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

Julna | Easter Rising | 24 Apr 1916

Siege of Kut

Today sees the final, desperate throw of the dice for relieving the Siege of Kut. A large paddle steamer, the Julna, has been loaded with medical supplies and rations for another month or two, heavily armoured, and sent on a death-or-glory charge up the River Tigris.

It’s a wonderfully buccaneering idea, but despite the relief column’s best attempts at a distraction, she’s soon spotted and heavily shelled. The Ottomans have also strung a large and sturdy cable across the river, just below Kut, in case of just such an eventuality. Edward Mousley reports on the ship’s fate.

Her officers were killed, Lieutenant Cowley captured, and she was taken within sight of our men waiting to unload her by the Fort, and of the sad little group of the garrison who beheld her from the roof-tops of Kut. She lies there now. It appears that this tragic but obvious end of so glorious an enterprise is a last hope. We have scarcely rations for to-morrow.

I have been compelled to abandon keeping my diary owing to excruciating pain in my spine from the shell contusion. What is wrong I can’t make out, but sometimes the tiniest movement sends a sharp thrill of keenest pain through one’s whole being. After lying in one position for any little time this particular spot in my spine aches with a most ravaging pulsation of neuralgia, and I find it difficult to sit upright for many minutes. On these occasions if I lie still my arms and legs shoot out at intervals with a sort of reflex action, and sometimes repeat the performance several times.

I have even walked a little with a stick, and the twitching is much less violent and less often. My eyes, however, are still dim, and I find it difficult to see very distinctly. To complete the list of my infirmities of the flesh the enteritis, which has continued in a mild form for three weeks, has got worse, and I find emmatine the only thing that has done any good.

There is precious little glory to be had in this war, for those who believe in such things. There was, I think, some during the Battle of the Marne. Perhaps there is just a little here, as well; but after the manner of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre. C’est de la folie.

Easter Rising

Well, they’re not really ready for it, and not all their leaders are committed to it. Indeed, as soon as he heard of the capture of Libau and the loss of its arms shipment, key rebel Eoin MacNeill and his associates have spent most of their time in the last few days trying to stop the whole thing. Orders and countermands and counter-countermands have been flying around, and as it turned out, the number of rebels who’ve answered the call to arms have been rather smaller than hoped for.

On the other hand, those who have risen up number in the thousands, and they have secured a number of important locations in central Dublin by mid-afternoon. Headquarters is quickly established in the General Post Office, and barricades are set up on the streets. Despite ample warning, both the British government and the Army have been caught almost entirely by surprise. There’s very little shooting while everyone tries to work out what to do next.

Outside Dublin there are several pockets of rebels, but most of them get caught between inadequate armament and a lack of orders, and consequently achieve very little; we’ll be concentrating on Dublin in the next few days.

Lowestoft Raid

From the North Sea, the story so far. The Grand Fleet went to sea a few days ago in response to reports that the High Seas Fleet had gone out. They wandered around aimlessly near the mouth of the Skagerrak for a while, and then started crashing into each other in the dark, so went back to Scapa Flow to refuel. Almost as soon as they arrived back, they heard that the High Seas Fleet was totally really for reals out at sea this time. But of course they needed to finish coaling before they could put to sea again…

So now we find the fleet trying manfully to make headway in extremely rough seas. The weather’s so unfriendly that their destroyers have had to return to port. With Admiral Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Squadron further out in front of the fleet than usual, they spend an unhappy night and morning sailing south.

Meanwhile, at the business end of things, the High Seas Fleet is heading full speed for the south coast of England. This is right back to 1914 in terms of tactics. Admiral Scheer is hoping to draw out a smaller British force that can be outnumbered and destroyed by his fleet, and so change the entire balance of power in the North Sea. The raid has also been carefully timed to coincide with the Easter Rising. And, with the Grand Fleet still nowhere useful, the only Royal Navy ships in the area are the light cruisers and destroyers of the Harwich Force.

