Hunter-Weston | Serre | 27 Jun 1916

Battle of the Somme

Not everyone in the BEF is entirely content with the plans for the Battle of the Somme. General Hubert Rees will be in charge of one of the left-most attacking BEF brigades on Z Day. Working under General Hunter-Weston, it will be his brigade’s job to capture the fortified village Serre. Now, before we have his thoughts, I do want to point out that they are not representative of all the brigadiers at the Somme, and not even representative of all the brigadiers north of the Albert to Bapaume Road. They are rather well-known, but it’s important not to treat them as definitive. Nevertheless, they are important.

One of my criticisms of the general plan of operations was that the time allowed for the capture of each objective was too short. I had a severe argument with Hunter-Weston before I induced him to give the an extra ten minutes for the capture of an orchard, 300 yards beyond the village of Serre. I was looked upon as something of a heretic for saying that everything had been arranged for, except for the unexpected, which usually occurs in war. The short space of time allowed for the capture of each objective made it essential for the whole of my brigade, with the exception of three companies, to advance at Zero hour, otherwise they would not reach the positions assigned to them at the time laid down.

In twenty minutes, I had to capture the first four lines of trenches in front of Serre. After a check of twenty minutes, I was allowed forty minutes to capture Serre, a village 800 yards deep, and twenty minutes later to capture an orchard on a knoll 300 yards beyond. My criticisms on these points are not altogether a case of being wise after the event, I did not like them at the time, but I do not profess to have foreseen the result of these arrangements should a failure occur. A great spirit of optimism prevailed in all quarters.

There are quite a few similar statements about ludicrous over-optimism before the Somme to be found in various oral histories of the war. My untrained, unscientific eye thinks that a worryingly high number of them appear to be coming from men serving with Hunter-Weston’s VIII Corps. This might well just be my own selection bias, and the selection bias of the books I happen to have in easy reach at the moment. I’m not quite sure what the takeaway is just yet, whether it’s a comment on Hunter-Weston, or historians, or both, or neither.

At any rate, here’s something from someone who was with XIII Corps, due to attack Mametz Wood on Z Day, well to the south of Hunter-Weston. This is Sergeant Ernest Bryan of the 17th King’s Liverpool Regiment. No, I’ve looked and I can’t easily find out who this offending brigadier was; most orders of battle list only divisional and not brigade commanders.

I asked the Brigadier if it was possible to put our equipment on his brigade-major, and he said certainly. I got two Lewis gun privates to put everything on him. Bombs in the pockets, sandbags, spade, kit, rations, extra ammunition round the neck, all of it. Then I said “how do you feel, Sir?” and the major said “It’s a hell of a weight.”
So I said, “You haven’t started yet! You forgot the rifle, you’ve got to put that up. And how are you going to carry it? Slung over your shoulder? You can’t, you’ve got to have it in your hand ready for action. You can’t take it in your left hand because in that you’ve got a pannier of water which weighs 46 pounds…”

This lecture goes on for some considerable time.

“There’s a farm field at the back of here that’s just being ploughed. Try walking 100 yards and see how you feel. And that’s a playground to what we’ll all have to go over.”
He said, “You feel very strongly about this.”
I said, “Wouldn’t you, Sir? Wouldn’t anybody?

Better writers than me have successfully drawn portraits of a group of senior officers before the Somme who are making assumptions that do not appear to have been grounded in battlefield realities.

Haig and the cavalry

With most of the important details sorted out, General Haig is attending to a last-minute question. The BEF has ended up creating a vast reserve formation of six divisions (three infantry, three cavalry) which is now being called Reserve Army. It’s under the command of thrusting cavalryman General Gough, a man so optimistic that even Hunter-Weston (in a letter to his wife) is commenting that he perhaps lays it on a bit thick. Once the Z Day fighting goes well, it will be Reserve Army’s job to move up, assist with breaking the German Second Line, and then send the cavalry up the Albert to Bapaume road to exploit the situation. Haig pays visits to Gough and General Rawlinson today, as his staff arrives at his Advanced Headquarters.

I thought [Gough] was too inclined to aim at fighting a battle at Bapaume, forgetting that it was at the same time possible for the Enemy to attack him from the north and cut him off from the breach in the line! I therefore insisted on the offensive move northwards as soon as Bapaume has been occupied.

I told [Rawlinson] to impress on his Corps Commanders the use of their Corps cavalry and mounted troops, and if necessary supplement them with regular cavalry units. In my opinion it is better to prepare to advance beyond the Enemy’s last line of trenches, because we are then in a position to take advantage of any breakdown in the defences. If there is a stubborn resistance put up, the matter settles itself.

If cavalry is in fact completely obsolete in this day and age, then the Chief has just convicted himself of being a hopeless donkey. If only it were that simple. More soon.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Anyway, let’s get a bit closer to the sharp end; it is “X” Day for Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler.

