The French Army is going to support the main action of the Battle of Woevre with a heavy diversionary attack at Vauquois. The German Sapper, who has been rather quiet of late as he tries desperately to stay alive, appears to have been right in its path.
The leading elements of the ANZACs have been loaded back onto their boats at Alexandria, and are heading back to the islands to wait somewhere else. It’ll be a while yet before the main body of the invasion force will have its shit sufficiently organised to go anywhere. That’s probably for the best, since Sir Ian Hamilton’s staff is still racing to come up with an actual plan, and solve a few minor problems like “How are we going to get the blokes onto the beaches?” More to come.
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Third Army has taken a massive kicking recently, and expecting them to launch a major offensive would have been too much. However, they’re certainly capable of delivering more than enough hate to seriously inconvenience the German Sapper. He’s been at Vauquois since January, and it’s beginning to seriously affect him. The French have been slowly intensifying their artillery barrage; the German artillery has been matching it. Suddenly, at the end of the day, the French barrage unexpectedly lifts. The Sapper is ordered back into the village.
It was not yet quite dark when the French advanced in close order. We were in possession of almost the whole of the village. We could see the artillery shells burst in great number among the attackers’ reserves. Our machine-guns literally mowed down the first ranks. Five times the French renewed their attack during that night, their artillery meanwhile making great gaps in our ranks. We soldiers calculated that the two sides had together killed some three or four thousand men that night.
I’m not sure how much weight we can put on his estimate; such things are notoriously inaccurate. Still, it’s clearly a very unhealthy place to be.
It’s Easter for Louis Barthas, and that means a good old-fashioned church parade, even though he’s up the line right now. There’s a large depression in the ground just behind the first line of trenches, which the poilus have nicknamed “The Washbowl” and fortified with parapets around the edge. Inside the parapets nestle officers’ huts, with flowerbeds outside the door. In the Washbowl the men train, play rugby (historically very popular in the south of France, where Barthas is from), and generally relax when they’re up the line but not in the fire trench.
If you were safe from bullets there, you weren’t safe from shells. But in this place, well known to the Germans because they had occupied it at one time, I never saw one shell fall. They must have been blind to see the [rugby] ball fly into the air. Sometimes it would land way out ahead of the front line, in the barbed wire, where a bold player would go out to get it. Testing the courtesy of the Germans, who never fired on the players.
The Army is a bastion of Catholicism and clericalism in the militantly secular French state. Becoming an Army officer is one of the few careers that enthusiastically Catholic men from a quote good background unquote can expect to succeed in. However, with the rapid expansion of the Army for war…
The commandant and almost all the officers of the regiment were at the service, and all soldiers not on guard duty were authorised to attend it. Most assuredly, our Captain Hudelle was absent, taking every opportunity to show his antipathy towards anything religious. His company was in a support trench. At the moment that Mass was taking place, he ordered a roll call, and ordered two days of “prison” for all who weren’t there.
Commandant Garceau, who had given the authorisation for everyone to go to the Washbowl, begged and pleaded with our captain to lift the sentences. But the captain wouldn’t budge. The sentences were fictitious in any case, because when we stood down for rest periods the punished men didn’t stay in the trenches, as the inhuman regulations of the time would have required. The captain said to one of the punished men that he was punishing him for being absent from the trench. The corporal replied sharply, “Captain, there’s no use hiding it. We were punished for going to Mass. We know it.”
This amusing jape will have repercussions down the road for Captain Hudelle. Barthas now goes quiet again for about a month; it’s just another stretch of mildly dangerous trench duty.
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(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)