Vaux | Souville | Baratov | 1 Apr 1916

Battle of Verdun

The German Fifth Army has begun to focus large amounts of artillery fire on Fort Vaux and Fort Souville. Their next big push along the Meuse is due to come in about a week or so. General von Falkenhayn is beginning to get worried about the situation, and the staff of the German Fifth Army has produced a stream of (rather spurious) intelligence indicating that the French are exhausted and ready to crack. von Falkenhayn’s own intelligence is rather more cautious, correctly identifying the presence of a large French general reserve.

The Germans are stuck here in a position that’s too long for Dick and too short for Richard. Let’s have the map again to remind ourselves of the problem. The black line is the starting positions before the battle. The green line is an approximation of the position that von Falkenhayn might have been satisfied with for attritional purposes.

As always: Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

As always: Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.

The problem is still that ever-growing French artillery park on the west bank, far more extensive than my awful MSPaint skills can show. As long as that stretch of the Meuse north of Verdun remains in French hands, the guns can bombard the German rear on the east bank with impunity. As long as the French retain air superiority and the high points at Hill 304 and the Mort Homme, they can also bombard the German rear on the west bank. One way or another, the Germans are going to need to solve this problem, and quickly. Advancing to something like the green line, at least on the west bank, is critical.

Meanwhile, on the French side of the hill, General Joffre is pontificating. There’s still a month left before his command changes can take effect. In the meantime, he’s inviting General Petain to make himself look bad…I mean, launch heavy local counter-attacks to improve the position on the north-eastern corner, and possibly retake Fort Douaumont. Those keys are so close together!

Mesopotamia

You may remember a while ago the presence of a Russian force in Persia, dealing out liberal kickings to various bands of Ottomans and local tribesmen. The garrison of Kut has been hoping, on and off, that this force might be sent to relieve them. And now their hopes have been answered. General Baratov, the Russian commander, has just been ordered to advance on Baghdad. He does have some 10,000 fit men in the region of Kermanshah, but that’s about where the good news ends.

As the crow flies, there’s about 200-odd miles of mostly desert between Kermanshah and Baghdad. If they were able to leave immediately (which they can’t), and march at a pace of ten miles a day without obstruction (see previous objection), they’d probably be somewhere near Baghdad around the 20th of April. Which is about when General Townshend predicts he’ll run out of food. And, on top of all that, General von der Goltz, the German commander of Ottoman forces in Mesopotamia, has been reading the script.

He’s recently received copious reinforcements (the men who were given priority for railway travel over reinforcements to eastern Anatolia). Four battalions have now been despatched east from Baghdad with a familiar mission; find the Russians and keep stringing tripwires across their line of advance. The Russians are, unfortunately, rather a red herring. It’s not looking good for the siege of Kut.

Edward Mousley

Speaking of which! A nice bit of synergy today from the besieged Edward Mousley.

A terrific thunderstorm swamped everything last night. The place was alive with electricity, and flashings kept me awake for hours. Most of our heavy bombardment trenches are full of water, and I have had fatigue parties on all day baling them out and shifting the horses. A rumour has it that the Russians are in the Pushtikus, the distant range just to the eastward. I consider this a pathetic rumour, and I’m more interested in what Shackleton is doing at the South Pole.

Shackleton, incidentally, is stranded on an ice floe in the middle of nowhere, which is on the verge of breaking up. Mousley might as well be. He too has humanitarian concerns.

Square-Peg sleeps most of the day, and represents the three of us in collecting a daily account of Cockie’s doings. There is no one, I am given to understand, sorrier that Cockie was hit than General “GB” who happens to be next door to him. The hospital, I was yesterday informed by an inmate slow to anger and of great mercy, consists of two factions, those that do not love Cockie and those who can’t hear him.

I hope he doesn’t mind my writing this. I have sent him fish and fowl, and for my pains he sent me back inquiries as to why I hadn’t done so before. Bah! Cockie can be so rude if you don’t always do sufficient homage—and then I’m so forgetful in these matters. Not a man in the garrison has risen to-day to an April fool’s joke—not one!

No, I don’t know who General GB might be, but if you’ve got a suggestion, please share. Also, let’s compare this last line with…

E.S. Thompson

A good many ‘April Fools’ in camp.

Gee, it’s almost like E.S. Thompson and the 7th South Africans are doing better! But not too much better.

Still bad with diarrhoea. Grass-cutting fatigue all the morning in the hot sun which made me feel crook. In the afternoon Victor Rose and I got a touch of fever and we felt pretty rotten. Before going to sleep Dick Heard gave us a quinine tablet each. Got our kit bags and spare kit so had a blanket to lie on and one to cover me. A pitch black night with not a breath of wind and stuffy.

“Dick Heard” is just one letter away from being a contender for the All-Comers Outstanding Name of the War Award.

Grigoris Balakian

Morale among Grigoris Balakian’s fellow deportees is on the rise again, after a full day of rest in Sis. They’re on the road again with easy walking, and there’s an escape plot waiting to mature further down the road. All they need do now is not die long enough to get to it. There’s more singing, despite the beatings that followed the last outbreak; Balakian holds forth at length about the Armenian spirit and massacres of days past. Eventually it gets dark, but they haven’t reached a village.

It seemed that we had lost our way, and the Jandarma accompanying us also expressed concern. They were new to the job, unfamiliar with the roads. In the third hour of the night, we heard suddenly – about fifty feet ahead of us – the successive crackling of firearms. We panicked, thinking that the moment of our death had finally come. We scattered. Some fled without looking back. In the confusion, none of us could tell who was firing or why. Finally it became clear that two Jandarma had arrested some deserters, and were threatening them with execution.

Eventually they see a light and find a lonely, isolated sheepfold in which to spend the night.

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux is still doing rear-area working parties near Nancy.

The day is beautiful, but troubled. There is firing all along the line. At 10 in the evening, it’s hell. Guns roar everywhere, to the right, to the left, in front, behind. Armancourt is ablaze. Its church is on fire. Its steeple collapses. A splendid sight, and a terrible one.

Amusingly, I can find two Armancourts in France, neither of which are within 200 miles of Nancy. Someone call Inspector Maigret. (At least in the first novels, Maigret is old enough to have been called up in 1914, but it’s never mentioned what he might have been doing in the war. Author Georges Simenon was Belgian, living in occupied Liege, making his living on the black market.)

The Sunny Subaltern

Anyone here surprised that the Sunny Subaltern has lucked into a rear-area skive? Me neither. Except it’s not nearly as easy as it might first appear…

The battalion moved up into the trenches, and just before they left I was detailed to act as Transport Officer. That is, nightly to take up the rations to the men in addition to many other duties. It is no sinecure, as it means cold blooded riding on a horse at the head of your transport column, seven limbers, at a walk, along roads subjected to high explosives, shrapnel and whizzbangs, in addition to being potted at by snipers when you get close to the trenches.

His battalion is currently in the Ypres salient. They’ve also just adjusted their position slightly, from St Eloi to Hooge, right at the hottest part of the line. Being transport officer means that, although he doesn’t have to live in the trenches, he would have brought the rations through Ypres, up the Menin Road, and through Hellfire Corner. It’s still one of the most dangerous spots in the whole war, never mind that nonsense at Verdun. I think we’ll have a few more contributions from him in the coming days, as long as no shells fall on his head.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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