Unexpected changes | Somme | 22 July 1916

I am going to try a little experiment today and format everything back to front, so we’ll start with the rear-area personal account and finish with the third-person report from the Somme. There is a reason for this, just bear with me a moment.

Neil Tennant

Lt-Col Neil Tennant of the Royal Flying Corps has now arrived at Mumbai (which then was Bombay), where he will spend a few days acclimatising before re-embarking for Basra.

The place at this time was a busy base for the forces up the Persian Gulf and in East Africa, and was not lacking in lurid details of either. There seemed to be little encouraging about Force D. General Gorringe had gone home for an enquiry; 60%, of the force were sick and 15,000 invalided out of the country in June; half rations at the front due to insufficient transport; and new river transport despatched from Calcutta by sea, instead of being shipped in sections, had either gone to the bottom in the monsoon or been forced to return for repairs; no fresh food; our cheerful friends gave us a month in the country.

Bombay is unpleasant at the height of the monsoon. The rain lashes down on to the pavement and rises up in steam; an electric fan at night just keeps one dry.

Some of this is embellished, but much is not. There’s clearly no hope of an offensive in Mesopotamia any time soon.

Max Plowman

2nd Lt Max Plowman is settling in for an indeterminate period of training at Etaples Base Camp.

The tents in this camp are uncountable. All the way down this sandy slope, up the next hillock and down over the other side, beyond, away and on all sides they stretch, interspersed here and there with more solid buildings: canteens, army ordnance depots and YMCA huts. It is a city of canvas whose inhabitants are always changing. Men and officers, they are here to-day and gone to-morrow. We are all waiting. A batch of Somersets arrived last night. To-day they belong to the Black Watch and have gone up the line in kilts. The casualties since July 1st have been too heavy to allow every draft to go to its own regiment.

Off parade there is little to do. We write letters: eat and drink in the mess: talk or play cards in the hut. And whether we like it or not, we listen to the eternal gramophone. At every hour of the day, and half the night, some gramophone is going. Up the slope the pitiful wail is carried on the breeze:

If you were the only girl in the world,
And I were the only boy…

A pathetic hymn before battle. Yet it serves as a reminder that, under many layers of treacly sentiment, the human heart still beats: even this war cannot remove that organ. Nero did well to play the fiddle: the gramophone is our best substitute.

The song is bang up-to-date; it was first performed only three months ago, and it’s already on gramophones in France. It opens The Bing Boys Are Here, one of the most popular West End shows of the war, particularly with soldiers on leave. (The odd reference to the Bing Boys has already started to pop up in some personal accounts.)

Oskar Teichman

Tensions are high on the Suez Canal, but Oskar Teichman finds the time, as many have before him, to admire the capabilities of Ottoman soldiers.

At 7.30 an “aviatik” came over, evidently observing and counting us; he was signalled to Kantara, and one of our battle-planes came out, but by this time the former was on his way home. In this camp the alarm consisted of three blows on a whistle, following which all the horses were taken off the lines. Then another three whistles and all horses were taken outside camp.

During the day we procured a few tents, as wehad come without any transport and our only shelter from the sun consisted of one horse-blanket each. The Turks were evidently in a good position, and it was wonderful how quickly they had crossed the 47 dry miles from El Arish to Bir El Abd. We were now part of a mobile column, consisting of the Gloucester Yeomanry, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles,two [Royal Arse Hortillery] batteries and ourselves, and were ready to “strike” at a moment’s notice.The idea apparently was to lure the Turks onto our defences at Romani and Dueidar.

Later in the day two of our officers rode over from Kantara and we heard about the prisoners who had already been sent down; the latter stated that Romani was to be attacked and the railway and [water] pipe-line cut. We were ordered to send out mounted patrols day and night to guard both of these. We were informed that the mobile column would strike when the Turks crossed the line Romani – Dueidar.

The Aviatik company has designed a series of planes for the German army; they’ve made a specialty of producing observation planes.

Emilio Lussu

On the edge of the Asiago plateau, Emilio Lussu’s regiment is planning to attack once more. Lussu himself has recently saved his men from being sent out on idiotic wire-cutting expeditions by the simple expedient of hiding the battalion’s wire-cutters. But don’t worry, here now is the divisional commander with a new toy. Sort of. They were first used last year on the Carso, to absolutely no effect. But apparently it’s not enough for the men to die hopelessly; they should also look stupid while doing so. Yes, we’re back to body armour.

“These are the famous Farina cuirasses”, the general explained to us, “which are known only to the few. They are especially celebrated because they make it possible to carry out risky operations in the full light of day. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them! In this entire army corps there are only eighteen of them. And they are ours! Ours!”
Next to me was a group of soldiers. One commented under his breath, “I’d rather have a canteen of good brandy.”
“We alone”, the general continued, “have been granted the privilege of having them. … The Farina cuirasses can go anywhere!”
“Anywhere, in a manner of speaking,” observed our colonel, who was in a heroic mood that day. He had the physical stature of a giant, and a huge family fortune – two imposing qualities.

There is then a demonstration of the new armour, a hundred pounds’ worth of solid steel, covering the men from knees to top, including a stupid visored helmet. Eighteen men go out. A machine-gun fires. Eighteen men fall dead in No Man’s Land. The rest of the regiment will be attacking soon. And now they’ve lost their eighteen cuirasses.

Battle of Verdun

Morale is running high at Chantilly and Bar-le-Duc. A series of official intelligence assessments has concluded that the Germans have withdrawn significant levels of personnel; infantry, artillery, and aeroplanes. The pressure is officially off and Verdun is safe for the forseeable future. True, all those men have to go somewhere, but since this will probably end up being the Somme, n’est ce pas une problemme, oui? And anyway, isn’t it about time the damned English got a taste of what the French have had to face since early 1915?

