Verdun bogs down | 7 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

The German attack on the west bank of the River Meuse is now bogging down in earnest, after a strong first day. For this there is a simple explanation. On 21 February, the French Army had ten widely-spread divisions for the entire region around Verdun. Today, the front has been considerably shortened; they now have twenty divisions in the area, and heaping helpings of extra artillery. The MSPaint map, with a reminder of the line as it was on the 20th.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

The Germans are closing in on the Mort Homme and Hill 304, but they’re being hammered by counter-attacks and French artillery. There’s just too much opposition there for them to do anything quickly. The battle is congealing on this large quarter-circle around Verdun. And crucially, where General von Falkenhayn’s concept saw Germans sitting pretty on ground that the French had to capture at all costs, beating off endless attacks with a highly favourable casualty ratio, the exact opposite situation is now coming about.

They don’t have the Mort Homme. They don’t have Hill 304. They don’t have Fort Vaux. They’re still taking fire from those French guns west of the Meuse. von Falkenhayn has now completely lost sight of his original concept. His army commanders never had an adequate picture of it to begin with. Action east of the Meuse will be restricted now to merciless artillery bombardments, capture of obviously-abandoned trenches, and a careful bite and hold advance towards the walls of Vaux.

And on the west bank? On the west bank the Germans will be doing exactly what the French should now be doing. Again and again they’ll attack Hill 304 and the Mort Homme. Gains will come in increments of fifty or a hundred metres, at hideous cost, and mostly without threatening the French principal lines of resistance. They’ll never achieve that favourable casualty ratio if they’re constantly attacking things. The grind has begun, but at the moment both sides are taking losses in roughly equal proportion.

French political elbows

Meanwhile, the elbows are well and truly out behind the lines and it’s every man for himself. General Joffre, in a hasty face-saving exercise, is today writing to his government to inform them that he now believes the Germans are hoping to “beat down the nation’s morale”. Not a moment too soon, either; as his memo is being taken to Paris, minister of war General Gallieni is presenting his report on the first few days of the battle to the Council of Ministers.

President Poincare’s memoirs are clear on the tone of the report; he was quite sure that Gallieni was trying to stitch Joffre up and force him out. Unfortunately for Gallieni, the government is not yet ready to dismiss the hero of the Marne and prompt a political crisis. The Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, leads a spirited defence, and the mood quickly turns against Gallieni.

Gallieni’s position is now untenable; that was his last throw of the dice to gain power over the direction of the war for himself. In any case, he’s been suffering from prostate cancer from the last few months. He does agree to stay in his job for a few days while the government finds a new minister. And, just to complete the squabbling for today, off to the north General Foch is inserting his own oar on a separate point.

For once his opinions are similar to those of his boss. In about four months, one of his armies is supposed to be spearheading the Battle of the Somme, and his staff is busy drawing up plans. Now he’s being required to give up division after division to go to Verdun. He complains for quite a while about how this is affecting preparations; and his letter is going to find Joffre equally annoyed that General Petain’s noria concept is wearing out his own general reserve. It should have been held back for use on the Somme, but now it’s being exhausted by Petain’s demands for Verdun. More soon, as the elbowing continues.

Africa

The grand attack in East Africa is now swinging well and truly into motion. As General Stewart’s western detachment continues slogging thanklessly through the middle of nowhere east of Mount Kilimanjaro, in the east there’s rather a lot of men and guns bearing down on Salaita Hill. I’ve said quite a few uncharitable things already about General Smuts. However, now I’m prepared to say something nice. He’s determined to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and he does have far more capacity for even slightly original thinking than did any of the prats we’ve run across so far.

E.S. Thompson

And here we find E.S. Thompson, who’s going off on a long old march. The South Africans and plenty of guns are being sent out to the east as a flanking force. The idea here is to go round Salaita Hill and approach the border between Kenya and German East Africa. If the hill’s Schutztruppe garrison somehow misses the flanking movement, they can then be cut off. More likely is that they’ll see it and retreat to avoid that happening. What a concept.

Dusty night and woke up feeling and looking filthy. Rolled blankets and had breakfast which consisted of oatmeal porridge, coffee and bread and jam. Still dusty. We moved out of camp in a northerly direction at 6.30 pm and marched all night. We are force reserve. Escorting 2 batteries of the South African Field Artillery. Every 100 yards or so we halted momentarily, which helped to make us more tired.

Thompson, of course, has little appreciation of the grand tactical planning. All he knows is that it’s a bloody long march in some very annoying company.

Hanna chokepoint

It’s now time for the force that’s attempting to relieve the Siege of Kut to have another crack at the Hanna chokepoint. I went over the plan back on February 21; the plan hasn’t got any more practical since then. General Townshend has been informed, and is now preparing to break out of Kut with as many men as possible as soon as he can see that things are going well.