Cold, with heavy rain all day. Hunland is changing aspect very fast under the intense bombardment. All the little well-known woods are disappearing. The Hun trenches have become merely one vast shell-ploughed field. Artillery gets curious targets nowadays. I spent three hours in thinning a blackthorn hedge round a rather important spot. It proved a tiresome and difficult shoot.

Plenty of strips of land up near the German First Line are now transforming into the desolate, dead landscapes that popular culture associates with the Somme battlefields.

Emilio Lussu

Let’s duck out of the Western Front for a moment. Something else is happening to Emilio Lussu; all I have to say about this is “why couldn’t it have come a month later when things are less busy?” Another patrol has gone out; this one has ambushed and killed an enemy patrol. Captain Canevacci is nowhere near the general and he’s just killed some of the enemy. He is very happy, and very well-refreshed with brandy.

He stopped next to the body of the [enemy] corporal, and he said to him, “Hey, my friend, if you had learned how to command a patrol you wouldn’t be here right now. When you’re out on patrol, the commander, first of all, has to see…

Before he can warm to his theme, there’s an interruption. Voices nearby? The company sidles over to get a look at the source of the sound.

Two squirrels were jumping along a tree-trunk. Quick and nimble, they chased each other, hid, chased again, hid again. Short little shrieks like laughter marked their encounters each time they launched themselves against each other. And every time they stopped in a circle of sunlight on the trunk, they stood straight up on their hind legs. And, using their paws like hands, appeared to be offering each other compliments, caresses, congratulations. The sun dhonr on their white bellies and the tufts of their tales, which stood straight up like brushes.
One of our sharpshooters looked over at the captain and muttered, “Shall we shoot?”
“Are you crazy?” the captain answered. “They’re so cute.” [And he] went back to the line of dead bodies.

“The patrol commander must see and not be seen…” he said, continuing his sermon to the Bosnian corporal.

Mental.

Henri Desagneaux

Here now is Henri Desagneaux with your daily reminder from the Battle of Verdun of why the French have been so desperate for their allies to launch that sodding battle up on the Somme.

The men who left to fetch the food last night haven’t come back. 4:30am, first attack on Thiaumont and Hill 321. 9am, second attack. All around us, men are falling. There are some only five metres from us in shell-holes, yet we can’t help them. If you show your head, you get a burst of machine-gun bullets. Incessant firing. The Boches counter-attack; we drive them back by rifle fire and grenades. My company is rapidly diminishing. We are about sixty left now. In the evening, we are really at the mercy of an attack. Still no relief.

“They have taken the bridge and Second Hall. The Watcher in the Water took Oin. We cannot get out.”

JRR Tolkien

Lieutenant JRR Tolkien has finally been called out of Etaples to join his battalion, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. They will begin the Battle of the Somme in reserve, which means they can expect to wait a week or so before going into action. He spends the day travelling forward towards Rubempre, the rear-area village which is currently hosting these men of Kitchener’s Army. In their last stint of front-line duty they suffered badly; they have a new commander, Lt-Col Bird, and four other junior officers are leading small reinforcement-drafts forward to them.

Robert Pelissier

As some men suffer in the heat of battle, and others prepare to face it, still more, like Robert Pelissier, are quite happy to be getting out of it for a while.

We’ve left Alsace, for good probably. We left the trenches about midnight, sneaked our way in the dark to a safe place where the machine guns couldn’t get us, then climbed over the Vosges, reaching the highest point about 9am, then kept on: pretty tired and wet (poured great guns) and hungry but pretty glad to be in France once more and away from the yaw-yaw and nicks-nicks of the Alsatian patois. Then we came down the French side of the Vosges and paraded in grand style through one of the summer resorts of the region. Summer resort minus the squash bugs, aeroplanes being fond of the place.

Away from the great battles, the rhythms of Army life carry on.

Oskar Teichman

Away from the European theatres, see previous point. Oskar Teichman is having mandatory fun in Egypt.

Enemy aeroplanes approached during the morning, but were driven off by our scouts. A large boxing contest took place at night between the Fifty-second Division, Fifth Mounted Brigade and the Scottish Horse Brigade. In the evening the General Officer Commanding Third Section distributed the prizes.

Jolly good for morale, what?

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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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

Fleury | Souville | 18 Jun 1916

Battle of Verdun

The French really could do with some good news from Verdun. No such luck, though. To the map!

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.  Crimson line is the Line of Panic.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map. Crimson line is the Line of Panic.

French reserves are now occupying what has been called, as only the French could call it, the “Line of Panic”. A few labour battalions have spent the last few months digging it out. Anchored on Fort Belleville, Fort St Michel, and Fort Moulainville, it’s exactly what it sounds like. If they lose the Line of Panic, it’s time to withdraw west of the Meuse and give up Verdun. The Germans, meanwhile, are coming right for it. And they have a new weapon. The German stinkpionieren are calling it Green Cross. It’s a new gas, and it’s generally now called after its active agent, phosgene.

