Verdun and the Somme | Fromelles | 13 Jul 1916

Battle of Verdun

The Battle of the Somme has now succeeded in one of its main objectives. Today General von Falkenhayn orders offensive operations to cease at the Battle of Verdun. On the most charitable interpretation of von Falkenhayn’s intent, it was supposed to take a couple of weeks, maybe a month, to establish a strong line that the French would find it almost impossible to recapture, and then sit back and let them bleed to death on it. They’ve now taken five months and still they’re not quite as far forward as General von Knobelsdorf would like to be.

But this is going to have to be it. They don’t have the men to keep attacking at Verdun, and keep counter-attacking on the Somme, and keep the Eastern Front as strong as it is right now to cover for the Austro-Hungarians’ ongoing failure against Russian attack. General Nivelle has officially been handed the initiative. Happily for the Blood God, he and General Mangin are planning a major counter-attack outside Fleury and Fort Souville, to go off in two days.

Fromelles

We’ll come on to the imminent attack on the German Second Line in just a moment. One of the many instructions from General Haig’s advanced headquarters in recent days has been a reminder to his other three army commanders of the need to keep up pressure away from the Somme, so that the enemy will think twice before sending men south to the big show. So we find one General Haking (last seen at the Battle of Loos, allegedly/possibly mis-managing the reserves) being given the ANZACs and told to give them something to do. Once again the BEF’s collective eye has fallen on Aubers Ridge.

They’re just looking for diversion this time; the plan is for a heavy 24-hour bombardment. Then there’ll be a major infantry attack by the ANZACs on the 15th, strictly limited to the enemy’s first trench system near Fromelles on top of Aubers Ridge, and then they hold on for dear life. The objective here is primarily to pinch out the Sugarloaf, a small and highly annoying German salient on top of a knobbly hill that’s ideal for observation of the surrounding low ground. We’ll be back.

Trones Wood

Let us have a snapshot of Trones Wood from artillery subaltern Lieutenant William Bloor. He has been sent forward on a recce, doing a similar job to the officers belonging to Lt-Col Fraser-Tytler who two days ago saved a wounded man.

The place beggars description quite—there has been the fiercest fighting here for four days, and both sides have taken and lost the wood several times. Wounded have not been cleared away, and there are some who have been all that time without food or any attention. The horror and misery and countless tragedies of this war—even the little of it I have seen—are much too awful to let the mind dwell on it and I am surprised that more men do not go mad with the horror of it.

Many of the infantry that I saw and spoke to were in a state of ‘daze’, their senses were all blurred and dull, and they neither cared if they lived or died, nor if they went forward or backward. I suppose it is as well that they can get that way.

There’s a major heave at 5pm. Fraser-Tytler himself is under the impression that it’s succeeded. Bloor meets several wounded men who describe the affair as a complete failure. All we can say for sure is that lots more people are dead, and there are still Germans somewhere in Trones Wood.

Bazentin Ridge and field telephones

Time to drop a bombshell. A few days ago, someone was poking around in an ex-German dugout in front of Ovillers, where their signallers used to live, and made an exceptionally nasty discovery. The dugout had some wires going out of it the wrong way, out towards No Man’s Land. Further investigation shows that this dugout is in fact a listening post. Turns out that the British telephone wire is badly insulated, and the Somme chalk is an excellent medium for carrying telephone signals through the ground. (In other sectors, particularly Ypres, the enemy is directly tapping into the hopelessly confused telephone network.)

Now the BEF is beginning to understand why the Germans have sent trench raids out only rarely over the last few months. They haven’t had to. They’ve been listening to everything that’s been said down the BEF’s field telephone system. To be fair, this has meant listening to a lot of inconsequential bullshit between bored subalterns. However, now all those taunting German signboards, welcoming new units to a section of line by their name, suddenly become explicable. (Why not attack today, Jock?) There’s a happy ending to this story, but it won’t come for a while. For now, field-telephones will have to be used with great caution, if at all.

Good time to be planning that major attack on the German Second Line, huh? After a frantic 24 hours, and much consultation with his own staff, General Haig has agreed to go with General Rawlinson’s bold and risky plan (discussed in detail on the 11th). Today he gives fresh orders and objectives at a personal meeting in the afternoon.

