The west bank of the Meuse | 5 Mar 1916

The west bank of the Meuse

After at least a full week of jumping up and down and yelling, General von Falkenhayn’s subordinates have finally convinced him to allow an infantry attack on the French positions immediately to the west of the River Meuse. Back to the MSPaint map.

As ever, these are more like Tube maps than Ordnance Survey maps
As ever, these are more like Tube maps than Ordnance Survey maps

That bulbous little salient contains just about the only good, solid piece of rolling high ground that the French Army owns between Verdun and Noyon. Not only is it extremely hilly, the vast majority of it is bare, treeless fields and hillsides. This was a major reason why von Falkenhayn restricted the initial attack of the Battle of Verdun to the east bank only, where there was once far more natural cover for the German stormtroopers to exploit. It’ll be much harder to successfully use infiltration tactics on the west bank.

With that in mind, today the west bank of the Meuse cops a severe prepatory bombardment. A French report from today is arresting and horrific all at once. “All of the second position and the zone of the batteries behind it look like foam. Shell holes overlap one another.” This is absolutely no surprise to the French; General Petain has long expected an attack here. It’s reputed that a few days ago he said “The Germans don’t know their business”, on being told that they still hadn’t done it.

The German objective is simple and limited. Ideally, capture all of the hills and pinch out the French salient; but if that can’t be done, taking the two main French observation positions at Hill 304 and Le Mort Homme will suffice. (Yes, that means “The Dead Man”; no, it had that name long before the war.) With that done, the French will be denied their best observation posts for shelling the east bank. Their artillery will also be forced to displace backwards and be less effective as their range to reach out over the river shrinks.

And then the grand game of attrition will begin. General von Falkenhayn is open to ideas for other limited attacks (such as one to capture Fort Vaux), but by and large, the situation is adequate for defence, if not as good as it might be. Only now is the Verdun meat grinder beginning to properly power up.

Africa

It’s also a very big day in Africa. Today the British Empire launches its long-planned grand invasion of German East Africa to lance that annoying boil the Germans call Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck. General Stewart’s objections have all been thoroughly overruled by General Smuts; only with great difficulty has he been able to march his men out today, instead of tomorrow. These are the men who are going off on a wide sweep to the west of Mount Kilimanjaro and catch the Schutztruppe by surprise when they retreat from Taveta. Let’s have another map, why not?

X: Approx. position of Gen Stewart's men Y: Approx. position of E.S. Thompson & the South Africans
X: Approx. position of Gen Stewart’s men
Y: Approx. position of E.S. Thompson & the South Africans

Have you ever walked 33 miles in a day? I haven’t. I certainly haven’t done it in army boots through a forbidding semi-desert landscape, in horrible muggy heat, with strict water rationing, while carrying about 60 pounds of crap on my back, in a dubious cause, and under the orders of some bloody foreigner from the other side of the world. That’s what Stewart’s men, most of them Indians, did 100 years ago today. Back to the regimental history of the 129th Baluchis.

All the troops…were enveloped in a thick haze of dust from the moment the march started until the halt at the end of the day. Only those who have done such marches know what they mean. It is one thing to picture war in terms of smartly aligned columns marching on good roads. It is another to see the reality. Columns of filthy, sweating men, staggering with fatigue at the end of such a march, and with parched mouths gasping for water.

And at some point after they’re done with these gruelling marches, they’re going to be expected to fight.

Incidentally, remember the Legion of Frontiersmen, occasionally known as the Royal Boozaliers? We last saw them sacking Bukoba in mid-1915. Well, they’re coming along for this ride also. The strain of living in the African bush for six months, part of it attempting to guard the Uganda Railway, has reduced their effective strength from 1,000 to 450. The vast majority of those casualties were due to disease.

Texel

Out at sea, Admiral Scheer is trying to poke the bear. The entire High Seas Fleet leaves port and proceeds south towards Texel, off the Dutch coast, with malice aforethought. Sadly, before the Grand Fleet can be kicked awake by its mother and roused from bed, a horrible winter storm blows in. Even by the standards of the North Sea, it’s a real stinker, with snow and hail to go with the standard severe gales and heavy seas. The HSF stays out there only as long as is necessary to avoid total embarrassment (imagine saying long-winded goodbyes to a group of really good friends who you won’t see for months, then coming back five minutes later because you forgot your phone), and then heads home again.

