The eve of battle | 24 Sep 1915

Third Artois

With just 24 hours until the great autumn offensive on the Western Front, you may recall that the weather has broken and it’s been raining cats and dogs most places north of Noyon for a day. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that for most of today, the weather seems to be clearing up nicely, most places. But, guess where it isn’t clearing up? I’ll give you a hint, it starts with “V” and finishes in “imy”. General Foch spends most of the day toying with a 24-hour postponement, but armed with a weather report which claims it’ll definitely clear up tomorrow, eventually decides against it.

Maps galore

And, with 24 hours to go, that surely means it’s time to get the awful MSPaint maps out to illustrate what they think they’re trying to achieve. As ever, please do remember that these are heavily stylised and not at all to scale; like the London Underground tube map.

Loos is just to the south of La Bassee.
Loos is just to the south of La Bassee.

There’s the front as a whole. This is the ground for Second Champagne; they’re planning a wide-scale push forward along most of this area.

This is not to any kind of scale, of course.
This is not to any kind of scale, of course.

This is the ground for Third Artois; they’re looking to force their way up and over Vimy Ridge and onto the plain behind it.

Although if it were, this map would be on a considerably smaller scale to the last.
Although if it were, this map would be on a considerably smaller scale to the last.

And this is the ground for the Battle of Loos; there are two focus points of the attack, one towards Hulluch and one towards Lens.

This is on about the same scale as the previous map.
This is on about the same scale as the previous map.

By existing BEF standards it’s a big front, much bigger than for the Battle of Neuve Chapelle or the Battle of Aubers Ridge. In fact, it’s so big that even though the BEF has a greater number of guns available, they’re delivering far fewer shells per square yard of front.

Artillery at Loos

And, if that’s not bad enough, there’s quite a few other problems for the guns to contend with. Production of shells has been ramped up recently as the Ministry of Munitions comes to various agreements with the trade unions over “dilution”, the practice of allowing untrained workers to work in the munitions industry in what were skilled assembly jobs. This has increased the quantity of shell available to the BEF; but it has also inevitably decreased the quality of the finished products, and there are many more duds flying around than before.

That would be bad enough, but then there’s the question of the ground. The recent rains have considerably softened the soil, bad news for any gunner. Soft ground stands a surprisingly good chance of just swallowing shells whole, with not enough resistance provided by the ground to activate the shells’ fuzes, which rely on a heavy direct impact between nose and ground.

And then there’s the problem of the guns themselves. Many of them have been in service constantly since the opening battles of 1914. Many more of them have seen heavy and constant use for six months, or four months, firing more shells more often than anyone had thought of before the war. They’ve fired so many shells that the guns’ barrels are now starting to wear out, a problem that nobody could have foreseen. Each gun has a different wear pattern, which affects its firing characteristics in a different way; but they’re all grouped together in batteries with guns of differing wear levels.

This is playing merry hell with the artillery’s accuracy. Under normal conditions, a battery of field guns was expected to be accurate to within a 100-yard by 100-yard square. The wear on the gun barrels is significantly affecting this. Tests done in the winter, as the artillery tries to work out what the hell happened, will subsequently reveal that many batteries’ accuracy square has doubled or even tripled in size.

Finally, let’s pause for a moment to consider mortars. This will be the first battle in which the BEF will enjoy any support worth speaking of from trench mortars. Unfortunately, with the iconic 3-inch Stokes mortar still yet to arrive in any great numbers, they’re having to do it with a motley collection of devices, all flawed in their own way. There’s a big, heavy 4-inch mortar which fires pleasingly heavy bombs, but which takes an age to reload properly. There’s a lighter Vickers 1.57-inch mortar, an overly-complicated Goldilocks design with a small bomb that isn’t explosive enough to do anything worth mentioning, and a heavy bomb that’s so heavy it can barely get 200 yards downrange.

Then there’s the 2-inch Medium Mortar, a spectacularly average device that fires half-decent bombs an acceptable distance away with reasonable results as long as it’s loaded properly. Of course, there aren’t nearly enough of them…

Over on the French side, things are looking rather more promising on the mortar front; Second Champagne will benefit from a half-decent supply of the soon-to-be iconic 58mm crapouillot (“little toad”, after its appearance, sound, and natural habitat), and they’re not completely unknown among those preparing for Third Artois, either.

