Givenchy | 21 Dec 1914

It’s mostly another “more of the same” day. The French Army continues flinging itself on the German guns. Enver Pasha’s cunning plan is about to swing into action.

Konigsberg

Meanwhile, in Africa! Captain Looff has shifted Konigsberg’s berth a little way up the river, and today he throws a Christmas party for his crew, with supplies sent by colonists from all over German East Africa. At the same time, the matelots on board the British ships have been floating lanterns into the delta, with friendly notes for the Germans inside. Sample: “Try our Christmas puddings! Large six inches, small size four point seven.” It’s all very jolly.

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Givenchy

Meanwhile, back at that lovely war, badly-needed British reinforcements have squelched their way forward to give the Indian Corps a hand. The Germans are struggling through the mud created their own shelling and mining efforts. It’s proving exceptionally hard to bring their own reinforcements and supplies forward. When the British counter-attack comes, it restores most of the line to its original position.  Nothing to see here.  Move along, now.

The Indian Corps’ commander does the only thing he can do, and requests immediate relief for his men. It’s granted, and the Indian Corps will soon be able to have some proper rest for the first time in a good couple of months. They’ve taken serious casualties; not just in men, but in NCOs, VCOs and officers. And, unlike a British force, they can’t expect any reinforcement-drafts for a good few months.

To modern eyes, the high performance of the Corps seems obvious. Rushed into battle after a long sea voyage, thousands of miles from home, in completely unfamiliar terrain and conditions. They played a vital role in holding the line at the Battle of Armentieres, and in keeping it stable since then. And their reward, in some quarters, is to be sneered at and be deemed “unreliable”, because after all that, some of them fell back in an undisciplined fashion when they were forced out of their waterlogged trenches after having been blown up from in front, above and below all at once.

Artois & Champagne

It’s another tale of woe. There’s only so many ways I can say “They advanced through knee-deep mud with little artillery support into the teeth of machine-guns and were driven off with heavy losses.” The supporting attacks have already ground to a miserable halt. Now, more and more of the grand offensive is running out of steam, as focus is shifted to bringing heavy force to bear against small points of minor tactical importance.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Artois (First Artois)
Battle of Champagne (First Champagne)

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Funerals begin in Scarborough, Whitby, and Hartlepool (pages 9, 10, 12 and 15). Pages 8, 9, and 10 are extremely self-satisfied about the addition of Egypt to the Empire.

Elsewhere, the engineering column (page 3) asks the vital question “Jig-Making: When Does It Pay?”, Page 9 has Kipling’s latest on the training of Kitchener’s Army, and Page 11 has a column of adverts for foreign holidays. Business as usual all round, apparently.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

First Champagne | 20 Dec 1914

It’s the busiest day in the West in quite some time; Petain’s mob is still wading towards Carency, the First Battle of Champagne is about to get underway, and the Germans are eager not to let the Allies have things all their own way.

Givenchy

So let’s start with them. Yesterday the Indian Corps went in and then went out again. An unintended consequence of launching a general offensive is that it’s caused the Germans to concentrate some reserves in the general vicinity of Flanders. Now they recognise that the Indian Corps hasn’t been out of the line in a while and may well be vulnerable to a counter-attack. They’ve also been preparing a rather nasty surprise for their opponents. Despite the Biblical rains, and the high water table, they’ve still managed to carry out some limited mining operations, aided by the narrow No Man’s Land in this sector. After a thorough bombardment, they explode ten 50kg mines underneath the Indians.

The effect is devastating. Already being forced to occupy flooded trenches and breastworks, many of the defenders are buried alive. Others are completely trapped by the mud, and their fate is to slowly flounder, sink and drown in the glutinous soup. The surviving exhausted, cold, often leaderless sepoys fall back in disarray, and who can blame them?

Well, just hold that thought a moment. By the end of the day, Givenchy is in a perilously small salient, and the Germans are pushing strongly forward to renew the attack tomorrow.

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First Champagne

Bite and hold First Champagne may be, but it’s more a case of “nibble and cling”. The largest gain is about two-thirds of a mile, in front of Perthes; but the poilus are stopped short of the village by weather and the early sunset. Elsewhere, it’s the same old story; one trench at most. A few hundred yards here, fifty there. Uncut barbed wire almost everywhere. Stiff resistance, heavy casualties. First Champagne is already doomed to become First Champagne, if you take my meaning.

