the trenches. It barely seems creditable, but I promise they exist.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still quietly ticking over, but I promise some first-rate fifth-gear outrage and sacrasm is on its way. In the meantime, he’s reading the evening paper, and makes a highly interesting observation.

The “Evening News” says: –
“That the Board of Trade is still liable to cling to its old traditions is made evident by the recent appointment of Mr Albert George Holzapfel to the position of British Consul at Rotterdam. We are well aware that Mr. Holzapfel’s father was naturalised in this country and that he himself was born and bred here. We have no word to say against his loyalty, but the fact remains that his name is not one which is calculated to inspire confidence.

A man with German connections, however devoted he may be to the cause of Britain and her Allies, is most emphatically not the man to supervise the blockade of Germany, and the choice of Mr Holzapfel shows not only want of vision but want of common sense.”

So that old oracle Shakespeare was all wrong. There is much more in a name than he dreamt of. If William Shakespeare had been born of German parents 1889 and lived during the War, he would not have said “What’s in a name?”

First, let us issue a hearty “fuck you” to the bloke who writes leaders for the Evening News. Now that’s out of the way, let us examine for a moment what exactly “What’s in a name?” means. It’s from Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2, part of the famous bit on the balcony where Juliet laments that she is a Capulet and Romeo is a Montague and yet she still loves him. “What’s in a name?” is a key transition as she talks the predicament through and decides that his name is irrelevant to her.

There is a very popular interpretation of the play as the story of two bloody idiots, a pair of naive youngsters (Juliet is turning 14; Romeo is not too much older) who think that Love Can Conquer All and tragically find out that it does not. In particular, she thinks that ultimately his name is unimportant, but ends up wrong. I think Mugge has got the wrong end of the stick entirely. “What’s in a name?” is surely an acknowledgement that in fact there is a lot in a name.

But, you know, he’s still doing a hell of a lot better engaging with Shakespeare in English than I’d do with, say, Goethe in German.

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

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

The uses of Churchill | 1 Aug 1916

August on the Somme

Winston Churchill is a pain in the arse, but he does have his uses. The fiasco on Gallipoli hasn’t done much to dent his conviction that the key to victory lies in operations away from the Western Front. And, if “operations on the Western Front” means the kind of slaughter that we’ve seen from the Battle of the Somme in July, maybe this is a good thing. Maybe he’s got a point. Today he writes a personal memo that helpfully sets out some of the arguments against continuing operations. It’s such a useful summation of the thinking in London that it’ll soon make its way to the War Committee and the Prime Minister.

The month that has passed has enabled the enemy to make whatever preparations behind his original lines he may think necessary. He is already defending a 500 mile front in France alone, and the construction of extra lines about 10 miles long to loop in the small sector now under attack is no appreciable strain on his labour or trench stores. He could quite easily by now have converted the whole countryside in front of our attack into successive lines of defence and fortified posts.

What should we have done in the same time in similar circumstances? Anything he has left undone in this respect is due only to his confidence. A very powerful hostile artillery has now been assembled against us, and this will greatly aggravate the difficulties of further advance. Nor are we making for any point of strategic or political consequence. Verdun at least would be a trophy—to which sentiment on both sides has become mistakenly attached. But what are Peronne and Bapaume, even if we were likely to take them?

Well, since you asked, they’re both important road and rail junctions, the loss of which would make it quite a bit more difficult for the Germans to shift men around the front. But they’re hardly war-winning objectives, and it says a lot that a few months ago, General Haig was thinking in terms of an advance to Bapaume and beyond. Helpfully, having been tipped off, the Chief is now writing a letter to Wully Robertson with his own view of the situation, which we’ll consider tomorrow.

Battle of Verdun

General von Knobelsdorf has not given up on the idea of being able to catch the French napping at Fort Souville. An unexpected deep penetration attack goes in today, east of Fleury; the French lose half a mile of trenches; the Germans are up under the walls of Souville once more. That’s all they’ve got the resources for right now, though. Now they need to pause and absorb some counter-attacks, von Knobelsdorf hoping that he’s not offended any of his bosses. The French, at least, will oblige with the counter-attacks.

Salonika

The Salonika front is beginning to heat up again as more and more Entente troops and their supporting artillery arrive. Meanwhile, well-informed about the progress of Romanian negotiations, the Bulgarians are downright nervous. Raiding on both sides is beginning to increase, both on the ground and in the air as more air assets arrive in theatre. However, by far the most active combatant here at the moment is the mosquito, playing the role of armed neutral. He hates everyone equally, and with terrible sanitation and many men forced to hold swampy ground, malaria is everywhere.

But the war must continue. Both sides are now planning to do exactly the same thing at once; advance across the border in force and see what happens. Both sides are hoping to distract the other from doing anything to support or oppose the Romanian entry into the war. The French are advancing towards Doiran Lake, almost due north of Salonika. The Bulgarians are advancing from the region of Bitol towards Florina, some 100 miles to the west. We’ll see who makes contact first.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Neil Fraser-Tytler is preparing to get his battery out of the Somme and back to the rear for some hard-earned rest. The evidence of yesterday’s shelling (by which I mean corpses and gore) is still spread all over their position.

I spent the morning handing over to my successor. I am afraid it is a terrible legacy. The gun position was literally smothered with [flies] from yesterday’s incident. There was a forward gun in a very dangerous spot, and two distant observation posts with [telephone lines] which needed ceaseless effort to maintain them. On the eve of departure, one realises more the foulness of the spots in which we spent so many happy hours fighting. Now all the jump and life seemed to have gone out of things. There was nothing left but the appalling stench, the torn-up ground, and the eternal cloud of flies.

By the afternoon I had only one gun to get away, and my army had dwindled down to myself, Battery Sergeant-Major Musson, and three men. It was like waiting to leave school, and we were all nervous as cats lest some disaster happen before we escaped. Our gun team and horses came up at 10pm, and the relieving gun arrived soon after. Poor people! Their troubles had already begun, as their cook’s cart had been scuppered on the way up.