Phosgene is not only far more toxic than chlorine, it’s colourless and smells far less offensive, smelling vaguely of mouldy hay. For the last few months it’s been tested in combination with chlorine, but now the Germans are ready to use it on its own. Not only is it generally deadlier than chlorine, not only does it require different chemicals to neutralise than chlorine, but in certain circumstances, it can have a morale-killing delayed effect. Men are reported to have continued fighting fit for up to 24 hours before the gas’s effects kicked in and incapacitated them.

The attack is going in in a few days, depending on how quickly the Germans can organise their latest round of reinforcements. Fleury and Fort Souville are the objectives. Meanwhile, at ground level…

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux’s company is now beginning its third day without food. He’s just behind the front line near Bras, if you want to find him on the map.

We are stuck at the top of the ridge in a half-collapsed trench without any shelter. The whole night there is terrible shelling. We lie flat and pray for a hole to shelter in. At every moment we are sprayed with clouds of earth and stone splinters. There must be an attack on the right. How many men are afraid! The 210s make the ground quake, it’s hellish, and explains the dazed looks of those who return from such a sector.

The afternoon doesn’t pass too badly. It’s an artillery duel. The infantry is not spared. At 8pm I receive the order to relieve in the front line a company of the 106th. At 9pm this order is countermanded. I am to relieve a different company in the ravine, near the Trois Cornes wood where there are attacks every day. We don’t have a map, or even a sketch. We don’t know where the Boches are. There is some fear they will attack us on our right.

They move without getting shelled, or too badly lost.

My company is all in a line in this trench which collapsed yesterday. A squad of machine-gunners of the 5th Battalion is buried in it. Scarcely are we in position when the shelling restarts. We are being shelled from the front and fronm the flank. The ground trembles, the air is unbreathable, by midnight I have already eight wounded in my company.

This is going to get worse before it gets better. How are the French supposed to resist the next attacks? Once a battalion comes under fire, command and control is all but impossible.

Max Immelmann

Here is today’s crumb of comfort for the Entente powers. If Germany is currently behind in aircraft technology, they’ll have to make good the difference in tactics. Their two leading pilots are Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke. Between them, they’ve shot down 35 enemy planes. In days to come, fighter aces who score 15 kills will often be taken out of combat and sent to training schools to educate the pilots of the future. Not much point doing that in 1916, though. Tactics and machinery are evolving so quickly that if a pilot spends six months out of combat, most of his knowledge will be useless.

So the leading aces keep flying. Immelmann, still in his trusty Eindecker, spends most of today hunting British spotter planes over Arras. The British F.E.2b is a pusher plane; it’s clunkily-named and clunkily-handling, but it is extremely stable in the air. It’s an extremely odd two-man model, with the observer sitting in front for better visibility. With no propellor to get in the way, the plane has one Lewis gun in the nose, to be fired by the observer. There’s also a second gun attached to the wings near the pilot. In theory, this was supposed to be fired by the pilot over the observer’s head.

However, the observers like this idea so much that instead they’ve, er, turned the wing gun around to face backwards and cover a small part of the plane’s enormous blind spot. To actually fire the thing, they literally have to stand on the rim of their cockpit, an idea somewhere between “insane” and “demented”. Here’s a picture of someone actually doing it, because I’m not sure if I would believe me if I didn’t have one.

Seeing is believing.

Seeing is believing.

That is a man standing up on the fuselage of a plane all right. Anyway, the plane makes for a pretty good observer, a vaguely decent bomber, and a half-arsed fighter. Immelmann’s spent all day hunting them when he finally tracks one down about 30 minutes before dusk. Unfortunately, the pilot he’s just killed has a friend; and whether by luck or by judgement, the Royal Flying Corps gunner has scored a hit, very probably on Immelmann’s propeller. The plane falls like a stone; the pilot’s body is so badly injured that he can only be identified thanks to a monogrammed handkerchief. A state funeral will follow.

Oskar Teichman

Aerial action at El Arish in Egypt. Our correspondent Oskar Teichman is well-placed to observe.

Early this morning ten aeroplanes collected on the aerodrome, three having joined up from Ismaiha. By 7.30 they had all left, flying due east; this was our revenge for last Sunday. Later in the morning seven returned; two were said to have been shot down at El Arish, where the others had caused considerable damage to the Turkish camp outside the town.

“Last Sunday” saw an Ottoman air raid, which killed a few men and injured a few more.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier is trying to stave off boredom in the Vosges with ill-advised adventures and writing to a friend in the USA.

Took a trip into the sap which goes Dutchwards about fifty yards, no sign of any steps in the sand, but it is a dangerous highway. I had Boyden’s Colt with me, but no rifle.

Not many letters from America of late. I dare say you are having Commencement in that happy land where life is spent normally. I am very glad to receive Life [magazine]; it gives me an idea of what people say across the water. The propaganda in favor of [an Army orphanage for the children of dead soldiers] is very interesting. It would not be a bad idea for you to adopt a little French boy. O, the poverty when everything will be ended, and what a shame if people do not do everything in favor of the victims, young and old.