This is also allowing General Joffre to revise the schedule for sending men to Verdun, and decrease the commitment. Robert Pelissier and Louis Barthas have both heard rumours of late that they might soon be off to the Somme, and there’s a reason for that. Had Pelissier come out of the Vosges in March, he would almost certainly have been on the Mort Homme in April.

Battle of the Somme

You know what this quote offensive unquote needs? A last-minute change of plan, that’s what it needs. This one comes courtesy of the Royal Flying Corps, who yesterday were able to do the first proper photographic recces in nearly a week. No Man’s Land is often several hundred yards wide at the moment, often with multiple rises and falls to interfere with direct observation. (This is why it’s so important to get as high as possible, and to capture Pozieres and its conveniently-located windmill.) Consequently, neither the blokes nor the staff have much of an idea what conditions will be like during the attack.

Now, as we saw last week at Bazentin Ridge, this is absolutely not a guarantee of failure at zero hour. On the other hand, you know what might have been? If the Germans had dug a whole new trench a few hundred yards in front of the Second Line without anybody finding out. And guess what they’ve now gone and done in front of the Flers-Martinpuich switch line? Yeah, that’s right, they’ve dug another trench out in front. It’s neither particularly deep nor particularly wide nor blessed with the copious barbed wire that guards Fromelles. But it’s a trench, and the enemy is clearly occupying it.

This information has arrived at about the same time as a rather airy message from the French, who are supposed to be joining in with an attack towards Leuze Wood and Combles. What with all this bad weather, and not enough roads to move too many men about, they will not be ready to join in with a combined push on the 23rd. Instead they will be pleased to join in on the 24th, which should afford them enough time to properly register the guns. Perhaps our noble allies might consider doing the same?

At this point, pretty much every staff officer with 4th Army has his own individual panic. Either they’re worrying about this new intermediate trench, or trying to decide what to do about the dratted French, or both. And decisions have to be taken as quickly as possible so that revised orders can be drawn up and sent forward, and the men are supposed to be going over the top before even the quickest revisions can reach them. The obvious answer, surely, is postponement. But Pozieres must be taken as soon as possible; and they have a dangling flank without an attack at High Wood; which has a dangling flank without attacks at Longueval

There are to be attacks on High Wood tonight, but I think it’s better to take them tomorrow with the rest of the offensive. Anyway, down at the sharp end, Lt H.G. Wood of the 1/7th Worcestershires has a complaint. His battalion has been to Ovillers, where there’s been a little skirmishing as the BEF consolidates control of the village.

In his last trench on the outskirts of the village [the Germans] left a number of wounded, all of whom were agreed that they had had a damnable time. Here I collected all the Germans who could in any way hobble along and sent them back to our brigade dressing station. Would you believe it our damned brigade staff cursed the man in charge of the escort for not sending them down on stretchers. I only wish I had been there. I would have let the blasted maniacs have a bit of mind.

As if we were not already busy enough dealing with our own wounded and carrying them back, and using every available man we had got to man the trenches as we collared them. It is this sort of damned impudence from people sitting on their haunches miles in the rear, who not only have no idea of the conditions and strain under which people are working up in front, but also are too idle to come up and find out, which makes the regimental officer despise the staff.

And then when the red tabs do come up the line, there’s soldiers just lining up with stories along the lines of “has the bastard never seen a dead man before?”

Haig and the ANZACs

General Haig is, like many men before him, not entirely sure about these ANZAC fellows. Though his only direct experience with the men has been in the formal setting of an inspection parade, he’s seen enough of their staff to be concerned that they have a lot to learn about war in general and the Western Front in particular. And of course he will have heard plenty of anecdotes about the men’s lack of respect for social status, and lack of deference to their officers. Now General Gough is going to use the Australian 1st Division, the Gallipoli veterans whose survivors landed at ANZAC Cove on that first day, as part of the push on Pozieres from the west.

I visited General Gough after lunch to make sure that the Australians have only been given a simple task. This is the first time that they will be taking part in a serious offensive on a big scale. Gough does not think very much of General Morland commanding the X Corps. This is no time for having doubts, so I told him that I will arrange to withdraw Morland into Reserve and give him General Jacob in his place.

After the war, Haig then saw fit to add another observation to the decision to sack Morland. “Personally, I found Morland one of our best brigadiers at Aldershot.” Well, yes, he was a promising young chap ten years ago, I’m sure. On the other hand, it was X Corps who attacked Thiepval and the Schwaben Redoubt on the 1st of July. Which did not meet with complete success, and I can understand why Gough might not be terribly enthusiastic about having that bloke working under him in future.

Oh yeah, there was something else. That second sentence is one of those annoying things that is both completely correct and yet also highly objectionable. Sure, by comparison, nothing that happened on Gallipoli would count as “a serious offensive” or “on a big scale”, compared even to the Battle of Loos. Those who remember the detail of the summer offensive last year will remember the ANZACs producing over-complicated and unrealistic plans, too.

But still! How condescending can you get? And anyway, me laddio, where do you get off telling people they’re shit at war and need adult supervision? Who did you ever fucking beat? The BEF might be in the middle of the biggest British territorial gain since 1914, but they’ve taken nearly a month (and about 120,000 casualties) to move that legendary drinks cabinet five miles. Berlin’s still 570 miles away. At this rate of advance, the war will be over by Christmas 1925 and leave 17,920,000 men killed or wounded.

Which, incidentally, is more than the adult male population of Britain. The 1911 census recorded 17,445,608 males. Assuming that 15% of them are under 14 (which is very, very roughly the ratio today), that leaves just under 15,000,000 men. And he’s pinning his hopes on the Germans running out of men first! Good luck with that. You arse.

drops mic, stalks off stage in search of a stiff drink

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

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