Even as I went, I saw our red SOS rockets rise behind Trones Wood, and heard the roar of gun-fire reopening. In Maricourt there was the usual hopeless congestion. French traffic was moving every which way at once under no sort of control, but we eventually burst our way through.

Fraser-Tytler proceeds to the rear, then on two weeks’ leave, then back to the rear. This will be the last regular dispatch we’ll have from him for quite some time.

E.S. Thompson

The rumour mill is working overtime at Kondoa Irangi. E.S. Thompson is not.

Porridge again for breakfast. My wash-up as Smith and Dick are going foraging after parade. Got letters. Went for a bathing parade and had a good laugh at the porters doing rifle drill. Did not have a wash. Went to the hospital with Wackrill to see Paddy. Percy Forbes not there so must have been sent back. Arrived back in camp to hear the rumour that we are moving to Mpwapwa tomorrow. … Finished washing up then chopped wood for tomorrow morning. Had a chat with Wallie about the ‘Leader’ and ‘Mail’ then to bed and slept well.

The newspapers mentioned are the Transvaal Leader and the Rand Daily Mail, the chief Johannesburg morning newspapers. It’s also worth mentioning that the African porters were not hired on as soldiers. Their job is carrying everyone’s shit around, but of course it makes sense to give them occasional rifle drill so they can defend themselves in an emergency.

Oswald Boelcke

We’ve heard this name before. Oswald Boelcke is the most famous German fighter pilot of the war. When his contemporary Max Immelmann was killed, Kaiser Wilhelm II personally ordered Boelcke to be taken off flying duty at Verdun. He’s spent July travelling through Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, inspecting their aircraft arrangements, an excuse to keep him from being killed. He’s using the time well, though; he’s been formulating a list of eight rules for aerial combat, the Dicta Boelcke, which will likely remain relevant as long as aircraft are built to fight with cannons.

We’ll have a look at those in days to come; but now we’re going to start following Boelcke about. He’s just returning to Constantinople now and will soon be heading for Berlin via Bulgaria. (On his way out, he took a motor-boat and sailed around the island on which General Townshend has been imprisoned, and I’d like to believe that he and his cronies did so while making rude gestures and shouting taunts in broken English.) He’s just been to Gallipoli, and today he’s on a train with Enver Pasha, whose company he is enjoying rather, on his way through to Sofia, where we’ll pick up his diary tomorrow.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux is up the line again, and his prediction for the sector to heat up is coming true.

Two years of war!

The weather is glorious. Life is spent in the trenches, in shelters crawling with rats and lice. We can hardly see, it’s so gloomy. The sector is hotting up. Two officers of the 24th Company are seriously wounded.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is still bleating hopelessly about the men’s singing.

Not once and surely nowhere in camp have I heard a beautiful folk-song that would have recalled the sad sweetness of the river Dee and the nightingales of Lincoln Inn Fields. Always the idiotic “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary.” Who is to blame? The elementary schoolmaster or the president of the Folk-song Society? Or the housing conditions? Our social system generally?

For the love of God, nobody tell this man what Morris dancing is, or he’ll never shut up.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

Verdun and the Somme | Fromelles | 13 Jul 1916

Battle of Verdun

The Battle of the Somme has now succeeded in one of its main objectives. Today General von Falkenhayn orders offensive operations to cease at the Battle of Verdun. On the most charitable interpretation of von Falkenhayn’s intent, it was supposed to take a couple of weeks, maybe a month, to establish a strong line that the French would find it almost impossible to recapture, and then sit back and let them bleed to death on it. They’ve now taken five months and still they’re not quite as far forward as General von Knobelsdorf would like to be.

But this is going to have to be it. They don’t have the men to keep attacking at Verdun, and keep counter-attacking on the Somme, and keep the Eastern Front as strong as it is right now to cover for the Austro-Hungarians’ ongoing failure against Russian attack. General Nivelle has officially been handed the initiative. Happily for the Blood God, he and General Mangin are planning a major counter-attack outside Fleury and Fort Souville, to go off in two days.

Fromelles

We’ll come on to the imminent attack on the German Second Line in just a moment. One of the many instructions from General Haig’s advanced headquarters in recent days has been a reminder to his other three army commanders of the need to keep up pressure away from the Somme, so that the enemy will think twice before sending men south to the big show. So we find one General Haking (last seen at the Battle of Loos, allegedly/possibly mis-managing the reserves) being given the ANZACs and told to give them something to do. Once again the BEF’s collective eye has fallen on Aubers Ridge.

They’re just looking for diversion this time; the plan is for a heavy 24-hour bombardment. Then there’ll be a major infantry attack by the ANZACs on the 15th, strictly limited to the enemy’s first trench system near Fromelles on top of Aubers Ridge, and then they hold on for dear life. The objective here is primarily to pinch out the Sugarloaf, a small and highly annoying German salient on top of a knobbly hill that’s ideal for observation of the surrounding low ground. We’ll be back.

Trones Wood

Let us have a snapshot of Trones Wood from artillery subaltern Lieutenant William Bloor. He has been sent forward on a recce, doing a similar job to the officers belonging to Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler who two days ago saved a wounded man.

The place beggars description quite—there has been the fiercest fighting here for four days, and both sides have taken and lost the wood several times. Wounded have not been cleared away, and there are some who have been all that time without food or any attention. The horror and misery and countless tragedies of this war—even the little of it I have seen—are much too awful to let the mind dwell on it and I am surprised that more men do not go mad with the horror of it.

Many of the infantry that I saw and spoke to were in a state of ‘daze’, their senses were all blurred and dull, and they neither cared if they lived or died, nor if they went forward or backward. I suppose it is as well that they can get that way.