We are in a rather interesting and quiet sector. At one time there had been talk of sending us somewhere else, but now we no longer hear anything about it.

I think we can all guess where “somewhere else” might be. It starts with “V”, and ends with a shallow grave.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is still at the divisional school, exercising his body by day and his brain by night.

On this day I had a very wonderful walk in the morning, starting soon after breakfast, alone. Throughout all this trip there was a lot of excitement over Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”, though I did not fail to realise at the time that it would not do to soak too much in it, in view of the circumstances of the reader out here! I knew with a quite physical realisation what he meant by: “Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget…’ that morning. It was at the corner between the cover and the wood; and there the road comes swooping round as though it knew the arms of all the fairies were opening in the wood below…

“Ode to a Nightingale” is all about death and mortality. He’s just heard that a fellow master from Shrewsbury, Captain Leslie Woodroffe, has died of wounds.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge is back to making observations about his hut-mates.

The men in my hut are a very interesting collection of specimens belonging to “homo non lupus.” Nightly, ere the lights go out, Simmonds enthralls a spell-bound audience with passionate recitations; sometimes he gives us “Fra Giacomo,” by R. Buchanan, or ” Mad Carew,” by M. Hayes (from the Green Eyes of the Little Yellow God), sometimes passages from “David Copperfield” or ” My Old Pipe” and ” Devil May Care,” by A. H. Taylor.

When Simmonds has finished, his breathless and appreciative audience always ask for more. He is a bank-clerk by profession. “Bill” is an artist. Talks a lot about development, soul and inspiration, but he will not show his technique. “Technique is despicable!” he says. To tease him I drew a caricature of Hart, our hut-corporal, but even that did not “draw” Bill.

Are you quite sure Bill is an artist? Or is he just good at talking bollocks when he’s bored? We may never know.

Actions in Progress

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

Brusilov Offensive | 9 Jun 1916

Brusilov Offensive

Another important day in the Brusilov Offensive. To this point I’ve been mostly focused on the fighting around Lutsk, at the very north of the offensive. Territorial gains elsewhere have, for the most part, been bloody and slow and hard-won, not nearly as dramatic as what’s been going on in the north. Today is a very important day. Down in the far south of the offensive, near the Carpathian foothills, the Russian 9th Army has been turning the screw on the Austro-Hungarian Seventh. With plentiful reserves, there’s every chance that the defenders could have held the line of the River Dniester and ground the attacks down into dust.

But plentiful reserves, as I’ve been mentioning on more than one occasion, simply don’t exist. The tiny general reserve is gone, long since committed to fighting elsewhere. So too now is the Seventh Army’s own strategic reserve. Their decision-making has already been compromised due to the lack of reserves. Now they’re going to give up the Dniester and fall back on Czernowitz, an important provincial capital (today it’s the western Ukrainian city Chernivitsi). This is a big, big problem for the Central Powers’ current situation.

We now have armies at both ends of the Austro-Hungarians’ part of the Eastern Front falling back. Now the two armies in the middle, who up until now haven’t been doing too badly for themselves, are going to have to start falling back as well to keep in touch. And they’re going in the general direction of Lvov, which has already been captured and liberated once. To brutally mangle a quotation: to lose Lvov once is unfortunate, to lose it twice is careless in the extreme. Admittedly, the war is about 75 miles away at the moment, but general retreats on the Eastern Front have proven rather harder to stop than to start.

Considerable consternation is now spreading through Vienna. Conrad von Hotzendorf has already removed one division from the Italian front. By the end of today’s discussions with General von Falkenhayn, he’ll be drawing up orders to remove at least one more and to begin winding down the Battle of Asiago. As for von Falkenhayn, his gruntle is now very firmly dis-ed. Yesterday his men on the Western Front began another incredibly bloody offensive at the Battle of Verdun, pushing forward towards Fort Souville. If this continues, he’ll have to send men east as well. He could even be forced to start winding Verdun down before he’s ready to do so.

Russian higher command isn’t too much better off, mind you. The northwestern army group under General Evert was supposed to be planning an attack to support the Brusilov Offensive. If they don’t attack, and soon, it’s quite possible that the Germans will conduct some clever re-organisation of their men and create a force that can attack Brusilov’s advance in its northern flank and bring them to a very quick and very undignified halt. Unfortunately, Evert and his subordinates are in the middle of a canine crime wave. Dogs, it seems, are eating everybody’s homework.

Amidst a flood of such terrible excuses, their attack must be delayed until the 17th. Soon enough it’ll be delayed again to early July. The target of the main thrust is being switched back and forward and side to side and then back again, making staff work all but impossible. The hoarding of artillery shells in ammunition dumps continues apace. No attention at all is being paid to the tactics General Brusilov is using to gain success, much less looking at areas where those methods have failed to continue learning.

They are at least giving up two corps from their general reserve to reinforce the south-west army group, but this is rather like if a mate asks to borrow £100 and you give him 50p. More to follow.