When they interrupt the detached German battlecruisers who are bombarding Lowestoft and Yarmouth, this is surely an opportunity to achieve something. Sure, it’s not nearly as good as directly taking on some element of the main British Fleet. However, the Harwich Force is a vital component of British efforts to interfere with German minelayers and submarines, and to protect their own mine-laying efforts. If it had taken serious losses, that would surely have been a major political embarrassment for the Admiralty, never mind its operational consequences.

And yet, the German Admiral Bodicker showed absolutely no interest in chasing the force down. As soon as it’s obvious that the enemy is adopting the time-honoured (and entirely sensible) military tactic of running away very quickly, the German battlecruisers turn and rejoin the High Seas Fleet. In turn, Scheer has just heard that the Grand Fleet is on its way to intercept, and he orders a prudent return to port. Another chance missed; and when Scheer returns home and starts working out what exactly just happened, he will not be a happy bunny.

German submarine warfare

Back in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II has come to a decision on the question of submarine warfare; in short, “knock it off already”. They’re back on Prize Regulations; submarines may no longer sink ships without warning, but must first stop them and take the crew off. Since this effectively nerfs their usefulness, Admiral Scheer will quickly recall them to port for a tactical rethink. It actually fits in rather well with his mindset, anyway; the U-boats can now be used in support of the grand, war-changing action he’s still planning to fight against the Grand Fleet.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier of the French Army has been detached from his unit to do a training course at some headquarters or other. It leaves him plenty of time to read the papers, and to have opinions on politics in general and the position of the Americans in particular. He writes a letter to his brother.

I am studying new things and I hear other things which I have heard a great many times, but on the whole the work is interesting and well supervised by people who know their business. Moreover, I enjoy my three meals and my beautiful room in a way which might lead the casual observer to believe that your brother has sunk into a deep-rooted and remorseless materialism. The truth is that I am making up for lost opportunities and I distrust the future more than I can tell.

Now, this excellent [President Wilson] seems to be speaking plainly and firmly. Perhaps it is high time he should do it, but, of course, he has had and he still has on his hands a very complicated situation. It is what I am doing my best to explain to our country-people who, in spite of Red Cross ambulances, hospitals and even volunteers from far beyond the sea are tempted to believe that in the United States there is an overwhelming feeling in favor of the Teutons. “C’est tout boche,” a judgment which is rather summary.

As someone who spent some years teaching in America before the war, it’s probably not much of a reach to suggest that he might have been asked for his opinion more than once by various interested parties.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge’s light duties continue to afford him plenty of time for voluminous complaint. Easter festivities have afforded the lads plenty of time for their favoured form of recreation.

What inveterate gamblers soldiers are! Yesterday, there were no parades and the boys played “Brag” from 10am till “lights out.” You should see the flushed faces of these children. Some of them have nothing but their three or six shillings weekly pay. Meals are either skimped or gobbled down. The Hut-corporal plays; sergeants come and play. A boy not yet nineteen cleared about £1 14s yesterday. “Not a bad day’s work!” he remarked as he dropped into bed.

And the Army Authorities frame lovely rules! There is an outpost, of course, to warn the gamblers should anybody above the rank of a sergeant be seen anywhere within a radius of half a mile.

The young lad is, of course, too young to go to France just yet. He may have been accepted on the grounds that he soon will have his birthday, or he might just have lied about his age at the recruiting-office. Three-card brag is an old working-class gambling game, an ancestor of poker. If you’ve seen Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, that’s the card game they play.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun
March to Kondoa

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

Ripples from Verdun | 1 Mar 1916

Battle of Verdun

The first phase of the Battle of Verdun is over. The Germans have poked the hornet’s nest and stirred it up real good. They’ve shoved the French back to within about six miles of the city, more than close enough for their biggest guns to shell everything left in French hands east of the River Meuse. They’ve pinched Fort Douaumont without loss, they’re digging in again in front of the new French line. Everything should, in theory, be nice and set for a solid few months’ attrition.