There’s a major heave at 5pm. Fraser-Tytler himself is under the impression that it’s succeeded. Bloor meets several wounded men who describe the affair as a complete failure. All we can say for sure is that lots more people are dead, and there are still Germans somewhere in Trones Wood.

Bazentin Ridge and field telephones

Time to drop a bombshell. A few days ago, someone was poking around in an ex-German dugout in front of Ovillers, where their signallers used to live, and made an exceptionally nasty discovery. The dugout had some wires going out of it the wrong way, out towards No Man’s Land. Further investigation shows that this dugout is in fact a listening post. Turns out that the British telephone wire is badly insulated, and the Somme chalk is an excellent medium for carrying telephone signals through the ground. (In other sectors, particularly Ypres, the enemy is directly tapping into the hopelessly confused telephone network.)

Now the BEF is beginning to understand why the Germans have sent trench raids out only rarely over the last few months. They haven’t had to. They’ve been listening to everything that’s been said down the BEF’s field telephone system. To be fair, this has meant listening to a lot of inconsequential bullshit between bored subalterns. However, now all those taunting German signboards, welcoming new units to a section of line by their name, suddenly become explicable. (Why not attack today, Jock?) There’s a happy ending to this story, but it won’t come for a while. For now, field-telephones will have to be used with great caution, if at all.

Good time to be planning that major attack on the German Second Line, huh? After a frantic 24 hours, and much consultation with his own staff, General Haig has agreed to go with General Rawlinson’s bold and risky plan (discussed in detail on the 11th). Today he gives fresh orders and objectives at a personal meeting in the afternoon.

I spoke about use of the cavalry. The divisions were not to go forward until we had got through the Enemy’s fortifications, except a few squadrons to take High Wood.

Hold that thought; it will become relevant very soon.

I stated his objectives as:

1. Occupy position Longueval-Bazentin, and consolidate it.
2. Take High Wood, and establish right flank at Ginchy and Guillemont.
3. At same time (if possible, as there are ample troops, extend left and take Pozieres ridge…)

I saw General Pulteney…[he] had not thought of how to employ his divisions to capture Pozieres village. I said he should not attack direct, but take it from the rear to avoid loss.

Hold that thought, and all. There is a considerable amount of original thinking to be employed here. It could go badly wrong. Lying out in No Man’s Land, waiting for zero hour, is (to say the least) a deeply risky proposition. The Second Line will have a massive concentration of artillery, but it’ll only have time to fire a long hurricane bombardment in support. And the whole plan is based on having captured Trones Wood; as midnight turns into tomorrow morning, that still has not been achieved…

Let’s just get a map on this, shall we?

The yellow box marks the rough objectives for the end of the day.

The yellow box marks the rough objectives for the end of the day.

And, as today turns to tomorrow, German senior commanders are thinking entirely of their upcoming command shakeup. First, as General Haig has already done, the Germans are splitting the battlefield in two. Their chosen demarcation line is the River Somme. There has been no German First Army since 1914, but now the name is being resurrected and it’s being put in command of everything to the north. To provide continuity at the most vital point, General von Below is being shifted over to command First Army; General Max von Gallwitz has been recalled from the Eastern Front and given command of Second Army.

So far, so sensible. Then it all goes a bit hatstand. In his infinite* wisdom, General von Falkenhayn has decided that von Gallwitz will also serve as an army-group commander. I suppose it’s better than having no army-group commander at all, but there’s a clear conflict of interest in having the guy who decides things like which armies get reinforcements also be in charge of an army. To make matters even better, HQ insists on re-examining their idea of what a corps is. In the Prussian style, a corps is rather like a large breeze-block; its identity is inherently entangled with that of its constituent divisions.

In the light of losses at Verdun and on the Somme, this is proving too inflexible. In isolation, a move to a more British-style concept, where a corps is a large bucket into which you throw and remove several different house-bricks/divisions according to the situation, is probably beneficial. But to make the change now, on top of everything, and with the BEF ready to attack them again? Too much, too soon.

*By this point, rather less than infinite, as more than a few high-powered people in Berlin are beginning to suggest…

Attack on the Karasu

The Ottoman Third Army’s southern divisions have been fleeing in front of the impetuous Russian General Lyakhov for the past few days. They’ve made it to the Karasu, one of the two long source rivers that eventually join to form the River Euphrates, in enough time to blow the bridge at Kotur. In the past week Lyakhov has given himself a jolly good talking to, and he’s managed to re-adjust his outlook from “foolhardy” back into “aggressive”. Attacking quickly to not allow the enemy to dig in is important, but not the only important point.

This time he’s made sure to select the freshest units and send them into battle with a well-designed plan, attacking tonight under cover of darkness and turning disorderly retreat into all-out rout. A full third of the already under-strength Third Army’s, ahem, strength, has now become casualties, prisoners, or deserters. The rest are heading off to the north in the general direction of Erzincan, in no fighting shape. Lyakhov has achieved his objective; he can now secure General Yudenich’s flank against the attack that Izzet Pasha and Second Army has no intention of launching anyway.

Losing the bridge is a blow, but not an immediate concern. Everything is looking set fair for a long Russian march to Erzincan. Right now, the only thing that seems like it might be able to stop them heading even further west is simple logistics. It’s 275 miles more to Kayseri; they’ll have gone 210 miles from Sarikamis to Erzincan, but if they can advance up the coast at the same time and capture Samsun…

E.S. Thompson

At Kondoa Irangi, E.S. Thompson is trying to keep morale up among his mates.

Reveille and roll call as usual. Put kits outside then had a fine breakfast of mealie-meal and koekjes. Went to town with Dick who was having a tooth drawn. Took Sourie to the hospital to get Smith’s kit. Afterwards went to see Alf and on the way saw Jack Wetton and Ernie Barritt. On entering the church heard somebody call ‘Eric’ and, going over, found poor Percy Forbes thinner than ever now down with dysentery. He looked so bad that it made me feel awfully upset. After chatting with him for a while went to see Alf who’s leg is better now but he is going back to Ufiome.