London Conference

Meanwhile, we’ve got the latest in a never-ending series of Anglo-French conferences to cast our eyes over. This one is a political conference in London, concerning itself mostly with grand strategy. The French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, has a new angle for advancing his pet project of an attack out of Salonika to liberate Serbia. There is also a fresh pair of ears at the conference, incidentally, and these might just be more receptive to Briand, for reasons which will become clear in the fullness of time. For now, suffice it to say that Lord Kitchener’s place as minister of war has been filled by David Lloyd George.

Anyway. Since the opening of the Brusilov Offensive, it’s become clear that the Romanian government is watching with interest. The possibility that the Romanian Army, some 650,000 men strong, might be convinced to join the war, is a highly promising one. So now Briand is arguing that an offensive this autumn out of Salonika is just the inducement the Romanians will need to get stuck in. Still committed to Wully Robertson’s France-first advice, the suggestion once again meets with a firm “no”.

General Joffre is also present, speaking with eloquence on the need to relieve the pressure at Verdun by attacks on all fronts. This, of course, is his attempt to undermine General Sarrail by cynically advocating an attack but without giving it any extra resources. (It is of course necessary to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back.) In his memoirs Lloyd George is happy to credit himself with immediately seeing through this ploy. Perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt on this. However, it would be easier to do that if the next passage didn’t go off on the rather odd theme of “what if we’d sent a thousand guns to Russia to join in the Brusilov Offensive?”, a hilariously impractical suggestion which is best answered with flatulence.

I bring this up because (spoilers) this will not be the highest office achieved by Lloyd George during the war, and this will not be the last time we’ll have cause to look at his memoirs. Anyway.

Battle of Mont Sorrel

Up at the front, General Currie has finished a plan of attack to retake the heights at Mont Sorrel and Hill 61 with considerable cunning. It’s heavily based on the “Behaviour Modification” artillery techniques first used on Gallipoli, and then refined on the Western Front at The Bluff. Today, and for the next four days, the Canadian guns will fire at various times a short, heavy bombardment about 25 minutes long (and never exactly the same). The men will then wave their rifles in view with bayonets fixed, cheer loudly, and hit the enemy trenches with indirect machine-gun fire. Just as they would if they were actually attacking.

The idea, of course, is to get the Germans used to the idea that the Canadians are going to do this from time to time, and then catch them with their lederhosen lowered. We’ll be back.

E.S. Thompson

E.S. Thompson has plenty to entertain himself with as he waits in hospital for his leg to get better.

Saw an aeroplane out scouting and dropping smoke bombs over the enemy position. On its return, was greeted with heavy fire from rifles and machine guns, but it continued flying unpeturbed. When the aeroplane descended the Germans put 2 shells into the aerodrome.

Had a shave and changed my shirt. Leg getting better, did not hurt so much when getting it dressed. Read ‘Illustrated Star’ of May 6th about Dublin Rebellion. Lunch of boiled meat and sweet potatoes. Short ration. Afternoon passed uneventfully. Tea as usual. Spent a fair night. Several wounded of the 7th and 8th Regiments brought in.

Once again I am astounded by the feats of logistics needed to get mail and news out to the people here in such a timely fashion. I wonder if he also knows that all but one of the leaders of the Easter Rising have since been tried by court-martial, without defence counsel, sentenced to death, and shot. (Shooting is apparently not good enough for Roger Casement, who is in prison under suicide watch pending trial for high treason.)

Emilio Lussu

Emilio Lussu has now arrived on the Asiago plateau, and eventually washed up on Mount Spill. Just getting there has been an adventure, complete with changes of orders and and encounters with bloodthirsty colonels from other regiments. Attached to a knot of Alpini who are stubbornly holding a series of positions here, he’s once more bumped into the lieutenant-colonel he met a few days ago, who was so astounded to meet a teetotal officer that he made a note of it. They fall into conversation; the colonel speaks first.

“I defend myself by drinking. It’s more than a year now that I’ve been fighting in this war, and I’ve yet to look a single Austrian in the face. Yet we go on killing each other every day. Killing without even knowing each other, without even seeing each other! It’s horrible. That’s why we’re all drunk all the time. Have you ever killed anyone? You, personally, I mean.”
“I hope not.”
“Me, nobody. I mean, not anyone I’ve seen. But if we all, by common agreement, a solemn promise, stopped drinking, maybe the war would end. … Quite often our own artillery pounds us into the ground, shelling us instead of the enemy.”
“The Austrian artillery fires on its infantry all the time, too.”
“Naturally. The technique is the same. Abolish the artillery and the war goes on. But try to abolish wine and liquor. Just try it. Try it.”
“I’ve already tried it.”
“An insignificant and deplorable personal matter. …”

He stood up. He pulled out a book from under a pile of papers. He shook it in front of my face and asked me, “What book is this? Guess. What book?”
[Lussu fails with several guesses.]
The colonel shoved the title page under my eyes. I read it. ‘The Art of Making Your Own Liquor’.
“You see what I mean. With this damn mountain war we can’t even carry two bottles with us. This way I can make as much as I want. There’s a big difference between distilled alcohol and the powdered stuff. But this is better than nothing.
“A rare art”, I said.
“Rare”, he repeated. “Believe me, it’s worth every bit as much as the art of war.”

