The Diggers | 21 May 1915

With no developments anywhere worth talking about (the French continue marching up Vimy Ridge six inches at a time, etc and anon), most of the day will be spent doing a round of our correspondents.

The Truce at ANZAC Cove

But first, a funny story that I’m extremely fond of. I should open by saying that it’s almost certainly wishful thinking. (The version I’ve seen it in says that General Hunter-Weston’s first name was “Archibald”, and that Liman von Sanders was an advisor to Mustafa Kemal.) However, even if the events described are complete bollocks, they’re still by far the best succinct summary of the First World War’s ANZAC digger myth that I’ve ever seen, so let’s have them.

Negotiations for a truce to bury the Ottoman dead really are underway after yesterday’s hoisting of Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a parley between senior Ottoman and MEF commanders might have occurred. Nor is it beyond the realms of possibility that this might have happened in a large cave on the northern end of the ANZAC beaches.

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The Diggers

Of course, such negotiations would require delicate diplomacy and the utmost adherence to protocol to avoid any Unpleasantness. So it came to pass that a party of Turks and a party of Britons went down to the cave to negotiate, all of them decked out in their best dress uniforms. Introductions were made with scruplous adherence to proper diplomatic protocol. Salutes were made, heels clicked, bows essayed. For a brief moment, the hideous nature of industrial warfare faded away, and a little dignity (and even glory) was restored to proceedings.

At which point, industrial warfare made its presence felt once more. It presented itself in the shape of a six-foot tall Australian private soldier, wandering casually into the cave. He was the very specimen of Australian manhood, muscular and tanned, exactly the kind of figure which senior generals occasionally rhapsodised about in incredibly homoerotic language. And all present were easily able to appreciate this, for his current dress consisted of a large wideawake hat, a pair of ammunition boots, and nothing else.

The apparition looked around at the senior officers in all their finery without apparent surprise, and then he made his own considered contribution to proceedings. “Have any of you jokers seen my fucking kettle?”

I don’t care if that’s true. It doesn’t need to be true. Like The Man with the Tea does about the Old Contemptibles, it tells you everything you need to know about the ANZAC myth.

Kenneth Best

Yesterday, Kenneth Best conducted Holy Communion under highly original circumstances. Today, he writes to his father to tell him the story.

I managed to borrow vessels from a neighbouring padre. My altar was a pair of biscuit boxes. My vestments; a khaki shirt, dirty greasy tunic, and riding-breeches. We fixed it for 6am, hoping to anticipate the usual morning hymn of hate. Unfortunately they rose early, and they turned up just as our service started. I felt very responsible, but thought I would be there in case any should turn up. To my surprise, regardless of shrapnel, about 100 men were present. Never shall I forget my first service under fire. We all felt that God’s good providence watched over us, and nobody was hit.

To his diary, Best confides some further thoughts about the situation.

Buried Arthur Ogden (1/10th Manchesters) and J. Miller (1/8th Lancs Fusiliers). Shell hits signallers’ dugout while breakfasting. Men’s hair turning perceptibly greyer under strain. I think mine would turn grey if I had any to turn. Several times a day, one has a narrow shave from shell or bullet.

It is sad to see the little white crossses peering up through the grass and woodland flowers, scattered on cliffs, valleys, sea shores…Requescit en Parce was the effort of one pseudo-scholar soldier. Most put “RIP” or “Anglice” for safety.

Discovered 5th Battery, went with Colonel Birtwistle to forward observing station. Had to cross high ground covered with gorse under rifle fire. New and exciting experience. Round observing station, there was continuous ping and whizz of bullets.

Friendly Feldwebel

The Friendly Feldwebel is still moving forward, but that doesn’t stop Major Eger from making himself comfortable during their regular halts. Today they stop at Radawa.

Eger had chosen the best house in the town for us. As we were settling ourselves there in his absence, an officer of the Uhlans came in and asked us to get out to make room for him. We explained to him that these were Eger’s quarters, and he was in command of the town.

“Shut your damned mouth!” cried the trooper, “you fool. You think I’m going to sleep in a hovel full of peasants? Get out, away with you, the quicker the better.”

The Feldwebel refuses to budge, arguing the well-known military principle of “finders keepers, losers weepers”. The cavalry officer goes for his colonel.

Things were beginning to look serious for us, when Eger arrived on the scene. As he was never afraid of anything he explained the affair to the colonel. The colonel left, leaving his adjutant to disentangle himself as best he could. Hardly had he gone when Eger, who did not have too much patience, said to the adjutant:

“What are you doing here, and why did you make so much noise in my house? Do you think that you are in your stable? Get out of here, quickly, or I’ll have you put out by my men!” The brave Uhlan did not dare answer him, and left like a whipped dog. Eger told us that we should have thrown him out ourselves and shown him what proper treatment was. We had a good meal with him, but could not close an eye all night because of the lice.

With nothing better to do, the blokes are digging trenches.

Louis Barthas

Meanwhile, at Mazingarbe, Louis Barthas is hardly doing any better. Most of their time recently has been spent on parade, while the senior officers decide exactly where on their new horizon-blue uniforms the regimental patches should go. He also takes a moment to tell his notebooks about their medical officer, and their new battalion commander.

“Our undertaker”, as the poilus called him. We weren’t sure if he had ever set foot in a medical school. He never recognised anyone presenting himself as sick, except a few times when they were in complete agony. Commandant Naudad found a way to improve the health of his battalion; he imposed a week in the guardhouse for those who went to sickbay and were found to have nothing wrong with them.

For having forgotten to punish four men in his company who didn’t pass medical inspection, Captain Hudelle saw himself slapped with a week’s jail time. I admire him more for taking this punishment than for all his battlefield commendations.

At sick call, we were always greeted with insults, abuse, sarcasm, or jokes and hilarities in the worst possible taste. Because [the medical officer] and our captain didn’t get along, he took it out on us. He didn’t dare take it out on the captain.

There are quite a few, more specific, stories to come about that medical officer…

Actions in Progress

Defence of Van
Battle of Ypres (Second Ypres)
Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive
Battle of Artois (Second Artois)
Shell Crisis
Battle of Festubert

Further Reading

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.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

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

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