Had just got out of the church when I met Ralph and Whitticombe going in to see Percy so I took them to him. After cheering him up for about half an hour we walked to the 9th [Regiment] camp, going through the native town.

For now, their duties are still the universal military pastime of Hanging Around Until Something Happens.

Louis Barthas

Everyone’s favourite grognard Louis Barthas is today indulging in a little unexpected cultural exchange. He’s gone to the Camp de Chalons, a major French training centre, to become a trench mortar corporal.

Bomb throwers, snipers, machine gunners came in teams to spend ten or twelve days. This made the place a slacker’s haven for instructor officers and non-coms and their entourages of orderlies, aides, cooks, messengers, secretaries, etc. The very evening of our arrival, I went into the village of Bouy with my comrades, and there I saw Russian soldiers for the first time. They occupied the neighboring sector, took their rest in the nearby village of Mourmelon, and in spite of the strict prohibitions given to them they wandered around the area in the evenings.

There was an order given in the region, prohibiting their being served any alcoholic beverages, including the sacred pinard. Nevertheless you could tell that the Slavic soldiers I met in the streets of Bouy had had something other than tea, their customary beverage, to drink. They zigzagged in a manner which was dangerous to their equilibrium, and some of them, gesticulating, singing, stopped women and girls in the streets, kneeling comically before them to give them what was no doubt an elaborate declaration of love, in the form of raucous sounds interrupted with hiccups.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Corporal Barthas has been at the absinthe, but no. The Russian Expeditionary Forces are a real thing that happened, in this case mostly to stop General Joffre suggesting that Russia just casually send him two spare armies. They’ve already sent about a division’s worth of men to France. As part of the ongoing negotiations with Romania, about 50,000 men will eventually be sent to Salonika under the REF banner to join in there. You’ve probably not heard of them, and in this case it’s a compliment; they generally did their duty well and without fuss, and then packed up and went home.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge, God bless him, has come through with yet another of those “a day in the life of a bloke” lists that I just cannot resist. This one is by a friend and fellow crock; it’s daily life at the base.

Daily Routine of a Soldier’s Life in France, in a few Hymns:

2 a.m. Draft proceeding to the Front: ” God be with you.”
6-30 a.m. Reveille: “Christians Awake.”
6-45 a.m. Rouse Parade: “Art thou weary?”
7 a.m. Breakfast: “Meekly wait and murmur not.”
8 a.m. Sick Parade: “Tell me the old, old story.”
9-15 a.m. Manoeuvres: “Fight the good fight.”
9-45 a.m. Orderly Room: ” Oft in danger, oft in woe.”
11-15 a.m. Swedish Drill: “Here we suffer grief and pain.”
1 p.m. Dinner: “Come ye thankful people, come.”
2-15 p.m. Fatigue: “Come, labour on.”
3-15 p.m. Lecture by Officer: “Abide with me.”
4 p.m. Dismiss: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
4-30 p.m. Pack-Drill: ” For all the Saints who from their labours rest.”
5 p.m. Tea: “What means this eager anxious throng.”
6 p.m. Free for the night: “O Lord, how happy should we be.”
6-30 p.m. Out of Bounds : “We may not know, we cannot tell.”
7 p.m. In a Cafe: “How bright those glorious spirits shine.”
9-15 p.m. Last Post: “All is safely gathered in.”
9-30 p.m. Lights Out: “Peace, perfect peace.”
10 p.m. The Guard: “While Shepherds watched their flocks by night.”

I am sure this is even funnier if you actually know anything about hymns. “Swedish drill” is a system of calisthenics originally set down by Martina Bergman-Österberg, a Swedish gymnastics teacher who settled in London and taught generations of female fitness instructors and PE teachers.

Actions in Progress

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

Fort Vaux to Mainz | Bernard Adams | 7 Jun 1916

Fall of Fort Vaux

This is the end. A few men in scattered parties, thirties, twenties, and tens, have been given permission to break out or sneak out of the fort as best they can, and have done so under cover of darkness. After a short period of denial, Major Raynal’s officers are unanimous; both their orders and their honour is satisfied, and now they must surrender. While a German-speaking lieutenant has the unenviable task of taking a letter to the enemy, every man who still has the energy to do so is helping to destroy the fort’s machine-guns and its official documents.

Over on the other side of the hill, the Germans are absolutely staggered by the news that Fort Vaux is ready to surrender. Fog of war, guys. Fog of war. The official acceptance of the surrender follows, there’s a lot of gentlemanly socialising, and eventually, the garrison leaves. To the local Germans’ credit, once the prisoners get outside they soon find that there has been a large tank of drinking water laid on for their use. So the saga of Fort Vaux comes to an end. The German Army is six inches closer to Verdun.

And after all that, they’re still well short of General von Knobelsdorf’s line that they must reach before standing on the defensive. Casualties are ticking deep into six figures on both sides. And still the German Army prepares to attack, and still General Nivelle dreams dreams of a grand attack of his own. Meanwhile, the new French prisoners begin the long journey to Mainz in Germany.

Georges Connes

Hey, guess who else is making that journey right now? That’s right, Lieutenant Georges Connes is heading that way, a few days ahead.

The road from the barracks to the train station skirts the town, and we only come across a few Frenchmen. We stiffen, unable to speak, tears coming from our eyes. A road worker, old and bent, looks up from his toil. The old man exclaims “Good God, is it always going to be the same thing?” Walking by him, I say the classic phrase, “On les aura!”

Yes, at that moment, I violently want to get them. What are they doing here on this land that is not theirs?

The answer, Lieutenant, is “Extracting large amounts of food, money, and resources from the local population.” Since you asked.