Through their binoculars, they can watch the fighting on the next mountain over.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier arrived back from leave the other day and was straight into the trenches in the Vosges.

Roussel was killed yesterday with ten others. One shell did it. Day spent in getting straightened out. The sector is a maze with German lines above and below. Mean sandy ground, saps not very safe, can be shelled from all directions.

We have pioneers with us who direct the work. A great improvement over past conditions when school teachers, business men, watchmakers tried their hands at the mining job and were the laughing-stock of the farmers and laborers. This place is all sand on rotten granite. The trenches are braced with planks all along the front. In the rear there are constant slides, bags filled with dirt tumbling down at the least provocation. A fine view down the valley, except for the three villages riddled with shots. Patrols are possible in places.

They came to our wires a few days ago and placed a poster telling about the great German naval victory. We placed another in their wires, telling them what is what and more in French and German.

It is a bad time to be a correspondent on this blog, apparently.

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

Petain | Defence in depth | 27 Feb 1916

Douaumont village

Douaumont village is still holding out. Every hour it holds is another hour for French reinforcements to arrive, for artillery to emplace on the east bank and find the range of the German rear. Having advanced so far so quickly, the Germans no longer have any communication trenches to protect the men as they move forward. Just getting to the front lines can often be a major achievement.

And doubly, triply so on the western edge of the offensive. General von Falkenhayn’s decision not to attack the high ground west of the River Meuse is now beginning to tell. Let’s have the map again, to which I have added some poetry by one Private S. Baldrick.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

If ever the world needed a definition of the word “enfilade”, firing on the enemy from one side, then there it is. The attack on the east bank of the Meuse will very soon have been shelled to a standstill, often by French gunners pouring direct fire down over open sights onto German infantry caught in the open without cover. A growing stream of messages is heading back to General von Falkenhayn, arguing and pleading in ever more strident terms to attack the west bank.

For the time being, he says no. As he does, the French rear is kicking into life. For one thing, General Petain’s arrival at headquarters had been badly delayed by a gigantic traffic jam on that single two-lane road linking Verdun with the rest of France. His staff are already devising measures to improve the traffic flow, of which more soon. Up at the front, it’s interesting to see how Petain’s stated intent not to concede any more ground measures up to what he’s actually doing.

After all, this is the man who’s spent his winter training the rest of the Army in defence in depth doctrines. Each line of defence is to have an advance trench, lightly garrisoned, to act mostly as a tripwire. When attacked they’re to fall back a few hundred metres to a deep, solid “principal line of resistance” and invite the enemy to attack again, being shelled heavily all the way. Once the attack is blunted and seen off, only then should the French counter-attack and take back their advance trenches. This is what he in fact means by “no more ground shall be given up”.

This is a major shift in thinking, and it’s by no means easy for anyone brought up to attack and attack again at all costs to hold their nerve while trying to adapt to the new, more subtle doctrine. Petain himself, no cultist of the offensive, described it as like balancing on a tightrope. The battle continues.

Artois

Meanwhile, you may remember that earlier in the month, General Haig was being rather smug about how he’d agreed “in principle” to relieve the French 10th Army, but not until next winter. Well, since that masterful manoeuvre (cough cough), the strategic situation has changed slightly. Against the backdrop of the Battle of Verdun there is no room for smugness. The relief begins tomorrow.

This is not good news for Louis Barthas. His regiment is part of that 10th Army, and if they’re going to be moved to a different part of the front…

Cadorna and Zupelli

Time to drop in on the Italians once more, where matters have come to a head. After nearly a month of a relentless offensive in the Italian newspapers, General Cadorna is now going on the offensive against the rebellious minister of war General Zupelli, who’s dared to question his methods. Like Jan Smuts, Cadorna is congenitally incapable of accepting any kind of dissent of criticism.

Therefore, he goes to the Prime Minister, Alessandro Salandra, with a simple ultimatum: it’s me or Zupelli. Salandra will toy for a while with the idea of calling Cadorna’s bluff. Unfortunately, the Chief not only has the support of the louder newspapers, he also has the ear of King Victor Emmanuel II. After a little cautious manoeuvring, Salandra’s offered his own resignation to the King (which has been refused), General Zupelli has been banished to the front and replaced by General Paolo Morrone (a pliable man happy to agree with whatever Cadorna says), and things briefly quieten down again. Not for long.

Sykes-Picot Agreement

Work on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which continues to poison world affairs in 2016 and beyond, continues. Mark Sykes has travelled to Russia for a jolly good chat with foreign minister Sazonov, to ensure that the proposed carve-up will be acceptable to Russia. Such things generally don’t happen without someone making some minor change, to prove that they were paying attention, but there’s not much to talk about. More on the agreement once it’s finalised.