And yet. The line is far from neat and tidy. Douaumont village continues to hold out. The French are still in possession of all but one of their forts. If attrition pure and simple really is the goal, they need to transition over to the defensive as soon as possible. And they surely must do something about those guns west of the Meuse. How can they hope to stay alive when the French artillery can reach out and touch the German rear from perfect enfilading positions?

General von Falkenhayn’s decision to restrict the offensive to the east bank of the Meuse is surely one of the great blunders of the war. That’s not to say that had they attacked west, they’d certainly have won the battle. However, not to even try to do something there is proving to be a gigantic unforced error. Even better for the hapless German Chief, the Kaiser is in town, apparently waiting for his victory parade in Verdun.

This makes Wilhelm II privy to every single message, gripe, and complaint about von Falkenhayn’s failure to attack on the west bank. That weight of condemnation will soon make its way back to Berlin, and from there to von Hindenburg and Ludendorff on the Eastern Front. There are a lot of German eyes on Verdun right now.

Eastern Front

There’s a lot of eyes, full stop, on Verdun. General Joffre has sent out a rather desperate series of messages, entreating France’s allies to launch major offensives as soon as possible. The Russian Army has spent much of the last five months drifting aimlessly, rebuilding its strength as far as possible after the disastrous campaigns of 1915. Now the Tsar, desperate to support his ally, is ordering attacks within the month.

Never mind footling concerns like “everyone’s shattered and demoralised” and “there’s very little time for the staff officers to draw up proper plans and sort their logistics out”. The boss says “attack”; the correct response is “How hard?” The various Russian commands, seeing which way the wind is blowing, are now scrambling to get their excuses in first. More soon.

Italian Front

Long-time readers will doubtless be thinking that this cannot mean anything good, and they’re quite right. General Cadorna has been quick to promise his good pal Joffre a modest offensive on the Carso. This at least has a better chance of achieving some exceptionally modest success than whatever the Russians can produce from their butts. The Fifth Battle of the Isonzo has been in the making all winter, and all Cadorna’s doing is moving the timetable up a bit.

And besides, the Italians don’t really need to worry about an increased workload for staff officers. The attack will be be restricted to a front between Tolmein and Mount San Michele (sigh), but as for any finer detail, it mostly boils down to taking out the old orders and inserting new dates. Mostly. There will be some innovation. Sort of. Ye gods.

The Bluff

Well, there was a quick answer to my prayer. Today General Plumer’s 2nd Army is going to launch its exceptionally sneaky and well-thought-out attack to retake The Bluff in the Ypres salient. For the past little while they’ve been firing artillery in particular, defined patterns designed to encourage the Germans to react in certain ways. Now they begin trying to exploit this use of “Behaviour Modification”.

The bombardments in and around the Bluff increase in intensity throughout the day, still following the pattern “barrage/2min break/barrage again”. At 5pm the guns stop, and the BEF demonstrates with shouts and great action, waving fixed bayonets over the trenches, their officers blowing whistles. This demonstration is immediately followed by, yes, another bombardment. This time they don’t break off after a while, or resume the on/off/on pattern.

Instead, through the evening and the night, the British guns keep up low-level harrassing fire. It’s not going to kill or even suppress many Germans, but what it will hopefully do is discourage them from sending out wiring parties to repair the gaps in their barbed wire that have been cut by the earlier barrages. More tomorrow…

Grigoris Balakian

As generals everywhere encourage their men to commit suicide, at the River Halys in Anatolia, Grigoris Balakian is trying to stop men from doing just that. Ten of his fellow Armenians are about to jump into the river to save themselves from the horrors that lie in wait on the road. At length Balakian talks to them.

First, as a good priest should, he talks to them of God and religion. When that has no effect, as a good man should, he reminds them that they still have money and possessions that might be bargained for their lives. Finally, as a good patriot should, he tells them to live through these days to see Armenia free and reborn in the future. Some combination of these arguments gets through, and all the men live to die another day. Off they go again.

