We begin today with the settling of an old score in German East Africa. The Battle of Tanga, way back in November 1914, has, in many ways, set the stage for many of the set-piece battles that have followed it. A superior attacking force spectacularly cocked up a number of things and so allowed the defenders to hold out when really they shouldn’t have.
Today no such chances are being taken, although Tanga is defended only by the smallest of rear-guards. The Royal Navy’s cruisers have all been concentrated here for a punishing offshore bombardment; the defenders, job done, clear out as soon as honour allows. The amount of colony under German control is contracting; but Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck still remains at large. As long as he’s free and has men to lead, the British Empire will have to continue pouring resources into the area to prevent him from running around launching guerrilla attacks at will.
In other news, there are still more than a thousand Schutztruppe at large around Lake Victoria. Their base at Mwanza is surrounded by mountains and is very easily defensible. It’s also the northern end of an important road to Tabora, on the Central Railway. Men from the Force Publique have now located Major Wintgens and his men. They’re important enough that between British and Belgian Empire commitments, about 5,000 men will attack in a week’s time.
Battle of the Somme
As the final Germans are winkled out of La Boisselle, the timetable for further attacks is just slipping, and slipping, and slipping. An attack on the now-critical Trones Wood has been consistently delayed, first for lack of French support, and now due to the on-again off-again blasts of rain. Four days ago it could almost certainly have been taken unopposed. Now the Germans have poured men into the wood. They’ve barely had time to dig trenches, but Trones Wood is tall, and home to overwhelmingly thick undergrowth, and they’ve had over a year of occupation to draw up detailed maps and gain local knowledge.
Meanwhile, over to the left, a couple of divisions are now trying to push towards Contalmaison (again), and through Mametz Wood. It’s far from the finest day in the Army’s history. Orders have arrived late and lack clarity. The constant need for artillery fire is starting to run shell supplies worryingly low. The problem has changed, mind you; it’s not that there are insufficient shells, just that most of them are stuck at the ports, unable to move forward because the logistical arrangements aren’t good enough. (More on that to come.) Let’s just have the map again.
Shells are not all there’s not enough of. The attack is supposed to be a divisional attack. As in, the division will attack as a whole. However, it’s been so poorly planned and executed that out of a division of (nominally) about 15 battalions, only two will go over the top towards Mametz Wood. Before they do, Sergeant Albert Perriman of the 11th South Wales Borderers is trying to feed his men.
For fifty-two of us I was allocated one and a half loaves of bread, a piece of boiled bacon weighing about 16 ounces after the Somme mud had been removed, a small quantity of biscuits, some currants and sultanas and a petrol tin of tea. As I displayed the rations which would not be the ‘last supper’ but the ‘last breakfast’ for some of us, I reminded my lads of the parable of the ‘loaves and fishes’, adding that as I had not the miraculous powers of Our Lord Jesus Christ, section commanders should toss up, the winner taking the lot.
At this, one of the lads said, “Say Sarge, the buggers do not intend us to die on a full stomach, do they?”
There’s about 500 yards to cover between the new front line and the fringes of the wood. The ground is rather undulating, which cuts both ways. On the one hand, it protects the blokes from direct observation after they’ve gone over the top. On the other, when they crest the last ridge, there’s still 150 clear yards to go before they’re in the trees. And there are German machine guns in the trees. Here we have a rare example of machine guns, not artillery, being the deadliest force on the battlefield. The men are forced to take cover and then retreat.
A second attack in the afternoon is broken up by artillery fire; Sergeant Perriman’s platoon had already been ordered forward again in an attempt to take the machine guns by surprise and capture them.
Shrapnel and heavy machine-gun fire all around us spelled instant death. My officer was the first to go. I was a yard or so behind him when he fell. He fell without uttering a sound. I examined him and found he was dead. I took over, but for short duration. I became the second casualty. I received multiple wounds—in leg, stomach and hands by shrapnel. Unable to continue, I handed over to the senior NCO and I managed to crawl back the best way I could. Progress was slow and painful.
Slow and painful, indeed.
Contalmaison and Ovillers
There are similar scenes at Ovillers. This is another occasion where some men went over the top and were immediately cut down by machine-gun fire. Of interest to our story is the presence of the 7th Royal Sussex. Before his adventures with the War Office, Maximilian Mugge was in the Royal Sussex’s permanent training battalion, and he might very well have been involved with this. Apparently, through sheer force of elan and bad German shooting, they and some Royal Fusiliers (another contender for Mugge-dom) succeeded where thousands had failed and shoved a pair of companies into the German trenches.
Comrades followed, the attackers bombed their way up the trenches, and then came the counter-attacks. By nightfall they’ve captured and held, er, a large chunk of half the German trenches. At Contalmaison they initially pushed right into the village, but their reinforcements were broken up, and counter-attacks threw them back out again. This all is really very worrying, for reaons we’ll explore as the battle continues. I’d do another map, but the line’s not gone far enough to warrant it.