Carency

Yeah, just guess what happened here. The mood of the French Army is beginning to seriously deteriorate. It won’t be long before the word on every poilu’s lips is not elan, but cafard. Cafard is one of those words that’s very hard to properly translate. The best short definition I can come up with is “a particular kind of depression affecting trench-dwellers”. It’s something we’ll be investigating further as the war wears on.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Artois (First Artois)
Battle of Champagne (First Champagne)

Further Reading

No Daily Telegraph on Sundays. In its place, yesterday’s “News of the Week” editorial from The Spectator, which often has some very interesting analysis of events.

Unsurprisingly, they’re talking the raids on Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby. There’s a small soupcon of outrage, but mostly they’re the voice of reason, arguing against pinning unfair blame on the Navy. They then predict a rush to the colours, which is a reasonable supposition – but the official recruiting figures are rather more equivocal. December 1914 actually saw a 50,000 decrease on November’s recruitment numbers. January then had a mild 40,000 spike (and surely at least some of them have their own reasons) but after that, the number of volunteers goes into a sustained decline and eventually finishes with conscription.

They’ve also been taken in by the propaganda regarding the situation on the Western Front. Sometimes before, they’ve been able to see through the bullshit; but this time they’re pleased about “good gains” in Belgium and near Belfort both, which are entirely in their own imagination. I do find it fascinating how far-reaching the military control of information is. (They’ve got way smarter at it in the last hundred years, but if you don’t think they’re still exercising considerable control over information about today’s wars, I have a nice bridge I’d like to sell you.)

Umba Valley | Givenchy | 19 Dec 1914

First Artois continues to no great effect; tomorrow the French Army is going to launch their offensive in Champagne. Meanwhile, developments in Africa, in the Umba Valley.

Givenchy

The Indian Corps launches its attack on the Germans towards La Bassee. Aided by the surprise of a night attack and minimal bombardment, they somehow squelch across No Man’s Land in enough force to remove the Germans from their front line, and some supporting trenches as well. In the afternoon comes the counter-attack, and by evening the Indians are back where they started.

First Artois

The French Army continues ineffectually battering away at Carency. The artillery’s ammunition supplies are starting to run low again; the mud is knee-deep. Occasionally, isolated companies succeed in capturing the odd trench, which they’re soon evicted from with extreme prejudice.

Louis Barthas

Another attack order arrives for Louis Barthas’s battalion, and is sent straight back with a brusque request for the responsible general (whose name Barthas withholds) to come down and see the conditions for himself. Somewhat surprisingly, the general does actually appear to tour the trenches. By the time he’s finished, he’s been persuaded that Captain Hudelle’s tactic of advancing by digging themselves closer to the enemy is good enough. The battalion settles back down to dig for their lives.

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Umba Valley

The Umba Valley is a large area of German East Africa (Tanzania), east of Tanga. It borders Kenya, Uganda and the Belgian Congo; and over the past couple of months, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck has been maintaining a number of small guerilla raiding parties in the area. They’ve been conducting a number of highly annoying raids, particularly against the Uganda Railway, and now is the time to do something about it.

With General Aitken quietly shuffled out of the way after the disaster at Tanga, his former subordinate General Tighe (he of the bullet through the arse) has been given the job of clearing the Umba Valley of the enemy. He’s taken a force of just under 2,000 men (half of which are askaris of the King’s African Rifles) and 5,000 African porters, and launches a series of attacks in enough force to overwhelm any individual German raiding group.

It’ll take until the end of the year for Tighe to report success, but he will indeed achieve it. His use of the KAR in the Umba Valley will prove conclusively that African troops can be relied on for serious work. So, going forward, they’ll get to join the war in full force alongside the Indians and the white soldiers. Lucky them.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Artois (First Artois)

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: The fallout from Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby continues (pages 10 and 7), and Kipling’s latest article on the training of Kitchener’s Army is finally published, after having been held over for a couple of days.

Also: Page 3 is particularly interesting, with two court-martial reports and a “Bogus Nurse Story”. On Page 4, a law has just taken effect that all automobiles should be forced to carry rear lights. Page 7 has the first example I’ve seen of the soon-common trench prank of hanging one’s own flag on the enemy’s barbed wire. (Soon enough, the flags will be booby-trapped with grenades to stop the enemy taking them down.) Page 12 has some more realistic eyewitness accounts of conditions at the Front, including a funny story about a colonel getting stuck in the mud and having to be dug out. And, A Page for Women (custodian Mrs Eric Pritchard) is concerning itself with the latest word in party-frocks on Page 14.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

Artois | 18 Dec 1914

We’ll rejoin the Western Front and the First Battle of Artois in a moment; but first, off to Koprukoy to check in with the Ottomans’ planned offensive into the Caucasus.