Brusilov Offensive

On the first day, an Austro-Hungarian division dissolved into the dead and the captured. On the second day, its corps went the same way. On the third day, General Brusilov ate up an entire Austro-Hungarian army. And he was still hungry. The Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army was supposed to be defending Lutsk. Elaborate defences had been dug all round the city, bristling with wire, connecting three old forts. Unfortunately, what nobody realised is that the best defences in the world are utterly useless if there’s nobody who can usefully occupy them. The men who should have been occupying them are either dead, captured, or retreating very fast.

The offensive can now be considered a success. The Russian 8th Army has taken nearly 50,000 prisoners from the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army. There’s a huge yawning gap appearing in the line between the Fourth and First Armies. The entire front south of the Pripyet Marshes is now untenable. Time for another major retreat. For the Austro-Hungarians, it’s now a question of how much of Galicia they’re going to end up losing back to the Russians. There’s no reason this needs to turn into Gorlice-Tarnow II. All we need is some basic military competence, plenty of reserves, and a little original thinking.

Yes, that’s all we need, from Conrad von Hotzendorf Presents The Austro-Hungarian Army. I’ll not hold my breath.

Battle of Jutland

So. At a week’s remove, it’s time to consider the fallout from the Battle of Jutland. As we know, the Germans were extremely quick to declare victory. On the face of it, that’s not so unreasonable. They’ve inflicted 7,000 casualties and 6,000 dead on the Royal Navy, for 3,000 casualties and 2,500 dead in return. (Unlike on land, a lot of casualties end up as dead because of the whole “ships sinking and/or violently exploding” deal.) The Germans have lost 62,000 tons of shipping; the Royal Navy, 115,000 tons.

It doesn’t look any better when we turn to individual ships sunk or damaged. On the British side, there’s the very small matter of three huge battlecruisers just up and exploding. (Inquiries have already been carried out; and they’ve correctly identified unsafe ammunition handling as the cause.) More British ships have been damaged than German ships. In a raw contest of damage done, the Germans win the battle and it isn’t even close. Certainly to a British public, expecting overwhelming victory at every turn, this is deeply worrying.

But a game of chess is not won or lost on points. There is more to this than numbers. For one thing, the main fighting at Jutland ended with both sides’ main fleets facing off, whereupon the Germans turned round and ran away as fast as they could. This is not traditionally how a winning side celebrates its victory. The question we should be asking here is “what has changed as a result of this battle?”

And, where it really and truly matters, the answer is “absolutely nothing”. None of the fundamental assumptions of the war that rest on British naval superiority have changed. The RN may have lost a few big ships and had a lot more damaged, but the Grand Fleet’s strength today is almost exactly what it was two weeks ago. Other ships can be transferred, or brought out of repair docks, to make good the losses and provide cover while the damaged ships are being repaired. The German Navy simply cannot absorb the long-term loss of two battlecruisers and three dreadnoughts to battle damage, and continue along like nothing happened. They almost might as well have been sunk.

For the final verdict, we must turn to an American newspaper. (It’s surprisingly hard to find out which one; some people say “the New York Times”, others just say “a New York newspaper”.) “The German fleet has assaulted its jailor”, the organ informs its readers, “but it is still in jail.” And yet it still doesn’t quite feel right saying “this was a British victory”. So instead I’m going to finish this on my favourite little observation about Jutland, the most important battle in a war which is oozing irony from every pore.

HMS Dreadnought herself, the ship who started all this “dreadnought battleships” nonsense, didn’t fire a shot during the battle. She didn’t even leave port. Dreadnought was in the middle of a major refit while the war went on around her. Dreadnought couldn’t have gone to what will turn out to be the only chance she’ll ever have to fight in the role she was designed for, even if she’d wanted to.

The usefulness of tanks

So, one massive Navy-designed weapon has just failed entirely to change the course of the war. What about another? General Burnett-Stewart, a GHQ staff officer, has been considering what can practically be expected of tanks. His report is not particularly promising. “[They] will be an adjunct to an offensive in trench warfare and are not likely in an action to get further away from their starting point than a distance of three miles, supposing them to start from a point one mile behind our front trenches.”

This is a very important point. It is important to remember at this point that the Mark I tank prototypes that the general has seen pootling around are a long, long, long way from what we now think of as a tank. It’s all very well for Colonel Swinton to write hopeful doctrine for use by tanks as they not only punch holes in German lines, but also drive through them to exploit the breakthrough. The tanks he has are deafendingly loud, their armour is painfully thin, it takes four men just to steer the things by pulling on an unlikely arrangement of levers and cranks. The tanks travel at walking pace, they guzzle fuel and grease and coolants like a drunk on a pub crawl, and the engines are very often disinclined to start properly.

The whole point of the Western Front is that with cavalry vulnerable to artillery and machine-guns, nobody has a weapon that moves faster than walking pace and no room to launch flanking movements. If the tanks can’t go faster than walking pace, they might be able to punch holes in a line, but they’re useless as an instrument of exploitation. This is where Burnett-Stewart’s attitude comes from. This is why the first tank force to go to France will go without its own motorised supply column. It simply won’t need one for doing what it’s currently capable of doing. Their rations and supplies have to come up with everyone else’s.

There is one good thing about the tanks, mind you. The giant, stinking, offensive, unwieldy, exposed, crew-gassing engine does have a large, flat ledge part of the way up its casing. Someone has discovered that this ledge gets extremely hot, and is situated at a convenient height to fry bacon on. You can do a lot of things while driving a Challenger 2, but you can’t cook a bacon butty directly on its engine.

Evelyn Southwell

Captain Evelyn Southwell is rather peeved. He’s been promoted…but another captain has just been sent to the battalion, for some reason, and that captain is junior to all the others except Southwell. So the new man, Captain Garton, gets command of Southwell’s company, and Southwell gets to whinge about it.

It will be one of the things that the bulletin from Sir D. Haig ought to report daily, so that everybody may know where we are. “Captain Southwell took over the command of C Company, 9.2.16.” “Lt Southwell handed over, 10.2.16.” “Capt. S. took over again to-day, 11.2.16.” “Lt Southwell handed over again, 12.2.16.” “Mr Southwell retired to civilian life in disgust, 13.2.16.” And so on.