I spoke about use of the cavalry. The divisions were not to go forward until we had got through the Enemy’s fortifications, except a few squadrons to take High Wood.

Hold that thought; it will become relevant very soon.

I stated his objectives as:

1. Occupy position Longueval-Bazentin, and consolidate it.
2. Take High Wood, and establish right flank at Ginchy and Guillemont.
3. At same time (if possible, as there are ample troops, extend left and take Pozieres ridge…)

I saw General Pulteney…[he] had not thought of how to employ his divisions to capture Pozieres village. I said he should not attack direct, but take it from the rear to avoid loss.

Hold that thought, and all. There is a considerable amount of original thinking to be employed here. It could go badly wrong. Lying out in No Man’s Land, waiting for zero hour, is (to say the least) a deeply risky proposition. The Second Line will have a massive concentration of artillery, but it’ll only have time to fire a long hurricane bombardment in support. And the whole plan is based on having captured Trones Wood; as midnight turns into tomorrow morning, that still has not been achieved…

Let’s just get a map on this, shall we?

The yellow box marks the rough objectives for the end of the day.
The yellow box marks the rough objectives for the end of the day.

And, as today turns to tomorrow, German senior commanders are thinking entirely of their upcoming command shakeup. First, as General Haig has already done, the Germans are splitting the battlefield in two. Their chosen demarcation line is the River Somme. There has been no German First Army since 1914, but now the name is being resurrected and it’s being put in command of everything to the north. To provide continuity at the most vital point, General von Below is being shifted over to command First Army; General Max von Gallwitz has been recalled from the Eastern Front and given command of Second Army.

So far, so sensible. Then it all goes a bit hatstand. In his infinite* wisdom, General von Falkenhayn has decided that von Gallwitz will also serve as an army-group commander. I suppose it’s better than having no army-group commander at all, but there’s a clear conflict of interest in having the guy who decides things like which armies get reinforcements also be in charge of an army. To make matters even better, HQ insists on re-examining their idea of what a corps is. In the Prussian style, a corps is rather like a large breeze-block; its identity is inherently entangled with that of its constituent divisions.

In the light of losses at Verdun and on the Somme, this is proving too inflexible. In isolation, a move to a more British-style concept, where a corps is a large bucket into which you throw and remove several different house-bricks/divisions according to the situation, is probably beneficial. But to make the change now, on top of everything, and with the BEF ready to attack them again? Too much, too soon.

*By this point, rather less than infinite, as more than a few high-powered people in Berlin are beginning to suggest…

Attack on the Karasu

The Ottoman Third Army’s southern divisions have been fleeing in front of the impetuous Russian General Lyakhov for the past few days. They’ve made it to the Karasu, one of the two long source rivers that eventually join to form the River Euphrates, in enough time to blow the bridge at Kotur. In the past week Lyakhov has given himself a jolly good talking to, and he’s managed to re-adjust his outlook from “foolhardy” back into “aggressive”. Attacking quickly to not allow the enemy to dig in is important, but not the only important point.

This time he’s made sure to select the freshest units and send them into battle with a well-designed plan, attacking tonight under cover of darkness and turning disorderly retreat into all-out rout. A full third of the already under-strength Third Army’s, ahem, strength, has now become casualties, prisoners, or deserters. The rest are heading off to the north in the general direction of Erzincan, in no fighting shape. Lyakhov has achieved his objective; he can now secure General Yudenich’s flank against the attack that Izzet Pasha and Second Army has no intention of launching anyway.

Losing the bridge is a blow, but not an immediate concern. Everything is looking set fair for a long Russian march to Erzincan. Right now, the only thing that seems like it might be able to stop them heading even further west is simple logistics. It’s 275 miles more to Kayseri; they’ll have gone 210 miles from Sarikamis to Erzincan, but if they can advance up the coast at the same time and capture Samsun…

E.S. Thompson

At Kondoa Irangi, E.S. Thompson is trying to keep morale up among his mates.