But, in order for things to go well, the men first have to form up and then spend about seven hours marching through a featureless desert at night, using compass bearings to navigate. It doesn’t start well; there’s considerable trouble just getting everyone formed up and ready to set off. Finally they leave, in ideal weather. As today blurs into tomorrow they reach the spot where they’re supposed to all split up and move into positions for the attack on Dujaila Redoubt.

More problems ensue, with various elements getting mixed up with each other and their own transport units. As the sun rises, most of the men are still well short of their objective. The redoubt has excellent lines of sight for miles around it. This, um, this doesn’t sound good. More tomorrow.

Grigoris Balakian

Hair-raising times for Grigoris Balakian as he marches on and on through the Armenian genocide.

There is a village on the road to Boghazliyan, two hours from Yozgat. Before it, there is a bridge. There, Captain Shukri of the Yozgat Jandarma, had been waiting for us since morning. He took command from the men who had accompanied us from Corum, and received the blacklist of our names and other official documents.

Meanwhile, their carriage drivers unceremoniously dump everyone and their belongings at the side of the road and make a swift exit. Whatever happens next, they’ve no intention of sticking around to see it. As it happens, this caravan is not going to be killed quietly under the bridge.

They took us to a village where nobody would sell us any food. We spent a sleepless night. At dawn, horsemen arrived from Yozgat and burst into our rooms. The Jandarma confirmed that they were bandit chieftans who had come to kill us, but Captain Shukri ordered them out and forced them to leave empty-handed.

This man clearly knows a gravy train when he sees one. No point letting anyone else squeeze it dry.

Robert Pelissier

Sergeant Robert Pelissier is writing a letter to a French friend who’s currently living in Texas (poor man).

I even believe that I do not hate at all in the literal sense of the word. If on a fine night when crossing the campus on my way back from Palo Alto, I should encounter a hold-up man, thrusting his revolver at me, I should do my best to smash his face, but once the deed was accomplished, I should be perfectly willing to have him taken at my expense to the Peninsular Hospital.

It is the kind of feeling I have when fighting the Boches. Against the Boches taken singly, I have no grudge, but I am perfectly determined not to allow my linguistic and idealistic family group to be swallowed up by theirs, which at the present time is certainly far from showing moral superiority.

I have had the luck to join a company under command of a young captain who is really a fine man and life is very different from what it was last year. For the last thirty-seven days we have been on the top of the worst one of the Alsatian Kopfs, and we cannot hope to be relieved as long as the fight is so fierce around Verdun. After all, our worst troubles here come from the cold, the snow and vermin; we are literally eaten up but the shelling is infrequent and of short duration.

This furious German attack on Verdun was launched very early in the season. Let us hope that the meaning of it is that our enemies are yearning to come to a conclusion. If such is the case, and if they cannot take Verdun, they may soon reach the end of their tether. Their rulers will not have a leg to stand on and possibly we may see the end of the war before next winter.

He’s very taken by his captain, who apparently is far more in the mould of Captain Hudelle than Captain Cros-Mayrevielle.

Neil Fraser-Tytler

Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler today takes some officers to see his new French friends, who have offered him lunch. After a delay waiting for a general who fails to appear…

I found thirty-six oysters waiting for me, with the usual cheery crowd of French gunners round the table. The oysters were followed by foie gras, veal and chicken mousse, a young roast pig, and Rumpelmayer’s chocolate cake, washed down with Graves, some excellent Pontet Canet and champagne, then eau de vie.

The luxuries were accounted for by one of the staff having just returned from Paris leave.

Suitably refreshed, and despite the narrator’s feeling “like an inflated frog”, the party wanders off to show the French some good old-fashioned English public-school arsing around. Belts off, trousers down, isn’t life a scream? Hoy!

We took possession of one of Captain Vieux’s guns and fired it off with great rapidity. An international gun detachment of officers! Then I persuaded the whole party to come over to our side and see our happy home. After so large a lunch I had no desire to ride or walk. We got hold of a battered old car and Vieux, Dubois, Armstrong and I drove in triumph in it to Susanne.

No vehicles are supposed to go beyond the turn in daylight, but as I said before we had “dejeuned” extremely well, so ignoring the road-blocking sentry we charged down the road, in full sight of the Hun across the river.

I believe there is in fact an exception in the division’s standing orders which permits sufficiently drunk officers of the rank Major and above to disregard the instructions of a sentry.

We eventually ran into a mud pool and stuck fast near Royal Dragoon Wood, so we dismounted and bolted for our narrow valley. The Hun was shelling the countryside rather hard. He was not after us and the car particularly, but the shells would have hurt just the same.

What, it’s just a coincidence that they’re shelling random bits of roadside after seeing a bunch of drunken officers lurching about the place? Anyway, a convivial afternoon then follows. Before sunset, our narrator commandeers the men off a passing water-cart to retrieve the car from the ditch, and the French officers roar off in search of some brandy. And somewhere near Vimy, Louis Barthas looks up briefly from whatever misfortune has befallen him now (of which more soon), and curses the name of all officers without knowing why.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

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