We began to ascend the deserted mountains, leaving behind for good the river. Our journey was exhausting as we climbed up snow-capped mountains, the cold wind lashing our bodies. After seven hours, we reached an isolated khan made of stone. It consisted of a single room, where again, supposedly by chance, more than twenty armed Turkish robbers were to spend the night with us.

Again, their pet Jandarma officer rises to their defence and keeps his walking piggy bank alive for another day.

Edward Mousley

Edward Mousley has a thoroughly miserable day as artillery shells and aeroplane bombs rain down on Kut. His mate Cockie has joined the Dysentry Sufferers’ Club, so he’s up in the observation post for all of it. The nearest miss is ten yards, plus several more at thirty yards. There is a slight consolation in the middle of the hell, mind you.

The heavy mortar, tiring of acting wallflower on the other bank, chucked her big bombs at us. Some went in the river near the horse boats. These were received calmly by the Tigris. Another got into the sand-heap near our butchery and fell into it without exploding. Some scientifically minded Arabs charged up to secure it and were within thirty yards when the thing went off to their huge astonishment. We had a good laugh at the way they sprinted back jabbering with rage and fear.

One of Fritz’s bombs, a 100-pounder, we saw toppling over and over in the air quite plainly. It didn’t go off. But another such sent a table at least two hundred feet into the air. This is true. I won’t spoil it by saying that the cloth was laid and set. It was merely a table and its four legs stuck up towards the evening moon.

There’s little sleep for anyone that night, between repairing what damage can be repaired and keeping a watch against the possibility of an infantry attack. Mousley comforts himself by reading The Count of Monte Cristo.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell attempts to lead another route march today. This time the whole battalion’s going out, and, well…

This was one of the mornings when the Company Sergeant-Major and I agreed that after the War there would be a few funny things to look back upon.

There was a lot of shuffling about of [B and C Companies] on the road, to the side of our real road, but the one on which we were drawn up waiting to join the column. We went down it some way, and helped, and turned about. Then ‘B’ came, of course through thousands of lorries, all [mixed up and] anyhow. So we had to shift down. Too far. Back. Not far enough. Back. About turn.

Found old ‘B’ with its “second front section of fours marking time like good ‘uns, and nobody else giving a damn”, as I observed to the Company Sergeant-Major.

I’m pretty sure that this comes to a funny story if you think about it hard enough. (Half a battalion attempts to march out onto a road, gets tangled up with itself and passing lorries, discovers some members have disappeared, marches back to starting point, finds missing members with a few conscientious types marching on the spot for lack of orders, and the rest looking at them like they’re idiots.)

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.)

General Petain’s rise | Fort Douaumont’s fall | 25 Feb 1916

It’s time for another split day. This is about today at the Battle of Verdun. For everything else today, see this post.

Petain’s dirty weekend

Yesterday, we found two cars leaving GQG at Chantilly on long journeys with urgent missions. The first contains General Castelnau, the commander-in-chief’s right hand, who’s speeding towards Verdun; we’ll catch up to him in a moment. The second is someone’s aide-de-camp, on a rather shorter journey to Second Army’s headquarters. He’s carrying the most urgent of messages for General Petain; report to GQG at 8am sharp to receive new orders.

General Petain is not there. Fortunately, Petain’s aide-de-camp is a man of the world; and so it’s he who carries the message on by car, to a hotel near the Gare du Nord in Paris. The general, a good Frenchman to the bottom of his boots, is taking what may well be the last opportunity for a long time to spend the night with his mistress. His young ADC interrupts him, briefly. Petain instructs him to take a room in the hotel until the morning. There is, apparently, time enough to finish the game and beat the Germans too.

You know, just in case you had any doubts at all about how French this all is. Anyway, even General Joffre isn’t getting much sleep; the Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, has arrived, demanding a personal update on the situation. In an extremely savvy move, Joffre has in turn awakened some of his staff who have been suggesting to him that perhaps Verdun might be given up. He then sits back quietly and lets them present the argument to the Prime Minister, while he himself judges the mood of the conversation.