Reveille and roll call as usual. Put kits outside then had a fine breakfast of mealie-meal and koekjes. Went to town with Dick who was having a tooth drawn. Took Sourie to the hospital to get Smith’s kit. Afterwards went to see Alf and on the way saw Jack Wetton and Ernie Barritt. On entering the church heard somebody call ‘Eric’ and, going over, found poor Percy Forbes thinner than ever now down with dysentery. He looked so bad that it made me feel awfully upset. After chatting with him for a while went to see Alf who’s leg is better now but he is going back to Ufiome.

Had just got out of the church when I met Ralph and Whitticombe going in to see Percy so I took them to him. After cheering him up for about half an hour we walked to the 9th [Regiment] camp, going through the native town.

For now, their duties are still the universal military pastime of Hanging Around Until Something Happens.

Louis Barthas

Everyone’s favourite grognard Louis Barthas is today indulging in a little unexpected cultural exchange. He’s gone to the Camp de Chalons, a major French training centre, to become a trench mortar corporal.

Bomb throwers, snipers, machine gunners came in teams to spend ten or twelve days. This made the place a slacker’s haven for instructor officers and non-coms and their entourages of orderlies, aides, cooks, messengers, secretaries, etc. The very evening of our arrival, I went into the village of Bouy with my comrades, and there I saw Russian soldiers for the first time. They occupied the neighboring sector, took their rest in the nearby village of Mourmelon, and in spite of the strict prohibitions given to them they wandered around the area in the evenings.

There was an order given in the region, prohibiting their being served any alcoholic beverages, including the sacred pinard. Nevertheless you could tell that the Slavic soldiers I met in the streets of Bouy had had something other than tea, their customary beverage, to drink. They zigzagged in a manner which was dangerous to their equilibrium, and some of them, gesticulating, singing, stopped women and girls in the streets, kneeling comically before them to give them what was no doubt an elaborate declaration of love, in the form of raucous sounds interrupted with hiccups.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Corporal Barthas has been at the absinthe, but no. The Russian Expeditionary Forces are a real thing that happened, in this case mostly to stop General Joffre suggesting that Russia just casually send him two spare armies. They’ve already sent about a division’s worth of men to France. As part of the ongoing negotiations with Romania, about 50,000 men will eventually be sent to Salonika under the REF banner to join in there. You’ve probably not heard of them, and in this case it’s a compliment; they generally did their duty well and without fuss, and then packed up and went home.

Maximilian Mugge

Maximilian Mugge, God bless him, has come through with yet another of those “a day in the life of a bloke” lists that I just cannot resist. This one is by a friend and fellow crock; it’s daily life at the base.

Daily Routine of a Soldier’s Life in France, in a few Hymns:

2 a.m. Draft proceeding to the Front: ” God be with you.”
6-30 a.m. Reveille: “Christians Awake.”
6-45 a.m. Rouse Parade: “Art thou weary?”
7 a.m. Breakfast: “Meekly wait and murmur not.”
8 a.m. Sick Parade: “Tell me the old, old story.”
9-15 a.m. Manoeuvres: “Fight the good fight.”
9-45 a.m. Orderly Room: ” Oft in danger, oft in woe.”
11-15 a.m. Swedish Drill: “Here we suffer grief and pain.”
1 p.m. Dinner: “Come ye thankful people, come.”
2-15 p.m. Fatigue: “Come, labour on.”
3-15 p.m. Lecture by Officer: “Abide with me.”
4 p.m. Dismiss: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
4-30 p.m. Pack-Drill: ” For all the Saints who from their labours rest.”
5 p.m. Tea: “What means this eager anxious throng.”
6 p.m. Free for the night: “O Lord, how happy should we be.”
6-30 p.m. Out of Bounds : “We may not know, we cannot tell.”
7 p.m. In a Cafe: “How bright those glorious spirits shine.”
9-15 p.m. Last Post: “All is safely gathered in.”
9-30 p.m. Lights Out: “Peace, perfect peace.”
10 p.m. The Guard: “While Shepherds watched their flocks by night.”

I am sure this is even funnier if you actually know anything about hymns. “Swedish drill” is a system of calisthenics originally set down by Martina Bergman-Österberg, a Swedish gymnastics teacher who settled in London and taught generations of female fitness instructors and PE teachers.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun
Brusilov Offensive
Battle of Mecca
Siege of Medina
Battle of the Somme
Battle of Erzincan

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