August on the Somme
Winston Churchill is a pain in the arse, but he does have his uses. The fiasco on Gallipoli hasn’t done much to dent his conviction that the key to victory lies in operations away from the Western Front. And, if “operations on the Western Front” means the kind of slaughter that we’ve seen from the Battle of the Somme in July, maybe this is a good thing. Maybe he’s got a point. Today he writes a personal memo that helpfully sets out some of the arguments against continuing operations. It’s such a useful summation of the thinking in London that it’ll soon make its way to the War Committee and the Prime Minister.
The month that has passed has enabled the enemy to make whatever preparations behind his original lines he may think necessary. He is already defending a 500 mile front in France alone, and the construction of extra lines about 10 miles long to loop in the small sector now under attack is no appreciable strain on his labour or trench stores. He could quite easily by now have converted the whole countryside in front of our attack into successive lines of defence and fortified posts.
What should we have done in the same time in similar circumstances? Anything he has left undone in this respect is due only to his confidence. A very powerful hostile artillery has now been assembled against us, and this will greatly aggravate the difficulties of further advance. Nor are we making for any point of strategic or political consequence. Verdun at least would be a trophy—to which sentiment on both sides has become mistakenly attached. But what are Peronne and Bapaume, even if we were likely to take them?
Well, since you asked, they’re both important road and rail junctions, the loss of which would make it quite a bit more difficult for the Germans to shift men around the front. But they’re hardly war-winning objectives, and it says a lot that a few months ago, General Haig was thinking in terms of an advance to Bapaume and beyond. Helpfully, having been tipped off, the Chief is now writing a letter to Wully Robertson with his own view of the situation, which we’ll consider tomorrow.
Battle of Verdun
General von Knobelsdorf has not given up on the idea of being able to catch the French napping at Fort Souville. An unexpected deep penetration attack goes in today, east of Fleury; the French lose half a mile of trenches; the Germans are up under the walls of Souville once more. That’s all they’ve got the resources for right now, though. Now they need to pause and absorb some counter-attacks, von Knobelsdorf hoping that he’s not offended any of his bosses. The French, at least, will oblige with the counter-attacks.
The Salonika front is beginning to heat up again as more and more Entente troops and their supporting artillery arrive. Meanwhile, well-informed about the progress of Romanian negotiations, the Bulgarians are downright nervous. Raiding on both sides is beginning to increase, both on the ground and in the air as more air assets arrive in theatre. However, by far the most active combatant here at the moment is the mosquito, playing the role of armed neutral. He hates everyone equally, and with terrible sanitation and many men forced to hold swampy ground, malaria is everywhere.
But the war must continue. Both sides are now planning to do exactly the same thing at once; advance across the border in force and see what happens. Both sides are hoping to distract the other from doing anything to support or oppose the Romanian entry into the war. The French are advancing towards Doiran Lake, almost due north of Salonika. The Bulgarians are advancing from the region of Bitol towards Florina, some 100 miles to the west. We’ll see who makes contact first.
Neil Fraser-Tytler is preparing to get his battery out of the Somme and back to the rear for some hard-earned rest. The evidence of yesterday’s shelling (by which I mean corpses and gore) is still spread all over their position.
I spent the morning handing over to my successor. I am afraid it is a terrible legacy. The gun position was literally smothered with [flies] from yesterday’s incident. There was a forward gun in a very dangerous spot, and two distant observation posts with [telephone lines] which needed ceaseless effort to maintain them. On the eve of departure, one realises more the foulness of the spots in which we spent so many happy hours fighting. Now all the jump and life seemed to have gone out of things. There was nothing left but the appalling stench, the torn-up ground, and the eternal cloud of flies.
By the afternoon I had only one gun to get away, and my army had dwindled down to myself, Battery Sergeant-Major Musson, and three men. It was like waiting to leave school, and we were all nervous as cats lest some disaster happen before we escaped. Our gun team and horses came up at 10pm, and the relieving gun arrived soon after. Poor people! Their troubles had already begun, as their cook’s cart had been scuppered on the way up.
Even as I went, I saw our red SOS rockets rise behind Trones Wood, and heard the roar of gun-fire reopening. In Maricourt there was the usual hopeless congestion. French traffic was moving every which way at once under no sort of control, but we eventually burst our way through.
Fraser-Tytler proceeds to the rear, then on two weeks’ leave, then back to the rear. This will be the last regular dispatch we’ll have from him for quite some time.
Porridge again for breakfast. My wash-up as Smith and Dick are going foraging after parade. Got letters. Went for a bathing parade and had a good laugh at the porters doing rifle drill. Did not have a wash. Went to the hospital with Wackrill to see Paddy. Percy Forbes not there so must have been sent back. Arrived back in camp to hear the rumour that we are moving to Mpwapwa tomorrow. … Finished washing up then chopped wood for tomorrow morning. Had a chat with Wallie about the ‘Leader’ and ‘Mail’ then to bed and slept well.
The newspapers mentioned are the Transvaal Leader and the Rand Daily Mail, the chief Johannesburg morning newspapers. It’s also worth mentioning that the African porters were not hired on as soldiers. Their job is carrying everyone’s shit around, but of course it makes sense to give them occasional rifle drill so they can defend themselves in an emergency.
We’ve heard this name before. Oswald Boelcke is the most famous German fighter pilot of the war. When his contemporary Max Immelmann was killed, Kaiser Wilhelm II personally ordered Boelcke to be taken off flying duty at Verdun. He’s spent July travelling through Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, inspecting their aircraft arrangements, an excuse to keep him from being killed. He’s using the time well, though; he’s been formulating a list of eight rules for aerial combat, the Dicta Boelcke, which will likely remain relevant as long as aircraft are built to fight with cannons.
We’ll have a look at those in days to come; but now we’re going to start following Boelcke about. He’s just returning to Constantinople now and will soon be heading for Berlin via Bulgaria. (On his way out, he took a motor-boat and sailed around the island on which General Townshend has been imprisoned, and I’d like to believe that he and his cronies did so while making rude gestures and shouting taunts in broken English.) He’s just been to Gallipoli, and today he’s on a train with Enver Pasha, whose company he is enjoying rather, on his way through to Sofia, where we’ll pick up his diary tomorrow.
Henri Desagneaux is up the line again, and his prediction for the sector to heat up is coming true.
Two years of war!
The weather is glorious. Life is spent in the trenches, in shelters crawling with rats and lice. We can hardly see, it’s so gloomy. The sector is hotting up. Two officers of the 24th Company are seriously wounded.
Maximilian Mugge is still bleating hopelessly about the men’s singing.
Not once and surely nowhere in camp have I heard a beautiful folk-song that would have recalled the sad sweetness of the river Dee and the nightingales of Lincoln Inn Fields. Always the idiotic “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary.” Who is to blame? The elementary schoolmaster or the president of the Folk-song Society? Or the housing conditions? Our social system generally?
For the love of God, nobody tell this man what Morris dancing is, or he’ll never shut up.
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