This is not difficult; Briand is quite certain that if Verdun falls, so too does his government, and in his diary he admits to a frank exchange of views which finishes with him threatening to sack the entire room. Joffre can then speak up and point out what he’s already done to defend the east bank, and reassure the Prime Minister that of course he’ll hold out.

The sharp end at Verdun

Meanwhile, we find the blokes preparing a major retirement from the Woevre plain. Even before Briand’s arrival at GQG, Joffre had indeed made it quite clear that the east bank of the Meuse had to be defended. Conveniently, there are all these fortresses lying around that can be used as the anchors of a new defensive position around Verdun. Often referred to as the Douaumont-Vaux-Eix Line, it looks something like this.

Line of retreat in pink: positions of the front lines are as before dawn today

Line of retreat in pink: positions of the front lines are as before dawn today

The retirement begins as soon as messages can be sent forward, and although the Germans gain much territory today, most of it is being given up with minimal fighting. This means another retreat for the French artillery, another prolonged period when they’ll be barely able to support their infantry. Every gun available must be used, which includes the single 155mm howitzer still emplaced in Fort Douaumont.

Fort Douaumont

You may remember a few days ago how we discussed that Douaumont has, until very recently, been considered surplus to requirements. The Engineers had been preparing it for demolition, but they’ve now stopped work and cleared off. However, its earmarking for demolition has caused most everyone to forget all about it. No French soldier is retreating to it. No French reinforcements are advancing to occupy it. As far as the French Army is concerned, Fort Douaumont may as well have fallen into a hole.

There is one man on all the Western Front who has a diffferent opinion. His name is Sergeant Kunze; he’s a German engineer attached to the 24th Brandenburg Regiment. (Long-time readers will remember that German combat engineers are combat engineers; our long-departed correspondent the German Sapper spent a lot of his time throwing grenades at the enemy.) The German stormtrooper leapfrogs are advancing quicker than ever as the French infantry retreats before them.

Kunze had been ordered to halt 750 metres in front of Douaumont and wait for support, but he’s German, and therefore encouraged to take advantage of local opportunities. So, in the late afternoon, he leads ten of his sappers forward, waiting for someone to shoot at them. It never happens. The 155mm gun continues firing at God knows what several kilometres away. Soon the sergeant and his men are at the walls of the fortress. One human pyramid later and Kunze has achieved what I suppose we must describe as “infiltrating” the fort.

Single-handed and armed only with a rifle, Kunze tours the fort. Whether or not he succeeded in arresting the gunners manning the 155mm gun is unclear; they may have escaped into the fort for a while. At any rate he wanders around for a time (it’s often said that he stopped to eat a meal that the French had prepared for themselves) until some more raiding parties arrive and, with the advantage of numbers, take full control of the fort. Messages are sent to the rear and the last-arriving officer, one Captain von Brandis, hurries to call for reinforcements and place himself at the centre of events.

Fort Douaumont is German. No casualties were taken, with the possibly-apocryphal exception of a scraped German knee. No shots were fired. When the local French infantry commanders see German signal rockets rising over Fort Douaumont, they immediately advance to the rear once more. Most of the civilians go with them, fleeing their homes. In Verdun one lieutenant’s nerves break and he runs through the town yelling “every man for himself” until he can be arrested.

The Germans, meanwhile, immediately begin preparing to consolidate and push on once more. When the Kaiser is told of the news, he immediately begins making plans to visit the front. The Government prepares to declare a public holiday tomorrow in celebration. And this is the situation that General Petain finds when he arrives at Souilly town hall, home of the headquarters for the Fortified Region of Verdun. The MSPaint map by midnight:

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

General Castelnau gives Petain further orders and then makes a quiet exit. Take over command from General Herr, hold the line, don’t fuck up.

The rest of today

Once again, for everything else that happened today, see this post.

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.)

