Oh, I hope you weren’t expecting good news. There’s precious little good news to go around at the moment. Let’s cut to the chase…
Third Invasion of Serbia
It’s a new year, it’s a new commander, it’s a new force, it’s a new plan. The newly-promoted Field Marshal von Mackensen has thrown out any idea of going the long way round through Bosnia. They’ve spent months flooding heavy artillery towards the border between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and the last two days have seen enormous amounts of ordnance being chucked over the rivers. von Mackensen is determined to kick the front door in, shove his blokes across the Sava and the Danube, and capture Belgrade as soon as possible. The Serbian government has prudently remained at Nis, but that’s not the point. The point is to make a major statement to demoralise the Serbians and to deter the Greeks. (Not that they need much deterring; the King has appointed a new Prime Minister much more to his liking.)
The river-crossings are mostly achieved without much trouble. Unlike in the heady days of 1914, the Serbian Army can’t be concentrated against this assault. Too many of their men have had to be sent to the Bulgarian border. They need help and they need it now, or more than just Belgrade will be at risk. The responsibility for providing that help rests temporarily with General Bailloud, who’s busy getting blokes off the boats at Salonika and waiting for orders. Today, they arrive! And he’s been instructed in no uncertain terms not to take his men into Serbia. Welp.
General Castelnau contacts General Joffre with a bald statement. Not only has his attack failed to break through, he sees no way to break through without a bombardment on the scale of the first day of the offensive. There’s no arguing with that, so General Joffre issues the order to terminate the battle as soon as a defensible and coherent front line has been established. We’ll look at things like casualties once the autumn offensive finally expires.
After General d’Urbal’s recent delaying action, they now need a new plan. Sir John French is at least now making promising noises that he’ll be ready to renew the Battle of Loos by the 10th. A new plan is duly drawn up, and it looks suspiciously like the old plan but with different men attacking and fewer artillery shells. One thrust over the top of Vimy Ridge towards Farbus, another assault on Hill 70 to support a BEF push in the region of Hulluch. Good luck with that.
Each time we heard the ominous whistling we told ourselves “That is the one!” Then after it had missed us, we added “Not yet.” Those are the hours that count for something. They are unforgettable. Hours where you can feel yourself living with great intensity because each minute appears to be your last. And as a poilu talking about them said so well, “Life is just passing through!”
This can’t go on forever. It doesn’t.
At the entrance to [the next trench], a shell hit dead on, right in the middle of my men. Twelve were dead, and some thirty-three others wounded. In a few moments all the stretchers had been put to work. There was nothing more we could do. The bad news was becoming more frequent. A voice called out, “The chaplain for our commandant!” Was it possible? Our dear commander, our friend, a father to all of us, had already been hit!
Let’s cut through the flowery crap a moment; the important point to remember here is that Commandant Delaire deliberately put himself in an exposed position so that more men could get into the trench.
We heard somebody crying out from our left, “Lieutenant de Bejarry is dead!” “Lieutenant Levylier’s leg has been crushed and he is half buried!” Poor Levylier. When I think that only three days ago, I rebuffed him for saying with a touch of snobbism that he found war to be quite “sporting”. What an ironic turn of events!
The shelling goes on. More tomorrow.
Time to introduce yet another new correspondent. John Bernard Pye Adams had followed a well-trodden path from a Classics degree at Cambridge to the Civil Service, but lasted only two years before war broke out. In November 1914 he went for an officer, and must have been considered pretty shit-hot for a new boy, as he became a temporary captain in spring. He’s with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a regiment whose battalions over the course of the war will host some of the most well-known writers; Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, Hedd Wyn, and more. Were it out of copyright I’d probably be leaning heavily on the medic J.C. Dunn’s The War The Infantry Knew.
For my money (and I’m not just saying it because this one is public domain), the best work to come out of the regiment during the war is that of Bernard Adams. We’ll explore why in the next few days. For now, suffice it to say that the 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers, in France since September 1914, have suffered particularly badly (they’ve lost more than half the strength with which they went into the Battle of Loos, and this is not the first time that’s happened) and are in urgent need of reinforcements. Adams has been put back to his substantive rank of lieutenant and packed off to France. He’s now on the way to the front, sitting in the train writing home for the first time. Though he won’t admit it, he’s very concerned about having been sent to the 1st Battalion.
The thought of my arrival among the regulars, with no experience, and not even an acquaintance, far less a friend, was distinctly chilling!
This is a good sign. Science has recently proven that incompetents lack enough knowledge of their jobs to know that they’re incompetent, and so instead are falsely confident. Adams knows enough to know he doesn’t know anything, and so is already better at officering than a lamentably high number of freshly-arrived subalterns. He’s also lost his luggage, which isn’t helping his mood.
I can hardly convey the sense of depression these two facts cast over me the next few days. The interest and novelty of my experiences made me forget for short periods; but always there would return the thought of my arrival alone into a line regiment, and with the humiliating necessity of borrowing everything. Unknown and inexperienced I could not help being; but as a fool who lost all his property the first day, I should not cut a brilliant figure.
He’s eventually put off the train and left to march into Bethune, where he marvels at how they can almost totally ignore the war despite being only six miles from it. More from him soon.
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