Verdun and the noria
General Petain’s innovations and rearrangements at the Battle of Verdun continue. He’s started making a personal point of, at least once a day, going out of his headquarters and taking a personal look at the flow of traffic. This is an excellent opportunity to judge the condition of the men, particularly men coming out of the line altogether for rest. He’s been struck by how utterly exhausted and haunted the soldiers appear. It’s on a completely different level to their condition after the battles of 1915.
I singled them out for my most affectionate consideration as they moved up into the line with their units. Huddled into uncomfortable trucks, or bowed under the weight of their packs when they marched on foot, they encouraged each other with songs and banter to appear indifferent. I loved the confident glance with which they saluted me. But the discouragement with which they returned! – either singly, maimed or wounded, or in the ranks of their companies thinned by their losses.
Their eyes stared into space as if transfixed by a vision of terror. In their gait and their attitudes they betrayed utter exhaustion. Horrible memories made them quail. When I questioned them, they scarcely answered, and the jeering tones of old poilus awakened no response in them.
How much mental strength does it take to go down and do that and know that it all happened because of orders you gave? Generals are often quite weird people, but this should not be at all surprising. If you tried to make me a general in this kind of war, there’s no way I’d ever be able to face my men. Anyway.
Clearly, the existing system of leaving men to defend a sector for a month or more at a time is inadequate. The men won’t stand up to it; the line will simply collapse under the relentless pressure. So we find the common-sense system that quickly became known as the “noria”, after a water-wheel with an attached chain of buckets to draw water out of the river, empty themselves, and then return.
It’s a simple but elegant idea. Any given unit’s time in the Verdun sector will be kept as short as possible, no more than eight or ten days in the trenches if at all possible. They’ll then be withdrawn and sent somewhere else entirely. They’ll suffer, and they’ll take casualties; but they won’t break under pressure, they probably won’t be entirely destroed, and morale will be bolstered by the knowledge that they’ll only be there for a short time. The noria has only one disadvantage; they’re going to need a lot of men to make this work properly.
Happily, there are a lot of spare men knocking around the French rear at the moment, and there will be more once 10th Army has handed Vimy over to the BEF. Unhappily, these are the men that General Joffre had earmarked for his grand summer offensive and the preliminary wearing-out battles that were to precede it. And Joffre has no desire at all to abandon his grand designs. More soon.
Some brief notes from the Caucasus, where the Russians continue rolling forward. After 36 hours’ sharp fighting, late tonight they evict the Ottomans from Bitlis, just east of Lake Van, with obvious implications for a re-occupation of Armenia. There’s a nasty rearguard stand brewing near Bayburt; and on the Black Sea coast, General Lyakhov is planning another amphibious assault on Rize.
Grigoris Balakian has now arrived at Corum, a provincial capital. On the plus side, his friendly Jandarma’s letter should prevent them being killed. On the minus side, a provincial governor has his own men who can take over immediate responsibility for the deportees. They’re locked into a tiny room by a local Jandarma captain.
“Don’t bring bread or water to these dogs! Let them starve so they will understand what it means to rebel.”
The captain eventually proves bribable, just about, but there’s no food to buy.
Most of the villagers had been sent to the front, and the peasants left behind were without food themselves.
The exhaustion of the journey and our hunger made us think that death was better than living like this. Those whose suicide I had prevented were vexed by this suffering and asked me why I had interfered. They kept saying that it would have been better to drown in that river than to suffer like this, only to die in a cruel and ghastly way.
Yes, there’s plenty of room left for things to get worse.
The cold wind, or the wet, or something, has made my back so rheumaticky that I can hardly turn round or get down to tie my bootlaces. I am very lucky to have kept as fit as I have. Dozens of men from the trenches are in hospital with muscular rheumatism from the floods—the source of many evils. The horse rations have fallen away to very little. We give them pieces of palm tree to gnaw at.
Far away on the edge of the western horizon I watched for hours, through my telescope, a convoy of camels, each with a tiny white dot of humanity aboard, striding away with delightful patience to the Turkish camp downstream. They were conveying stores from Shamrun, the enemy depot on the river above us.
And the siege goes on.
Lieutenant Bernard Adams, up the line near the Bois Francais, is trying to solve a knotty problem. It’s freezing cold. Being an officer, he gets to hide in a dugout when it’s not his turn of trench duty. Unfortunately, there’s not much point to this if there’s nothing to burn. One of the very first jokes in Blackadder Goes Forth involves the men being issued with trench ladders and immediately burning them; it’s one of those moments that’s extremely close to the mark. It’s an extensive funny story, comedy in three acts.
The great problem was fuel. There were no trees or houses anywhere near. We had burnt two solid planks during the day; these had been procured by the simple expedient of getting a lance-corporal to march four men to the Royal Engineers’ dump, select two planks, and march them back again. But by now the planks had surely been missed, and it would be extremely risky to repeat the experiment, even after dark.
The subalterns have all sent various NCOs and batmen and other little elves off into the rear to try to buy, acquire or appropriate more coal; but meanwhile they’re keeping warm and destroying the evidence of their little wheeze. The song, by the way, is a Gertie Millar/Lionel Monckton number which could probably have been found playing on quite a few BEF gramophones.
Clark was singing “Now Neville was a devil” and showing his servant Brady how to “make” a hammock. Brady was a patient disciple, but his master had slept in a hammock for the first time in his life the night before and consequently was not a very clear exponent of the art.
This process involves Lieutenant Clark lying in the hammock issuing directions while Private Brady ties up this and lets out that and hammers a nail into the other. Eventually they finish; Clark goes to sleep while his batman departs for the servants’ quarters (a smaller part of the same dugout, separated by a curtain) to make an entry in this week’s “Who’s Got The Stupidest Officer?” competition.
This rather happy scene can only continue as long as there’s fuel, and men are returning empty-handed at intervals. The war-hardened Lieutenant Adams now issues another order to his own batman, Private Davies, that’s fully within the finest traditions of the old Regular Army.
“Look here. There’s a sack of coal ordered from Sergeant Johnson, but I’m none too sure it’ll come up tonight. I only ordered it yesterday. But I want you to make sure you get it if it is there. In fact, you must bring it, whether it’s there or not. See! If you don’t, you’ll be for it.”
Davies disappears and returns half an hour later with a large amount of snow and a larger sack of coal. At length, dinner is served, and the battalion’s medical officer appears, having earlier been invited by Lieutenant Dixon.
“By Jove, I’m jolly glad you asked me. There’s the devil to pay up at headquarters. The [Colonel’s] raving. Some blighter has pinched our coal, and there’s none to be got anywhere. I couldn’t stand Mess there to-night at any price. The CO’s been swearing like a trooper! He’s fair mad.”
“Never mind,” he added after a pause. “I think we’ve raised enough wood to cook the dinner. See you’ve got coal all right.”
I hoped to goodness Dixon wouldn’t put his foot in it. But he rose to the occasion and said “Oh, yes. We ordered some coal from Sergeant Johnson. Come on, let’s start.”
Later, the officer quietly suggests to Davies that he confiscate somebody else’s coal next time. Davies departs to make his own entry in the servants’ competition. Nothing of importance has occurred.