Air superiority at Verdun | Samogneux | 23 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

The Germans continue relentlessly turning the screw at Verdun. Without their long autumn and winter of trench-digging, the French would now be completely up a tree without a paddle. As it is, they’re now in their second defensive position, three and a half miles behind the first one. This phase of the battle is going to tell us whether the Germans can actually seriously achieve something, or whether it’s just going to degenerate into a German Battle of Champagne, with initial success quickly stalling out and leaving the attackers no better off and badly mauled.

At the end of the day the cautious German advance is still mostly dealing with the second line, but they are well into it. Another thunderous barrage is pouring into its remnants, and moving on to the third line. And there are some places where the German stormtroopers are clean through and waiting for support before moving on to assault that third line. French army group reserves are beginning to arrive at the battle, but as we’ve seen, more grist for the mill is not necessarily a bad thing for the attackers. And the German penetrations of the second line, isolated though they may be, are now forcing the French artillery to leave their emplacements and make a quick exit to the rear. This is not a simple operation, and it’ll be many hours before the guns can come back into action.

On a strategic level, General de Langle is now deeply worried. Yesterday we mentioned the possibility that the Germans may be able to break into the French rear if they keep driving south and cut off the troops who are holding the line east of the German offensive. Well aware of the new “defence in depth” ideas that have been percolating through the French army, he spends most of today considering alternatives for a major withdrawal to more defensible positions. He’s even daring to think the unthinkable; that he might be forced to withdraw all his men from the east bank of the River Meuse and then force the Germans to cross it to continue fighting.

On roll the Germans. Today we have an excellent example of how confused the situation can be in the midst of battle. Early in the morning, the Germans capture Samogneux, a village by the side of the Meuse. News of this makes its way by separate routes to the local commander, General Bapst, and also to General Herr. Bapst, unable to make contact with his boss, orders an immediate counter-attack; and, taken by surprise, the Germans end up falling back out of the village.

At which point night falls. Herr has heard nothing of all this. He’s been gathering artillery on the west bank of the Meuse to give those dastardly Boche something to think about as they sit in Samogneux eating sausages and drinking looted wine. This sort of thing is tragically far too common during a major offensive. In the small hours the bombardment opens up; the poilus in Samogneux try to send up “cease fire” signal rockets, which are instead interpreted as a dastardly enemy trick using captured flares. By 3am tomorrow, everyone in Samogneux is dead or has made a swift exit, and before dawn the Germans will be back in possession.

At about 11pm, Joffre’s friend M. Etienne makes his customary telephone call to GQG. He receives the standard response; General Joffre is in bed asleep. His self-deception is so complete that even now, when it should have been obvious that there was a major crisis developing at Verdun, the Chief is not overly concerned by the situation. Can he possibly sleepwalk the Army into a major defeat?

The MSPaint map at the end of the day:

As ever, these are Tube maps, not Ordnance Survey maps.

As ever, these are Tube maps, not Ordnance Survey maps.

Air superiority

A major part of the early success at Verdun has been the Germans’ almost total air superiority. Their fighters have kept French recon planes from seeing anything useful, and kept outclassed French fighters from interfering with their own flying. Six flights of spotter aircraft are constantly out on missions, giving corrections to the artillery as they fire supporting barrage after supporting barrage, leapfrogging forward so that there’s always plenty of guns ready to fire.

And then there are the Zeppelins. Often I end up thinking of airship missions as a sideshow, something that can be sidelined in favour of more interesting stories. Here at Verdun they’re proving extremely effective in support of a major offensive, flying into the French rear to bomb French road and railway junctions, interfering with the arrival of reinforcements and supplies. The Germans are now dictating the progress of events on the Western Front in a way that they haven’t done since 1914.

Admiral Scheer and the Kaiser

And now we rejoin Admiral Scheer, commander of the High Seas Fleet, who could not have picked a better time to talk the Kaiser into seeking battle with the English in the North Sea. He spends the day aboard his flagship, laying out his plans to his volatile boss in great detail and with infinite care. Wilhelm II listens, eventually allows himself to be convinced, and approves Scheer’s request to play with his favourite toys. (Ironically and symbolically, today is the day that Scheer’s predecessor von Pohl dies of his cancer.)