Turns out that it’s such a minor event that the comprehensive British Official Naval History doesn’t make any mention of it. Still, it’s a very clear demonstration of Scheer’s intention to take the fight to the enemy. More to follow.

Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian sees a friendly face at the end of a long day’s walking.

We were lucky to arrive at Alaca, whose deputy mayor showed some compassion for our wretched condition. He allowed us to purchase whatever we needed and could afford. He also permitted us to send telegrams to relatives to ask for money.

They also send a telegram to the Ministry of the Interior. Apparently some of them still hold out hope that Talaat Pasha, one of the architects of the Armenian genocide, is sympathetic to Armenian concerns and will give them a fair hearing. Poor sods.

Henri Desagneaux

Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux, late of the French railway control service, is about to take his company into the trenches for the first time. He’s now just north-east of Nancy, almost within earshot of Metz and the pre-war border. It’s only about 50 miles from Verdun, far too close for comfort, and everyone’s worried that the Germans might suddenly launch an attack somewhere else now that all eyes are on Verdun.

Reconaissance of the Arraye sector, where we are due to relieve the outposts this evening. It seems that we are going to have to stay in this area. The men take up their positions, my predecessor gives me my instructions and takes me on a trip round the sector. It’s pitch dark; we stumble along the trenches at the risk of breaking our necks. We don’t see anything of note, and come back.

He’s not a shirker any more. You’re in the war now, my son.

Malcolm White

The last we heard from Malcolm White, he was ill and on bed rest with bronchitis. And it’s just got a great deal worse for him. He’s just been told that his father is dead.

I shall not realise it indeed, I think, until and unless I return to Mere Cottage and find him gone. He has always been such a big living fact in our little lives. There never was a Father in the world before as good and as generous. His happiness consisted chiefly in the happiness of us, as it was with Mother. Since the War, I have begun to feel more of death as being only a door into some greater life, and familiarity with death makes one feel very close to those who have died.

The chief thing about this crisis for me has been the impossibility of realising out here what has happened, and a feeling of being cut off from the rest of my family by this inaccessibility and the lack of any kind of familiar surroundings. The last two days I seem to have been living in a kind of coma.

This news, in addition to his illness and the fact that his battalion’s currently at rest, will earn him a period of leave in England, although he won’t be home in time for the funeral. We won’t hear any more of him until he’s about to head back to France in a month’s time.

Edward Mousley

Speaking of being ill, here’s Edward Mousley from the Siege of Kut. He’s suffering from rheumatism and has been sent into hospital, although he refused to go on a stretcher.

I entered a ward too terrible for words, next bed to a most sad and awful apparition of a poor fellow who had been very ill. It was a long skin-covered skeleton with skinless ears, eyes protruding so far that one wondered how they stuck up at all, teeth on edge, legs thinner than a pick handle, and two arms like gloved broom-sticks catching frantically at various parts of his apparel where creatures of the amœbic world fled before those awful eyes. Add to this a half-insane chattering, punctuated with a periodical sharp crack as louse after louse was exploded between the creature’s two thumbs, and you have the picture.

I had not been there for more than three minutes when the Enigma’s Hindoo bearer entered. He became quickly engaged with his master in strenuous argument relating to curry, what time the Enigma ricochetted on and off the bed, and his mouth became the exhaust valve for his pent-up opinions of the world in general and his bearer in particular. I discovered later that malaria and dysentery had between them rendered him temporarily insane. He had been in the hospital for the whole of the siege, but was now slowly recovering. While he was in extremis, however, I should say from all accounts that he must have been by far the most interesting person in Kut.

Over the next couple of days in hospital, Captain Mousley watches the poor man alternately sitting naked on a windowsill performing extremely accurate impressions of enemy shells, preaching sermons from behind his bed that range widely from biting sarcasm to untrammelled optimism, and attempting to fish with a line out of the window. There is nothing I can possibly add to this picture, except to note that “Hindoo” is of course a now-archaic variant on “Hindu”.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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