The air over Verdun
French efforts to un-fuck themselves at Verdun continue. General Petain approves heartily of the artillery stationed on the west bank of the River Meuse, and he orders them to now fire without interruption across the river and let someone else worry about getting more ammunition. Meanwhile, there’s a major reorganisation of French air assets going on.
Critically, the first flights of the Nieuport 11, the “Bebe”, have proved to be everything the French pilots were hoping for and then more besides. It’s gone from prototype to full production run in double-quick time, and there’s already 100 of them in service. This makes a highly interesting comparison with the Fokker Eindecker. Production of new Eindeckers is being dwarfed by Nieuport’s construction of Bebes. (The company is named after its founder, one Edouard Nieuport, not the Belgian coastal town.)
The Bebe lacks only a proper synchronising gear; it’s a biplane with a Lewis or Hotchkiss machine gun mounted to fire over the top of the propellor. In most other technical regards it either matches or betters the Eindecker. GQG is also undertaking a radical re-organisation of its air assets so that the Bebes can have as large an impact as possible. The Bebes are being collected together and sent to Verdun along with all the best pilots. When that’s complete, they’ll have more Bebes at Verdun than the Germans have Eindeckers.
There’s also a doctrinal revolution underway. The role of the fighter had previously been to operate alone, or in pairs, to protect French bombers or observers as they went about their business. Now the French are forming dedicated fighter escadrilles (the basic organising unit, what the English call a squadron) to fly air-denial patrols and to see off German threats. At the moment it’s still the Germans with the upper hand, but once the reorganisation is complete, the French will have a good shot at entirely reversing things and seizing air superiority for themselves.
Let’s have some more bad news for the Germans, why not? The commerce raider Moewe has just arrived home after a long and successful cruise. Why not send out another one? This ship is called Greif, and she left port yesterday on a similar mission. Room 40 has intercepted the news of her sailing, though. A string of patrol ships has been sent into the North Sea, and at about 9am the Greif (flying the Norweigan flag) has been tracked down.
There then follows one of the odder fights in naval history, this one between a load of converted merchant ships. Greif gives a good account of herself, sinking a British auxiliary cruiser before being sunk in turn around midday. The Germans’ enthusiasm for armed merchant ships will consequently take a massive nose-dive. But this isn’t quite the last we’ll hear of them in 1916, although it will be a good long time.
After a tortuous eleven hours, we finally reached the marvellous stone bridge over the [River Halys], called Koyun-baba. On the [Iskilip] side of the bridge stood an Oriental khan with only one room, in which we were to spend the night. We discovered there a group of bandits armed with old bow-shaped Persian sabres, daggers, and other weapons.
Forced to sit among them, we expected them to attack at any moment. The Jandarma urged us not to be afraid, but none of us slept that night.
This is a recurrent theme of survivor testimony; the gangs of bandits who fall upon caravans out in the middle of nowhere. What’s unusual this time is that the Jandarma actually appear to be protecting this caravan. More usually they make a quiet exit and then return to round up any survivors.
It is raining in a most shocking fashion. Lord! How it does rain here, when it wants to! The sun goes, the sky shuts its eyes and rains with all its might, so that it is difficult to believe there ever was a time when it did not rain.
Cockie is sick. I took his duty on the river-front observation post and watched for hours the deluge of water falling down and flowing past in a yellow turgid current. The reports are that it is hourly rising. Every endeavour is being made to strengthen the bunds and build others. The main bund across our front still holds and the other side of it is already a great lake where our former position was. The Turks have had to leave this part of their line and go back a few hundred yards to the sand-hills.
In this context, a bund is a large (and quickly-constructed!) wall that’s keeping the water out of their trenches and gun-positions. That’s the cloud. Now for the silver lining.
The next most important event of to-day is that Dorking was persuaded to exchange seven cigars for my ten cigarettes. I came by them yesterday in a special issue “found” by the Supply and Transport people. By the way, there are more things in the Supply and Transport philosophy than heaven and earth ever dreamed of.
He finishes with a few complaints about why General Townshend should have expelled the civilian population of Kut before the siege began. Nice man, but he is in one of the nastiest places it’s possible to be in the war right now.
Evelyn Southwell has finished his journey away from the Ypres salient, and his battalion settles down for some rest at Sombrin, well behind the line west of Arras. The weather is foul, alternating without much rest between rain and snow, but he’s an acting company commander with his eye on a permanent promotion to Captain, so…
That afternoon we had a very successful outing; the only Company that went out, I think. At three I marched and doubled them out of the village; up the hill; round an oblong field on right; easy; into next field. Short speech on fitness by me in three lines; physical exercises; doubled that field also. Rapid march down road 1/4 mile more and back pretty smartly.
The men’s reaction to such exertions goes unrecorded, at least anywhere I can easily get at it.
Clifford Wells, the idiot son of a Montreal millionaire, has a holiday today. So he goes off to London and sits in the public gallery of the House of Commons for a debate on the enforcement of the Military Service Act.
I heard part of the debate on the question of exemptions from service under the Act. Sir John Simon, an eloquent speaker, quoted numerous instances of hardship caused by the refusal of tribunals to exempt certain men, the sole supports of widowed mothers, etc. I was rather impressed by his speech (of which I heard only a part), but the papers condemned him bitterly for thus attacking the government at such a time.
After Simon’s speech, of which I heard the latter part, and the reply thereto, a third speaker began an address which seemed to have no end, and during its course I went out.
The debate is available in Hansard’s online archive, and we can see a transcript of the speech that Lieutenant Wells so admired. The third speaker, who Wells was so bored by, appears to have been Phillip Snowden, then the Labour MP for Blackburn. Then, he was a backbencher who’s spent the last year stridently opposing conscription. (Today he’s complaining about the tribunals that grant exemptions, particularly the presence of interfering Army officers on them.) In 1924 he’ll become the first ever Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer inn Ramsay Macdonald’s Government.