Grigoris Balakian

Back to that jolly old Armenian genocide and your host, Grigoris Balakian. They’ve won over their Jandarma escort with the judicious application of money, and in return he shows them his orders. The number of deportees is identified; their official destination is Kayseri, and the officer must send telegrams to Cankiri and Constantinople when they arrive. Apparently this is a highly unusual order; the officer claims that most deportation orders aren’t concerned with whether the deportees get to where they’re going.

After walking for hours, we reached the banks of the [River Halys], which even in winter had overflowed. It roared and rushed, churning with tree-trunks, branches, and whole uprooted trees. The water was murky, but we were slowly leaving behind human customs. Like animals, we found ourselves drinking from it.

The marching continues.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach, the German artilleryman, breaks his silence as they hear good news.

The wireless reported that several villages and one fort near Verdun had been taken by assault. The Woevre Line has been broken, and a general advance begun.

I get promoted to Lance-Sergeant.

He also says that they can hear the sound of the guns at Verdun; looking at the distances involved, that might be an exaggeration. For him, though, things remain mostly quiet.

Robert Pelissier

Reading between the lines of his latest letter, Robert Pelissier is extremely thankful that he’s up on the Hartmannswillerkopf and not at Verdun.

We have been for nearly seven weeks in the mountain and the longer it lasts, the less enjoyable it is, for in the Vosges, February and March are accompanied by sudden storms of snow, rain and wind. Moreover, as we are on the firing line we are always eight where there is only room for six. A move is as complicated as in the game of chess. Our section is on duty; half the men are at the loopholes, and the rest are asleep.

Even then I am partly sitting on one of the corporals.

We were to be relieved from duty this week and we were looking forward to going down into the valley, but how could we go now? With what is going on at Verdun there is no possibility of a let-up for us. We have to bear it patiently.

Mate, you are so much better off up there.

E.S. Thompson

Something extremely annoying happens to E.S. Thompson and the South Africans in Kenya.

During the night some Germans blew up our boreholes at Vuria from where we get our water, so we marched out 12 miles north of the camp leaving 2 long lines of men all the way, so that if the Germans passed that way we would intercept them. I hope our water supply won’t be interrupted. At about 3 pm we were told that we had to stay the night in the bush so each man dug himself a little trench to sleep in.

If they can’t see off the enemy and restore the water supply, bang goes half of General Smuts’s grand offensive.

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.)

Smuts in East Africa | French politics | 19 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

Not today, thank you. It’s still raining. Still no battle. As we saw yesterday, the Germans are now starting to get slightly restless with all the waiting.

French politics

Rumbling distrust of the army’s (and General Joffre’s) ability to prosecute the war haven’t gone away. The Chamber of Deputies has thoroughly debated a motion that would have “reminded” the government that the chamber has the right to control “all mobilized national forces”. The motion’s been defeated, but it’s an important reminder that the political situation is a very long way from stable, and nobody can consider their position entirely secure. Hey, you know what would really suck? If, against this backdrop, the enemy were soon to launch a heavy and apparently successful offensive somewhere on the Western Front.

Africa and Smuts

Meanwhile, in Africa. General Smuts, who’s just arrived to take command of the theatre for the British Empire, is not the most conventional of men to take a command. As he sets off on a quick tour of the front, it’s probably unsurprising that not everyone in the Army is entirely enthusiastic about serving under him. For one thing, he’s just been told in detail how exactly the affair at Salaita Hill was screwed up. For another, he’s already had time to display one aspect of his personality; he’s constitutionally incapable of taking criticism. Anyone who expresses anything other than agreement with his ideas and theories is immediately in his bad books.

This is a big problem. Like General Smith-Dorrien, he’s got high hopes for the upcoming offensive, and he’s confident of success. Unlike Smith-Dorrien, that’s as far as his analysis goes. Smith-Dorrien had recognised the possibility that he was planning a gamble, and one that could easily turn into a difficult and protracted campaign. He’s even written one of his legendarily long-winded letters to Smuts pointing this out. But Smuts has absolutely time for that sort of thing. More soon.

Erzurum Offensive

With the Ottoman Third Army fast making tracks towards Erzincan, it’s time, as promised, to look back to the Black Sea coast. The Ottomans are holding some strong positions on the banks of the River Buyuk, too strong for the Russians to displace them simply by shelling from the Black Sea Fleet. General Lyakhov has therefore decided that the best thing to do, not two months after the abandonment of Gallipoli by the British Empire, is an amphibious attack.

It sounds like a stupid idea, and therefore it’s the only thing the Ottomans aren’t expecting. The general’s men have recently appropriated two cargo steamers built specifically to operate their current waters, with an extremely shallow draught for their size. Each ship can just about hold a battalion of men, after much pushing and packing and squeezing. Last night they set out, sailing without lights, for a pair of quiet, well-scouted, and entirely undefended beaches just to the rear of the Ottoman positions.