The Ministry of Blockade

Meanwhile in London, the Admiralty is always looking for ways to tighten the net of the Blockade of Germany. Its importance to the British government and the entire war effort is thoroughly underlined today with the creation of a Ministry of Blockade, headed by Lord Cecil. This will be a full-time government department dedicated entirely to enforcing and tightening the blockade, and as far as possible choking off any kind of commercial imports to the Central Powers.

Out in the Atlantic, the necessity of tightening the blockade is being driven home today. The commerce raider Moewe is still at large, returning home from Brasil. Over the next couple of days she’ll trip over and sink a French merchant, and then a British one. Now all the ship has to do is slip the blockade once more, and it’ll be another one in the eye for the Royal Navy from the Germans.

Gabriele D’Annunzio

Finally, a quick interlude to go to Italy and check in with their chief gobshite D’Annunzio. I’m often quite rude about him, but it can’t be denied that he was capable of great personal bravery and has been flying many missions over the Isonzo as a pilot. Today it becomes obvious why being willing to fly at all is a sign of great bravery; as he comes in to land something goes wrong, and he’s pitched forward into the back of his own machine gun. The gun strikes him in the eyes, and he’s left blind. After months in a darkened room, he’ll begin regaining his sight, but in only one eye.

Robert Pelissier

Robert Pelissier is unhappy, high on the Hartmannswillerkopf. The cheveaux de frise are a simple anti-cavalry defence (the translation is “Frisian horses”, as Frisians generally did not have much cavalry of their own) consisting of a large bit of wood or metal on props with large spikes or spears sticking out of it. They’re commonly used to temporarily plug a gap in barbed-wire until it’s safe to send out a wiring party.

I spent over an hour with men on the parapet placing chevaux de frise and never was fired on once, though we must have been heard working in each case. The Germans talked so much and so loud that a fool corporal requisitioned the interpreter, a fine, brave Alsatian boy, twenty years old, who came up to listen. He heard, of course, nothing but futilities. “Schnell! Schnell!” by two who were placing wire, then the illuminating statement, “We were better off where we were last week than we are now.”

The boy, eager to hear more and to see more clearly, finally climbed on the ladder until his head and shoulders were in full view over the parapet. He then received a bullet in the cheek which killed him instantly. What a price to pay for such a result! That boy had run away at the time he ended his first year in the German army, and enlisted in the French army.

Ugh.

E.S. Thompson

The round of dull duties continues for E.S. Thompson and the South Africans, until…

Acting tent orderly. Spent the morning in the bush talking instead of parading as there was only one gun. Nos. 3 and 4 Guns returned from their march about 5.30 pm. They had marched to a hill about 12 miles north to try and establish a signalling post, but no result. A German patrol was seen by the companies marching out to the hill so we were told that we had to leave camp tomorrow to keep them on the move. Was put on mule guard, much to my disgust, and had 3rd guard.

This may well be a chance to redeem themselves after Salaita Hill. Or it could just be a chance to go on a long march and sleep outdoors for no reason.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is heading back up the line again. Still, he’s not at Verdun.

The next day the captain called us together, sergeants and corporals, to tell us that shortly we would be going to occupy a sector near the ill-famed Bois de la Folie. The division which was holding this sector considered itself an attack division, and hadn’t stooped to do fortification work. We therefore couldn’t expect to find any shelters in the trenches we would be occupying. This made us grimace, but the captain was all smiles, certain that he would have a fine shelter for his precious self.

Well, that’s no good. The Bois de la Folie is already thoroughly wrecked after 1915’s fighting in Artois. In good time, the Quebecois will eventually come to know it as well.

The temperature had dropped sharply. As we left Bethonsart on foot, the snow started falling heavy and thick, slowing down our march, stinging our faces, sticking to our clothes. It was whipped up by a violent wind, freezing and transforming into icy stalactites which hung from our beards and moustaches.

They finish up at Mont Saint-Eloi in close reserve; another battalion in the regiment has the honour of the first stint of trench duty.

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.)