Let us once again glance briefly across the hill, where we find General Burkhardt, whose division is defending Ovillers. “The crisis has been overturned for the time being”, he informs his bosses, before going on to reassure them “My order is this: hold out to the last man!” Well, there might not have been major success for anyone today, but it is rarely a good sign for an army when anyone in it is issuing an order to hold out to the last man. The Germans have prevented a major disaster, so far, but as the battle continues to develop, higher command is far from confident that the situation is in hand.
Briand and Romania
The French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, is extremely enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing Romania into the war on the Eastern Front. The sticking point in negotiations is, at the moment, Romanian prime minister Ion Bratianu’s third request: an absolute guarantee of security against a Bulgarian attack. No problem, says Briand. On the Eastern Front, isn’t it so that the Germans are completely unable to reinforce Austria-Hungary because of the twin demands of Verdun and the Somme?
More importantly, hasn’t he been a vociferous supporter of operations at Salonika? Do they not even now have 400,000 men there? The Serbian Army now ready and fully returned to the battlefield, just waiting to attack the perfidious Bulgarians and retake their homeland? Bratianu, faced with this line of French argument, smells bullshit. I do not think he knew of the assessment of Generals Sarrail and Milne that no attack would be possible without supply that clearly was never going to come. However, he’s dead right to be suspicious about all this. Negotiations continue; more to come, but not for a while.
More hair-raising adventures for Emilio Lussu. Local attacks are continuing on the Asiago plateau; they’re intended to function as a diversion, to make Austro-Hungarian commanders think that General Cadorna has lost his appetite for the Isonzo front. Never before has it been more appropriate to observe “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” Today’s wheeze: get some Bangalore torpedoes up under the Austro-Hungarian wire. There’s just enough time before that for Lussu to have a pleasant chat with a friend, and then immediately see him shot through the head by a sniper.
They were the same as we’d used on the Carso front, two metres long. Wire-cutting pliers arrived, too. The wire-cutters and the tubes had done never done us any good, but they arrived just the same. And brandy arrived, lots of brandy, so we were on the verge of a new operation. … We chose our soldiers from among volunteers. The regimental command offered a reward of ten lire for each volunteer.
Lussu has a wonderfully detailed narrative of the process of crawling into No Man’s Land, assembling a series of metal tubes with the explosive torpedo on the end, and then poking it hopefully at the enemy barbed wire. However, to quote it it would triple the length of this entry, so. The attack the following morning is, of course, a complete failure.
It’s another lazy day for our battery commander friend Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler.
A very wet day. As things were idle at the guns, Maclean and I went forward to study the Hun second line over the ridge, as seeing the country with one’s own eyes certainly helps in unobserved shooting. On the way, we went into the village of Montauban. In the “Petit Parisien” of the 2nd July was the glowing headline, “FOUR FAIR VILLAGES OF PICARDY LIBERATED FROM THE INVADER”. One of them was Montauban. Today this village is not a pleasant place.
It is almost impossible to trace the line of the streets, hardly a wall higher than a few feet still stands. All around reeks with the indescribable stench of stale high explosive and unburied remains. The distilled spirit of death, brooding over the whole hamlet. During an extra-heavy rainstorm we sheltered in a dugout, formerly Battalion HQ of a Bavarian unit. The room was filled with papers and books, and it was interesting to read their typed reports of the effect of our bombardment up to the 26th of June.
After that, words seem to have failed them.
Le Petit Parisien is a major French national newspaper of the day that closed down in 1944. Many French-speaking British officers take it when they can get it; it’s not dissimilar to the Daily Mail.
Maximilian Mugge makes an observation that to modern eyes is not exactly original, but good on him for coming to it.
Conversation in tent either swear-words or incoherent rubbish. A. is usually not taking much notice of what B. says, considers B.’s sentences as a necessary evil and troublesome interruption with which he has to put up for courtesy’s sake. And, at times these interruptions of B. stimulate one’s memory, thinks A. B.’s attitude is the same.
Our social system is so rotten that it is no wonder men will fight. What have they to lose? Nabboth in my tent had 24 shillings a week ere he joined up; Nicholson and Titch consider 28 shillings very good pay indeed. And then think of the long hours, the monotony, the rough surroundings! Indirect (economic) pressure accounts for many of the volunteers in every army, I think.
“Naboth” would be an exceptionally unusual surname for an Englishman. A man of that name appears in the Bible, and he is (just about) a small tradesman of the sort who might, many thousands of years and miles later, found himself in the Army. (Of course, so was Jesus, although I’d bet he would have applied to be a conscientious objector.)