Very lights | 13 Nov 1914

We almost have a quiet day! There’s a fair amount of heavy fighting, to be sure, but nothing happens that hasn’t already been happening. The BEF has just started issuing some important new equipment. But first, a subject I will never be bored of talking about: shagging.

Venereal diseases

Yes, this is a theme I’m going to be coming back to; it was a major concern for all sides during the war. Nowadays they’re known as “sexually transmitted diseases” or STDs, but I’m going to use the contemporary name, because I like it. This is something I discovered in today’s paper (for those of you who never scroll to the bottom, the Daily Telegraph is republishing its war archives day-by-day, and it’s a fascinating read) on page 3.

I do find it extremely interesting that after only three months of war, during which most of the actual BEF has generally been far too busy trying not to die to nip off for a shag, the authorities have already identified venereal diseases as a serious threat to the strength of HM Forces. (I blame Kitchener’s Army.) A committee has duly been set up, and despite this being only 100 years ago, they (and the newspaper) still feel the need to note that “The chilling theories of Divine retribution are no longer dominant…” and “All three speakers [including the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral] repudiated the notion, often falsely held in the name of religion, that disease ought to be regarded as a punishment or retribution for sin.”

So that’s good. We’ll check in down the road, and see how they’re getting along with their task. And now for something slightly less childish. (Don’t worry, there’s a rude word coming up after it.)

Very lights

When I started engaging with the war in detail, the frequent references to “Very lights” were one of the things that most frequently confused me. It took me long enough to notice that “Very light” was not a descriptive phrase, it was a proper noun. A Very light is nothing more than a flare gun, and the flare it fires. In those days they were known as Very lights after their inventor, an American naval officer whose surname was “Very”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Germans were already equipped with significant quantities of flares, and had been making good use of them to disrupt Allied night-time activity in No Man’s Land. The British Official History, usually an extremely dry and proper tome, even allows itself a small moment of levity.

As if to exemplify the belated material, effort being made by Great Britain, five Very pistols were received from home to light up the front at night; they merely emphasized the superiority of the hundreds of German illuminating pistols of much higher power, and for many months the firing of one was a cause of great hilarity in the enemy front trenches.

The Very light was an extremely simple counter-measure to enemy activity in No Man’s Land, but also extremely effective. It was found very quickly, through harsh trial and error, that the best course of action to take when illuminated by a Very light was to freeze stock still. If a man dived for cover, the movement was highly likely to catch the eye of an enemy sentry, and the flare-light would usually last long enough for him to take at least a few shots. Stay still, and for the sentry’s eyes, somewhat dazzled by the sudden light, and probably not having too good an idea of what No Man’s Land actually looked like, the man would simply blend into the background.

There are many accounts from men who went on patrols of seeing quite ridiculous tableaux, as everyone on the patrol froze still in the most ridiculous of postures. It’s a thought both ridiculous and terrifying. How men’s nerves managed to cope with having to just stand there and wait to be shot at, certain in the knowledge that movement guaranteed being shot at anyway…

Rain, rain and more rain

The weather’s still as foul as ever in Flanders. Rifleman Henry Williamson (London Rifle Brigade) describes the conditions beginning to prevail in the trenches in front of Plugstreet Wood.

Rain splashed up about nine or ten inches in No Man’s Land, and it went on and on and on. That stopped the first battle of Ypres, which was raging up north. Our sector ceased. The conditions of the latrines can be imagined, and we could not sleep. Every minute was like an hour. The dead were lying out in front. The rains kept on. The water table was 2 feet below. Our trenches were 7 feet deep. We walked about, moving very slowly, in marl or pug of watery yellow clay. When the evening came and we could get out of it, it took about an hour to climb out.

Some of our chaps slipped in, and were drowned. They couldn’t even be seen, but were trodden on later. We were relieved after the fourth night and some of us had to be carried out. I noticed many of the big tough ones had to be carried out, while the skinny little whippersnappers like myself could somehow manage, as we had not the weight to carry. We eventually got to our billet at Plugstreet, a mile and a half away. We fell on the floor and slept. Everything was mud-slabbed – overcoats, boots and everything. We were dead beat.

Battle of El Herri

It’s debatable whether this is even part of the war, which I’m sure pedants could have fun with. I like the story, so I’m going to tell it. The French Empire has been fighting in Morocco against a guerilla force of Berbers since June. Operations have been mostly suspended while a peace is negotiated. This has been going on for some time, and one Lieutenant-Colonel Laverdure is now bored to breaking point with the situation.

So he gathers up virtually all his men, and marches them off to a well-known encampment at El Herri. They brush aside the defenders and settle down to a pleasant morning’s looting. As they do so, messages are being passed around the local leaders, and a few hours later a large force of highly annoyed Berbers appears over the horizon. Laverdure attempts to extricate himself; the situation rapidly deteriorates and his force is run down at the River Chbouka.

The remnants drag themselves across the river, and in desperation they form square. It’s soon broken, Laverdure is cut down with his men, and those who are still capable leg it back to town. The escapade and the loss of men seems briefly as though it may destabilise the entire French position in Morocco; swift action is taken to restore things. The French will then be forced to stand on the defensive while the war in Europe rumbles on, the Central Powers providing aid and weapons to the Berbers. The fighting here will not end until 1921.

Other

So, the fighting today, such as it is. The Germans begin moving to flank the Russians in front of Lodz. The Ottomans bring their artillery into play down in Anatolia. The British force marching on Basra has now fully disembarked all its rear elements. And there’s another attack at the Menin Road, but the Germans are demoralised, and as we’ve seen, the weather is rapidly becoming impossible.

Actions in Progress

Battle of Ypres (First Ypres)
Bergmann Offensive
Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Basra
Battle of Lodz

Further reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper (aside from venereal disease): Another funny story or two on Page 4. These ones are about a couple of infantry officers routing around France in a taxicab. It contains an excellent encounter with a monocle-toting cavalry officer, who politely requests of our heroes, “Would you mind getting off our fucking battlefield?” (No, they don’t print the word.) Meanwhile, the Belgium Appeal goes past £60,000 (or £6 million in today’s money).

The excellent tumblr Today in World War I reports on the piss-arse Boer rebellion as it moves towards sputtering out.

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