On the ground

Pretty much every oral account at this point from the blokes who are going over the top at zero hour reads the same. Rifleman Bill Worrell (last seen doing donkey work down a mining tunnel) of the 12th Rifle Brigade tells it better than most.

The rain poured down. We were dressed in battle order, full equipment excepting the pack. A haversack with two days’ rations was carried instead. Every man had a tool pushed down behind the haversack. I had a spade. Every time I stood up straight it pushed my cap off and if I leaned against the side of the trench, it stuck into my behind. By midnight, we were soaked through.

In the early hours of the morning, there was a tremendous roar and the ground swayed under our feet. The mine that I had worked on had been exploded. Just before dawn, the two sergeants came along the trench with a jar and a mug. “Take a good swig, youngster”, said Sergeant Hubbard. I did that, then gasped, coughed and spluttered. Neat rum, I found out, should not be swallowed in mouthfuls!

Rum before the battle is the last regular Army tradition that these Kitchener’s Army men will be introduced to…

Persia

Grand Duke Nicholas, recently relieved by the Tsar as head of Stavka, has now arrived in the Caucasus to command the Russian forces there. Unfortunately, he arrives bringing a British request. There’s been some highly unsavoury pro-German rumblings in the Persian interior. If something should happen to put the country on a pro-German footing, this wouldn’t just threaten Russian holdings, would also be a major threat to the ever-extending British Empire commitment in Mesopotamia.

General Yudenich has spent the past little while trying to rebuild his forces after the midsummer adventures in Van Province, all with the intention of invading Anatolia towards Erzurum again, a few months down the line. He has no desire at all to get involved in Persia; but he has little choice, faced with a direct order from the Grand Duke. More to come once the Russians assemble their expedition.

Salonika

From Gallipoli, General Bailloud has a piece of his mind to share with the Council of Ministers. Having previously been a supporter of going to Salonika, he’s now reversed himself in light of Bulgarian mobilisation. Possibly he’s been got at by Sir Ian Hamilton, who at least believes that he knows Tsar Ferdinand I very well, and Hamilton’s diary is full of awestruck admiration for “Foxy Ferdinand” (no sniggering please), and his cunning machinations.

However, he does have another objection to the plans, which envisage co-operation with British Empire forces. “We cannot count on the help of the English”, he says, distrusting perfidious Albion like the best kind of Frenchman, “not only when their interests are in opposition to ours but when it is a simple question of pride or prestige”.

Meanwhile, the Greek Prime Minister, Venizelos (of the defeating first name), is in contact with both governments. He’s eager to invite Entente forces into his country, but with King Constantine I still thoroughly opposed, he needs a fig leaf. He asks that they notify him privately, 24 hours before landing troops, so he can go to the post office and lodge an official diplomatic protest on his way to the store to buy a red carpet.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas has spent the entire day slogging forward towards Third Artois. There’s a literal thunderstorm overhead, but the guns are louder, if not wetter. Plenty of men fall out on the march and straggle into the next village hours late. In the British Army, this would cause serious ructions and inquisitions after the battle; in the French Army, it’s met with a long-suffering sigh.

They called the corporals to the company office.
“How many men in your squad?” asked the officer.
“Fourteen, chief.”
“Well, here, take these fourteen cutlasses; give one of them to each man.”
“These are arms for murderers, not for soldiers,” I exclaimed.
“It matters little to me,” said the officer, pushing me out the door, “and keep your opinions to yourself.”

No, I won’t keep these reflections to myself, and I’ll explain it to my comrades, the way it was clearly told elsewhere, that they were for finishing off the wounded and for killing prisoners. “Well, my cutlass won’t be used for such crimes,” I told them, and right in front of everybody I tossed mine up onto the roof of an adjacent house. Almost everyone got rid of theirs, and no one asked what happened to them. Only Sublieutenant Malvezy took the biggest cutlass and carried it ostentatiously hooked to his belt.

Well, that’s nice. It later emerges that their role will not be to spearhead the attack; they will instead be used as reserves once the enemy’s front has been ruptured, to pursue and exploit the rupture. At 10pm they move out again, waiting a few miles behind the front at Maroeuil. The sharp-eyed may notice that he’s being sent dangerously close to the Labyrinth, a German strong-point that we briefly encountered during Second Artois.

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