Rules, after all, are rules.

Clifford Wells

Idiot son of a Montreal millionaire Clifford Wells is also complaining about seniority, although in much less interesting terms. He does have a nasty little anecdote, though.

There is with us at present a Lieutenant who came to England as a civilian and through friendship with General [REDACTED] secured a commission, and was attached to the Battalion about two weeks ago. He knows absolutely nothing about soldiering. Most of the officers will scarcely speak to him. The unfairness of it is this, that as he is absolutely useless until he receives some training, he has to be given the preference when it comes to detailing officers for various courses. I know enough of the duties of an officer to “carry on” in a reserve battalion. He does not.

Hence, he may be sent to [a three-month training course] in preference to me. If this happens, I shall feel more like committing assault and battery on a British subject than I have felt for some time. The poor simpleton apparently does not realise that there is anything unusual about his position in the battalion.

Have we found someone who is more of an idiot than Mr Wells? Criminy. And how weird is it to see a man born in Toronto, who is the son of a man born in Toronto and a woman born in Montreal, describing a fellow Canadian as a “British subject”? Empire’s a trip, man. They are indeed both British subjects; the concept of a “Canadian citizen” was invented in 1910, but only as a flavour of “British subject”.

Anyway. News of the Battle of Mont Sorrel has raised Wells’s hopes of getting to France.

Canadian casualties last week are estimated at from 7,000 to 10,000. We received orders on Sunday that every available man in camp should be ready to proceed to France on Tuesday. A company from another battalion was also given us to equip. This meant a tremendous amount of work. Most of the officers worked all Monday night getting the draft ready.

Wells still remains at the bottom of the pile for officer vacancies. I guess it’s going to take something more than the Battle of Mont Sorrel to get him out to France, huh?

Herbert Sulzbach

The well-informed Herbert Sulzbach of the German artillery has received yet another dispatch.

Lord Kitchener has gone down with the cruiser Hampshire after she was torpedoed on her way to Russia by one of our U-boats. In the East the Russians have started a huge offensive as well. In the naval battle of the Skagerrak we lost [a list of small ships]. I’ve read in a Swiss paper that a new giant Zeppelin is under construction in the Zeppelin yards at Friedrichshafen.

I go on horseback to visit Kurt Reinhardt again, at Filain with his regiment. Kurt’s battery has firing positions on what they call the Chemin des Dames. We swapped a lot of experiences, of course, thinking of Namur, Lille, Belgium, Flanders, and so into the Champagne country.

Whether the switch from mine to torpedo is a deliberate propaganda fabrication or not, I’m not sure. And if anyone has any nominations for which Zeppelin this is, drop a comment down there.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge of the Non-Combatant Corps is in France. unlike Clifford Wells. He may have not got further than the docks, but he’s in France. He’s in quite the mood, but he’s in France.

Working in the docks all day. Got up at six, had two biscuits and a mug of tea for breakfast. Started work at 6.30 am. Forage shifting; until twelve o’clock. Then all the way up-hill to Camp for dinner. Bully-beef. Down again to the docks. More “portering.” Jones and I between us shifted 112 cwts. of oats in the afternoon. Am very tired. Wonder how long this silly old heart of mine will stand it? To add insult to injury, of course, no one here knows I have been put amongst the NCCs against my will, by some benighted blithering Whitehall idiot.

The Lady in Princess Beatrice Hut refuses serving tea to NCCs. “We serve only soldiers here!” During our first night in Camp, from Saturday to Sunday, we
had three of our hut windows broken.

Followers of my occasional series “Tracking Maximilian Mugge’s class indicators” will be absolutely fascinated that he is referring to the noonday meal as “dinner”. As far as we know, which isn’t much, he’s always lived in or around London and was recruited into the Royal Sussex Regiment. He also clearly wants to be part of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia. Every single man jack of them has “lunch” at noon. Having dinner at noon is not just something the working classes do, it’s something the Northern working classes do. Where did he pick it up? Seeing him say “dinner” is like hearing an apparent born-and-bred Bostonian suddenly say “y’all” like they were from Alabama. Curiouser and curiouser!

PS: One hundred and twelve hundredweight is equivalent to 12,500 pounds, 5,690 kilograms, or approximately one of those modern Challenger 2 tanks (bacon content unknown). Which is a lot of weight for any two blokes to move anywhere, never mind when one of them has a heart condition.

Bernard Adams

We finish with Bernard Adams, who is still having trouble getting over the brutal death of Lance-Corporal Allan. He’s been in a bad mood all day, and is looking forward to a chance to go out into No Man’s Land tonight to put out some more barbed wire and have something to do to keep his mind off things.

There was what might be called a concertina craze on: innumerable coils of barbed wire were converted into concertinas by the simple process of winding them round and round seven upright stakes in the ground; every new lap of wire was fastened to the one below it at every other stake by a twist of plain wire; the result, when you came to the end of a coil and lifted the whole up off the stakes was a heavy ring of barbed wire that concertina’d out into ten-yard lengths. When you are out wiring you forget all about being in No Man’s Land, unless the Germans are sniping across. The work is one that absorbs all your interest, and your one concern is to get the job done quickly and well.

All this strip of land between the trench and the crater edge was an extraordinary tangle of shell-holes, old beams and planks, and scraps of old wire. Every square yard of it had been churned and pounded to bits at different times by canisters and “sausages” and such-like. Months ago there had been a trench along the crater edges; but new mines had altered these, and until about a fortnight ago, there had been no trench there for at least five months. The result was a chaotic jumble.

I had just looked at my luminous watch, which reported ten past one, when I noticed that the sky in the east began to show up a little paler than the German parapet across the crater. “Dawn,” I thought, “already. There is no night at all, really. We must knock off in a quarter of an hour. The light will not be behind us, but half-past one will be time to stop.” I was lying out by the bombers, gazing into the black of the crater. It was a warm night, and jolly lying out like this, though a bit damp and muddy round the shell-holes.