Caucasus

For the past five days, Hasan Izzet Pasha and the staff of the Ottoman Third Army have been digging in their heels as far as possible. Enver will not listen to them; today, he sacks Hasan, purges his subordinates, and takes personal control of the army. The outgoing commander of IX Corps, who will be tasked with the arduous march along the Top Yol, is not interested in going quietly. He makes sure to leave behind his professional opinion. The operation would only have any chance of success if undertaken by specially-trained troops, with the best winter clothing, and supported by pre-arranged supply dumps.

Needless to say, none of these conditions are met. His replacement issues directly contradictory orders. In the interest of speed, the men will march without greatcoats, or blankets, or large packs, and will subsist only on basic iron rations. Meanwhile, on the Top Yol, the winter snows are just beginning to get into their stride as Third Army makes final preparations for the attack on Sarikamis.

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First Artois

French attacks in Flanders in support of First Artois have ground to a muddy halt. Slightly further south, the BEF is still dutifully showing willing. There’s a spectacularly incompetent attack at Plugstreet Wood, which quickly closes after the hard-pressed artillery contrives to shell the attacking infantry.

Meanwhile, the Indian Corps is being ordered back into battle. They’ve been defending the line between Givenchy and Armentieres for the past month with little relief and little proper winter clothing in the waterlogged trenches. Now they’re going to strike out from Givenchy towards La Bassee, and it will be a surprise attack, at 3am the following morning.

Back at the main show in Artois, General Petain (yes, he’s popped up to command the attack on Vimy) quickly recognises the shitty hand of cards he’s been dealt. The attack must continue, so he refocuses offensive efforts solely on the village of Carency. Carency had originally been pegged as a first-hour stepping stone on the way to the top of Vimy Ridge. Now it’s the sole focus of offensive operations in the region.

At Auchy, Louis Barthas’s company is being ordered back onto the offensive again. Conditions are even more difficult than yesterday, with the Germans well aware of where the French are and what they intend to do. But, after yesterday’s fun and games, Barthas and his mates are currently a little way ahead of everyone else. Captain Hudelle refuses to order his company to advance until the battalion’s other companies have advanced to his current position.

Messages to this effect spend several hours ping-ponging backwards and forwards between Hudelle and the battalion commander. The situation only ends when the battalion’s adjutant arrives to inform Captain Hudelle that the officer he’s been corresponding with is dead. In fact, most of the other officers in the battalion are also dead, and Hudelle is now in command of it. This gives him the authority to cancel the attack, and the battalion goes back to digging.

Barthas ends the story by noting a latrine rumour saying that the previous battalion commander had cracked under the strain of attempting to carry out the orders descending on him from on high, and committed suicide under the pressure of being trapped between his can’t-be-argued-with orders and Hudelle’s insistence that they’re impossible. The Western Front in winter 1914, folks.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Artois (First Artois)

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: The propaganda war intensifies over the recent German naval raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby (pages 8, 9 and 10), with all sides and even the New York Times having their tuppence worth.

In other news: a new Sultan of Egypt is declared, strengthening open British control over the country and the Suez Canal in particular (page 9), the German position at Ypres is apparently critical (page 10, and has anyone let them know this?), and although Germany has not run out of men (page 13), apparently they have run out of bullets. Again, I question whether Fritz himself is aware of this shortage.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

First Artois | 17 Dec 1914

Spot the Difference:

The hour of attack has sounded. After having contained the attack of the Germans, it is necessary now to smash them and liberate completely the occupied national territory.

-General Joffre, order of the day to French soldiers, 17 December 1914

The weapons of siege warfare are not yet ready, and we should not expect very great results. We must prevent Germany from moving troops for use against Russia.

-General Joffre, two weeks previously, in conversation with President Poincare (as reported by Poincare)

First Artois

Today begins the First Battle of Artois. All along the front the French Army is in action, over hundreds of miles of front. The vital attacks on Vimy Ridge and the Lorette are an almost total failure. The apparently vast concentration of artillery has proved good only for wrecking the rain-sodden ground. The German barbed-wire is almost entirely intact. The advanced saps dug into No Man’s Land have been mostly disintegrating under the weight of water.