Not only do they land unobserved, it takes them just forty minutes to get the men ashore and ready to fight. They advance cautiously, and it’s only after their transports have reversed course and made good their escape that the Ottomans notice that there are suddenly two battalions right in behind them. Not a little panic ensues, quite understandably. They attempt artillery fire, and in the dark succeed only in allowing Russian observers to sight and range their muzzle flashes. After dawn the Black Sea Fleet appears, and very soon after that the Ottomans are on the retreat once again, this time falling back on Rize.

Rize is small, but with considerable local economic importance. It also happens to be only 30 miles from Trebizond. More soon. It’s such fun to see anyone achieving anything in this dratted war.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier describes his current situation, high on the Hartmannswillerkopf in the Vosges.

[I am in] a shack roofed over with tree trunks and rocks. It’s about seven feet and three feet to the ceiling. It opens right on the trench, which is as far from that of the Dutch as the Brooklyn house is from that across the two back-yards. Three sleep while three watch. My business is to see that they don’t sleep while out of the shack, that they look over enough to see, but not enough to be seen.

A year ago it was a finely forested little mountain overlooking the valley. Now there is not one whole tree on it; a few stumps only and those full of holes and shaky. The rocks kicked up by last year’s shelling show everywhere. We have been here for three weeks, but there is nothing much doing, just watching and watching.

When Pelissier writes in English, he uses the word “Dutch” to mean “German”. He spent time in America before the war, maybe he’s just having a giggle about the Pennsylvania Dutch. (Maybe someone was having a giggle with him?)

Maximilian Mugge

Time now to join someone who will have an extremely singular view of the war. Maximilian Mugge is a very, very minor author who’s published two books; one about Nietzsche, one about the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. He’s writing a third, a collection of Serbian folk songs, to raise money for Serbian refugee relief. He lives in London and he’s of German descent (whether he’s a first or second-generation immigrant from Germany is unclear), but he now is a naturalised British subject, and as far as he personally is concerned, his loyalty is to the King, not the Kaiser.

In fact, he’s spent the past year and a half trying to prove this by joining up, but he’s been continually rejected on suspicion of being a German spy. He’s tried to join the Army, and the Navy. He’s tried every possible route to the war, including the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Nobody wants him. But now it’s changed…

After many disappointments, at last my attempts to join the Army and “do my bit” are crowned with success. Hitherto I was turned down everywhere from the V.A.D. to the Recruiting Officer at the Mansion House, who all “regretted” and “were exceedingly sorry.” The War Office has at last in reply to my request issued instructions to admit me into the Army.

Based on the dates, I would say that there’s a reasonable chance that they’ve admitted him as one of the last British volunteers, instead of one of the first British conscripts. (The Military Service Act doesn’t come into force until next month.) Anyway, there will now be a delay while the War Office machinery clunks into action, but we’ll be back to Mugge in good time.

Edward Mousley

At the Siege of Kut, Edward Mousley has now relocated, but there’s precious little good news to be had.

This afternoon I spent some hours in Cockie’s observation post, river front, which is a tiny sandbag affair arranged around an opening in the roof to which a ladder leads from the first floor of the heavily bricked and sandbagged building on the river bank, and some forty yards from the water. This tiny strip of land, once the wharfage, is now grass green. To cross it is certain death. The Turks are thickly entrenched on the other side of the river, and have a bee line on every brick on the water front.

The post commands a view of three-quarters of the horizon, the whole of the right bank, and has artistic advantages all its own. The solitary waters of the sunlit [River Tigris] and the misty distances between and beyond the palm trees invite one to pleasant dreams after the strenuous times of trench days, and fort days, and perpetual dug-out days.

The reinforcing division is said to have embarked at Port Said on the 10th. That would remove the date of relief at least to the end of March. Food may be made to stretch, but the casualty list of sick will be very high. Even now some castes will not eat horseflesh, and the Mohammedans have refused to touch it.

They’ve also heard, somehow, of the fall of Erzurum. Mousley hopes, rather plaintively, that that might mean good news.

Malcolm White

Another day of settling in at the village of Canaples for Malcolm White. He’s already having mildly inane discussions with his brother officers, which is always a good sign.

Russell-Smith says the French are more patriotic than the English. I wonder if “Empire-building” nations are ever really patriotic. Perhaps we have expended our patriotism on imperialism. “Puck of Pook’s Hill” and the Sussex enthusiasm of Kipling have always been a surprise to me.

God knows what he’d make of Britain today, if he’s questioning whether Britain in 1916 was a patriotic nation. Puck of Pook’s Hill is a spectacularly cloying English fantasy book by Kipling.

Moved to A Company, where people received one with the same silent and detached air of saying, ‘This isn’t much of a picnic. Take a chair and share our boredom. Carry on.’ I heard the guns for the first time. It was very exciting, the first hearing. It was like seeing great men and saying, “So that’s Mr Asquith”.

Rumours of the Man’s Battalion coming here. That seems too incredible.

“The Man” is how White and his friend Evelyn Southwell referred to each other; as masters at Shrewsbury School, they were known simply as “The Men”. More soon.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

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.)