Then I got up, told Corporal Evans to come in after fixing the coil he was putting up, and was walking toward 80a bombing post, when ”Bang” I heard from across the crater, and I felt a big sting in my left elbow and a jar that numbed my whole arm. “Ow,” I cried out involuntarily, and doubled the remaining few yards, and scrambled down into the trench.

“They’ve shot me.” “Well, shoot them back!” I suppose it’s ironic that the battalion sniping officer should be hit by an enemy sniper. His men administer first aid and then take him to the doctor.

Somehow I found my equipment and tunic off; there seemed a lot of men round me; and I tried to realize that I was really hit. My arm hung numb and stiff, with the after-taste of a sting in it. I felt this could not be a proper wound, as there was no real throbbing pain such as I expected. I was surprised when I saw a lot of blood in the half light.

“What sort of a one is it?” I asked.
“I could just do with one like this myself,” said the doctor.
“Is it a Blighty one?”
“I’d give you a fiver for it any minute,” answered the doctor. ”I’m not certain whether the bone’s broken or not, but I rather think it is touched. I can’t say, though. A bullet, did you say? Are you sure?”
”Very sure,” I laughed. “I can’t make out why there’s not more pain.”
“Oh, that’ll come later. You see the shock paralyzes you at first. Here, take one of these.” And he gave me a morphia tabloid.

And very soon after that, he’s off on the long journey back to Blighty. His time as a regular correspondent is over, though we shall catch up with him a time or two more. Back at the front, in his absence, preparations for the Big Push continue at full speed.

After all, nothing of importance has occurred.

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

Mine-laying submarines | Fort Vaux | 29 May 1916

Battle of Jutland

Decision day for Admiral Scheer. For the full implications of the decision he must make today, skip back to yesterday. It’s a big one. By 3pm, he has his answer. His Zeppelin commander says that no flying will be possible for the next two days at least, on account of unfavourable weather. The raid on Sunderland is cancelled. Instead, the High Seas Fleet will sail to the Skagerrak. Admiral Hipper’s battlecruisers will be sure to be seen by some useful neutral observers; the information will find its way to the Admiralty; and he can bait Admiral Beatty into doing something stupid.

The British Official Naval History calls this “a pleasant old-world flavour of the days before directional wireless”. Room 40 is, of course, listening in to German radio traffic. But, as we’re about to see, Room 40 is far from infallible.

Meanwhile, the German U-boats are having a rather annoying time of things out at sea. Conditions are terrible for submarines. Fog and heavy cloud makes it almost impossible to see anything. And, unusually, though there’s fog and cloud, the usually-tempestuous winds have dropped to a dead calm. The sea is perfectly flat, with absolutely no waves to conceal a submarine’s periscope from the increased destroyer patrols.

Some submarines have had orders to lay mines at various vital points. U-74 was sent on the most perilous mission of all, to mine Moray Firth on the edge of Scapa Flow. She quickly encountered an anti-submarine trawler, and was sunk with the loss of all hands. U-72 was supposed to mine the Firth of Forth to catch the British battlecruisers, but began spewing oil everywhere en route, and her captain prudently returned to port. UC-3 has simply disappeared in the English Channel. Only U-75 has managed to successfully lay some mines off the Orkneys, and those off the western coast, a roundabout route that the Grand Fleet would not usually take to go to Norway.

Alea iacta est. The Battle of Jutland will go ahead anyway.

Fort Vaux

Meanwhile, over at the Battle of Verdun. You may recall that Fort Vaux is one of the locations that General von Knobelsdorf has said must be captured in order to sustain the battle. Now they’re ready to try it. Unlike the French trying to retake Douaumont, they will not give five days’ warning. They will just attack, trusting to night, darkness, and a hurricane bombardment to get their men into the fort. And why not, after Fort Douaumont had fallen so easily? It’s not even as though things look any better from the other side of the hill.

Fort Vaux has been well prepared for a siege, with a large garrison, plenty of food and ammunition, and water stored in large underground tanks. On the other hand, there’s an unsurprising lack of morale amongst the senior officers. This is quite clearly a great opportunity for the commander of the fort to conduct a heroic defence, and very probably die in the effort. We’ve seen through Louis Barthas’s Commandant Quinze-Grammes how popular this suggestion might be. In desperation, higher command asks for volunteers. Eventually, one Major Raynal sticks up his hand.

Raynal is aged 49. In September 1914 he took a bullet to the shoulder. He recovered. He went back. In December his flimsy shelter took a direct shell hit and he spent ten months in hospital. He went back in October. A few days later another shell arrived and sprayed his leg with shrapnel. He can now barely walk, even with the aid of a large stick. But he’s got guts, and guts may well be enough for this fight. Even as he’s travelling up towards the fort, he’s thinking about reports from Fort Douaumont of how the Germans have altered the interior layout for defensive purposes…

Mamahatun Offensive

There appears to be no recognised English-language name for the Ottoman operation which begins today in Anatolia. It’s an offensive, and it’s initially centred on the town of Mamahatun, so: Mamahatun Offensive. Quick recap: Vehip Pasha has talked himself into a corner to his boss, and been forced to commit to doing something aggressive with some recently-arrived reinforcements. He’d much rather just sit and rebuild his strength for a month or two more, but when the minister of war wants a battle, a battle there must be.

However, he’s then discovered that many Russian units opposite his Second Army are very tired, in poor positions, and in desperate need of relief. He’s now found out that that Russian 39th Division is being relieved. So today he throws in that fresh corps, three divisions hardened from long service on Gallipoli, and with no real advantage to be had from making a heroic stand, most of the tired Russians are soon retreating back towards Erzurum.

