Farce of Loos
I refuse to call this a battle. As I may have mentioned before, a battle is something that you have at least a slight chance of winning. This is not. This is unwarranted, unreasonable, unwinnable, and unnecessary. And General Haig is going to order it anyway. Maybe I’ll write something at some point about how days like these, not the first day on the Somme, are the ones that make the strongest case for Haig to be called “butcher”.
He’s brought in another division from Ypres to join the show; the Guards, having been fighting almost continuously for two weeks, have left. I could go over the precise details one more time, the woefully inadequate bombardment, No Man’s Land double the size anyone would have been expected to cross on day 1 of the offensive, the shortage of grenades that might actually deign to explode. How some of the fighting leaks over, pointlessly, into tomorrow, as isolated companies and platoons are cut off and removed from the battle. Just about the only thing that has worked is that the gas release went off perfectly, with favourable wind blowing it onto the German trenches almost everywhere it was used. Hurrah, they’ve got better at using a weapon that’s against the laws of war. I’m so excited I forgot to celebrate.
What I want to do is to quote the British Army’s official history. Let’s bear in mind here that its author Edmonds, as part of the writing process, shared drafts with surviving senior officers (particularly Haig) for their comments. With that in mind, here is its verdict on the farce.
The fighting on the 13th–14th October had not improved the general situation in any way and had brought nothing but useless slaughter of infantry.
If damned be him that first cries “Hold, enough!”, then damned be I. For God’s sake, enough.
Who the hell is in charge, anyway?
So let’s look at another, differently annoying question. Who is actually running the British war effort? This is literally impossible to determine. The problem is that the British Empire’s administrative structure is built rather like London; piecemeal, without any central planning; and on top of, sometimes even out of materials appropriated from, whatever was there before.
At the start of the war, in most history books dealing with the British political situation there are lots of references to the War Council, a body containing the Prime Minister and sundry other august personages, who would meet ad-hoc from time to time to be given the latest updates on some issue or another, and would sometimes offer opinions on what should be done next. Unfortunately, the War Council now appears to have folded up like a cheap deckchair; possibly nobody bothered to schedule a next meeting and it was quietly forgotten. Its influence is probably best demonstrated by how much attention wasn’t paid to Hankey’s points, all valid questions and all totally ignored.
Herbert Asquith’s pre-war Cabinet of ministers still meets, but again, where the war is concerned it’s more to be advised than to take decisions. There’s also something else called the Dardanelles Committee which theoretically is overseeing Gallipoli, but a glance at how many times Sir Ian Hamilton gives a toss about it (hint: not many) should tell you how much power it has. After the campaign ends it will rename itself the War Committee, evict Winston Churchill (still hanging round Downing Street like a bad smell, but don’t worry, that’s changing soon), and continue farting around failing to exercise control over anything except the luncheon arrangements.
Matters are further complicated by the top of the British Army. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff is theoretically in charge of this bowl of fruits and nuts, but judging by what he appears to talk to Sir Ian Hamilton about, the current CIGS is more in the nature of a glorified quartermaster, except he doesn’t even get to shout “‘stores’ are for storing, not for issuing, if they were meant for issuing they’d be called ‘issues’, wouldn’t they?” very often. (Questions of strategy are dealt with by the minister of war, of whom more in a moment.) Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, Britain’s major military commitment, has precisely as much influence as the minister of war thinks he should have.
And, if anyone can be said to be running the British war effort (I’m pretty sure the answer to this is “no”), then the best claim surely belongs to that minister of war, Lord Kitchener. Kitchener is running the War Office as personally as possible. On any number of semi-routine matters, his word goes. And yet, for bigger decisions, he takes soundings, inside the army and out, he’s susceptible to pressure and lobbying and pet projects. Then you have to also consider that “British” operations are not necessarily answering to anyone in London. As I’ve pointed out before, the adventures in Mesopotamia and Africa are being directed from India as Indian Army affairs. Lord Kitchener has a vague idea what’s going on there, but he’s not been asked for permission to do anything. That comes from the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge; and the pliable Colonial Secretary, Austen Chamberlain.
It’s a complete mess, is what I’m trying to say here. It makes my brain hurt just thinking about it. Fundamentally, the war is still being run as an oversized version of one of those boffo colonial scraps with the Fuzzy-Wuzzies (commander-in-chief: Kitchener). To say that things have now got totally out of hand is a gross understatement.
There is one battery about a hundred yards away that [when it fires] makes the whole house rattle like the inside of a motor-bus. The Germans might at any time try to locate the battery, and a shell would reduce the house to ruins. Yet the old woman here declares she will not leave the house as long as she lives!
It is a strange place, this belt of land behind the firing line. It is the men’s duty, after perhaps a parade before breakfast and two or three hours’ drill and inspection in the morning, to rest for the remainder of the day. In the morning you will see all the evolutions of company drill carried out in a small meadow. In the next field an old man and woman are unconcernedly hoeing a cabbage-patch. Then behind here are a battalion’s transport lines, with rows of horses.
More to come.
Bombardier Herbert Sulzbach of the German artillery wakes up again. He’s barely made a note in his diary since it seemed like there was a big attack going off somewhere else, a couple of weeks ago. That’s all he’s noticed of the grand autumn offensive that was supposed to evict him and his mates from their present positions.
Kurt Reinhardt comes over on a bike and visits me for the day. A large number of troop movements are taking place in our sector at the moment. The 9th Army Corps is being pulled out too; and in the morning, before the infantry were relieved, the French had put up a noticeboard in front of the barbed wire with huge letters on it:
“ADIEU, 9TH CORPS!”
It was really quite nice of them, but their espionage seems to be working brilliantly.
Knowing the sort of thing that often happened in Franco-German quiet sectors, it’s rather more likely that they knew who was there through fraternisation, of which more soon when I find a place to drop it in.
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