All the French have left to carry the assault is elan. They take a trench here, and a trench there. Gains are being measured in hundreds of metres at best. Souchez, Givenchy, Carency, the Bois de Berthonval. All of them are first-day objectives. Some of them are even first-hour objectives. None of them are in French hands by sunset.  First Artois is already a failure, but it can’t just end here.  “We must do something, this is something, we must do this.”

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Louis Barthas

The story continues up and down the line. Another trench here, another trench there, the odd few hundred metres at a time. Almost all the artillery is at Vimy. Louis Barthas is going over the top at Auchy (then, Auchy-lez-la-Bassee; now, Auchy-les-Mines), the next town up the road after Vermelles.  His is only a supporting attack, a diversion for First Artois.

One machine gun started clattering, then two, then three. Bullets smacked the lip of the trench like hailstones, making us pull down our heads. In the squad that went ahead of us, one man was shot through the shoulder, spurting so much blood that he was surely going to die without immediate attention. … Stepping over this moaning, wounded comrade, we had to splash through his blood.

Our leaders might as well have been in the pay of the Kaiser, having sold out to the enemy. If they had been, they wouldn’t have acted any differently, drawing us into an ambush and getting us massacred.

The captain wasn’t at the head of his men. Now they had come up with this. The colonel marches with his reserve battalion. The commandant, with his reserve company. The captain, with his support section. The section chief, with his relief squad. It was left to the corporal to lead his squad. The sergeants took up the rear.

I should point out that Barthas intends no criticism towards his own Captain Hudelle, a man who he respects greatly and who will appear time and again to defend his men from the brass hats.

We crept forward a few metres. Barely half the company had gotten out of the trench. From behind, a rough voice threw out to us a terrible threat. “Tell the section chief that if it doesn’t move forward, we’ll fire on it!” Terrified, we crept a little further along the embankment, like earthworms. Up in front, they tried to form a skirmish line, but those who left the slope were immediately struck down. … The brutes who commanded this assault finally seemed to understand that since we didn’t have skin like a hippopotamus, it was impossible to advance into a hailstorm of bullets.

Corporal Barthas and his men eventually find safety in a line of rifle-pits that had been dug by the Germans in No Man’s Land for the use of sentries. On their bellies, and then on hands and knees, they scrape away at the ground, deepening the pits, joining them up, forming a parapet. Back goes the report. “Advance of some 150 metres in front of Auchy.” When night comes, there are no stretcher-bearers, and they must take the wounded back themselves.

Emden

I think we could all do with a little light relief, don’t you? The Emden shore-party is having quite an interesting time of it. Unable to communicate openly with any other German ships during their 24 hours in Padang harbour, they resorted to talking in extremely loud voices about a well-known rendezvous point in the Indian Ocean, where they spent about two weeks hove to, waiting hopefully for someone to turn up.

At one point they had an interesting run-in with a British merchant, who they successfully dodged by pretending to be stupid, and a few days ago their prayers were answered. They’ve been met by a German merchant steamer (and a rather large storm). The weather’s been preventing them from transferring the crew to the iron-hulled ship from the rotten-hulled one.

Yesterday they managed to find shelter in the lee of a small island chain, and completed the first phase of their escape by boarding the merchant and scuttling their rickety schooner. Now it’s time to decide what to do next. Sailing to German East Africa, or across the Pacific, is quickly ruled out as a waste of time. The latest news is that there’s been fighting between Britain and the Ottomans in the Middle East, so they set course for Arabia, hoping to then gain Ottoman assistance in returning home.

The journey will take some weeks, so the men entertain themselves with a DIY project. The entire ship will be repainted and disguised as an Italian vessel, complete with home-made Italian flag.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Artois (First Artois)

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Predictable outrage over the raid on Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby (pages 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12), including a spectacularly sanctimonious leader, even by the standards of the day.

Elsewhere, for some reason Page 2 reports extensively on the AGM of the United Fruit Company, Page 6 is gushing over the meeting of we three kings of Scandi-navi-are (ahem), the Belgium Fund crashes noisily past £90,000 (£9 million today), and Page 14 has a funny story or two under the headline “Lighter Side of War”, which presumably one should always look on. (The second of those stories is far from the last time someone will conduct gramophone warfare in this conflict.)

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)