It’s a good start; but General Yudenich is in touch with the situation and in short order is attempting to re-organise that fresh division for a defensive stand. It’ll take about a week for all this to shake out, and much as I’d like to provide a blow-by-blow account, there simply isn’t the information available in English. More soon.

Battle of Asiago

Asiago has fallen to the Austro-Hungarians. Now comes the critical part. They’ve advanced through the Dolomites. Now they must race across the Asiago plateau to get as close to Venice as possible before General Cadorna can do anything about them. Which brings us back to our new Italian correspondent, Emilio Lussu. He’s been yanked unceremoniously from his rest billets and thrown across country to the plateau, to join Cadorna’s new army.

Now the road was filling up with refugees. There wasn’t a living soul left on the Asiago plateau. The population of the Seven Communes was pouring down onto the plains in disarray. The farmers driven off their land were like shipwreck survivors. Nobody was crying, but their faces were blank. This was the convoy of pain. Our column stopped singing and fell silent. You couldn’t hear anything else there on the road but our march step and the creaking of the cart wheels. This was a new spectacle for us. On the Carso front, it was we who were the invaders.

A cart went by, longer than the others. Its mattresses were occupied by an old woman, a young mother, and two children. An old farmer was steering the oxen. He stopped the cart and asked a soldier for some pipe tobacco. “Smoke it, grandpa!” the corporal at the head of the line shouted at him, and without stopping, filled his hands with all the tobacco he had.

The soldiers followed suit. The old man, his hands overflowing, looked it surprised at all that wealth. As though an order had been issued, everyone threw their tobacco onto the cart. He asked “And what are you going to smoke now, boys?” His question broke the silence. By way of response, someone intoned a light-hearted marching song, and the column followed in chorus.

And on they go, back to the war.

Conscientious objectors

A moment while we consider the fate of Britain’s conscientious objectors. Just the other day, we heard Maximilian Mugge say that his new unit, the 3rd Eastern Company of the Non-Combatant Corps, is being sent to France. On the face of it, this seems fair enough. The men of the NCC only have an exemption from combatant service. They are still legally required to obey army orders and do whatever labour is required of them. So now they’re being sent to France to free up serving soldiers for trench duty.

There is, however, a much more insidious motive behind this. The Army and the War Office can just about handle the concept of a man who reasonably objects to combatant service, but who will still do important work for the nation. They have a far bigger problem with men who object to being under any kind of military orders whatsoever. The inherently flawed tribunal system has been faced with many men who seek an absolute exemption from conscription. Few are successful. Most have only been exempted from combatant service, or have been given no exemption at all. Now they’re in the Army, refusing to obey orders, to sign anything, to put on a uniform.

The Army has no idea what the hell to do with these people. Worse, reports of soldiers listening to them, and sympathising, are beginning to percolate up the chain of command. Bigads, if this continues, morale might be fatally undermined! Something must be done! But what can they possibly do? Army discipline, of course, has several military crimes that these men can be charged with, usually some flavour of “not doing what you’re told”.

So. What the War Office is doing now is extremely murky and poorly-understood, for reasons which will become quickly obvious. Exactly what was done, and who knew about it, and what their intent was, is a giant and emotional Matter of Some Debate (when it’s discussed at all). Some say it was straight from the mind of Lord Kitchener himself. Some say it was a deliberate plot by the Army’s top brass. Some blame the politicians; some blame official incompetence.

Nevertheless. A number of “absolutist” conscientious objectors are being sent to France, along with the NCC men who are cooperating. These include seventeen men from Harwich, nine from Sussex (very probably from the huts that Mugge has been in at Shoreham), and two from Wales. Most famously, they included the Richmond Sixteen, a group of often high-profile absolutists who have been imprisoned at Richmond Castle in Yorkshire, almost as though they were traitors.

In the Army Act, the legislation which (among a lot of other things) sets out a full list of military crimes, there is the category “Offences punishable more severely on active service than at other times.” Now, this is an entirely reasonable concept. Let’s consider the offence of a sentry “sleeping at or quitting a post”. When doing garrison duty in England, this is a relatively minor crime. Nobody’s going to steal the barracks that you’re supposed to be guarding, after all. However, “on active service”, when you’re actually participating in a war, a sentry who falls asleep when the Germans are about to attack could get all his mates killed, and it’s one of the most serious crimes a man can be charged with.

As long as these absolutists remain in Britain, they are not on active service, where the maximum punishment for “disobeying a lawful order” is a term of imprisonment. On active service they may be given penal servitude, and Field Punishment Number One in addition. But the scam here is much better than just that. If the Army can use the alternative charge of “disobeys, in such manner as to show a wilful defiance of authority, any lawful command…” then the maximum sentence available to a Field General Court Martial is death.

These men are certainly being sent abroad so that they can commit offences on active service and be punished under those provisions of the Army Act. Did anyone in the Army ever actually intend that they should be shot pour encourager les autres? That’s a far longer debate than we have space for here. Importantly, while they’re on a train south, one of the Quakers among the Richmond Sixteen has written a letter to Arnold Rowntree, MP for York. As a fellow Quaker, Rowntree (and a couple of other brave MPs) has made quite a nuisance of himself, putting down all kinds of questions about the treatment of conscientious objectors. When the letter eventually finds its destination, it turns out that the War Office will not be able to spirit the men out of France in secret.

E.S. Thompson

Meanwhile, E.S. Thompson is not dead yet, although he is encountering some, ahem, practical difficulties.

The doctor said that I had to expect pains in my leg and that it must be left to cure itself. Breakfast of bread and dripping which was lovely. Had to hop 50 yards to the latrine, a very tiring business and rather painful when my leg touches the ground. At 10 o’clock the Germans fired 7 shells into the town. Double ration of meat. Men paraded at 6 o’clock, and made to run to their shelters in case of shell fire. Just after dark my leg gave me agonizing pain and I did not have a good night’s rest.

Yeah, not much sympathy here for clots who pitch boiling fat all down themselves.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Asiago
Mamahatun 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