War at sea | Eastern Front | 12 Jan 1916

Eastern Front

General Joffre isn’t the world’s biggest fan of the Salonika expedition. However, he’s a practical man. Not only does it still have the firm backing of his Prime Minister, but the Russians are also strong supporters of the idea. Joffre knows he needs plenty of positive credit if he’s to convince the Russians to launch a major offensive in the spring, and for the last few months he’s been sending frequent letters and messages to Stavka for the attention of anyone who might read them.

It seems his charm offensive has now borne fruit. Today a French liaison officer has a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II, who’s taken personal command of the army. The Tsar apparently said a lot of very nice things about the Franco-Russian alliance and promised to be personally overseeing preparations for a major offensive later “in mid-1916”. Perhaps a little later than Joffre would like, but the important thing is the commitment.

The war at sea

Time now to take a moment and review quickly state of the war at sea. The German High Seas Fleet has spent the last year or so twiddling its thumbs in port after the Kaiser issued a firm directive that it not be unnecessarily risked. Its commander, Admiral von Pohl, has been more than happy to obey, and the focus switched briefly to submarine warfare. After the suspension of unrestricted submarine warfare, some of the German submarines have found their way to the Mediterranean. Things in the North Sea have been broadly quiet in terms of battles. The Blockade of Germany continues to be enforced, and at the Admiralty Room 40 continues to read the Germans’ wireless messages with impunity.

There are two areas of interest. In the Black Sea, the Ottoman and Russian fleets are semi-frequently jockeying for position without fighting any major actions. And, down on Lake Tanganyika, the newly-promoted Commander Spicer-Simson (still wearing his bespoke khaki skirt), is feeling rather optimistic. The German steamer Kingani is now in his possession, and repairs on her are nearly finished. The Belgians have given him a new, bigger gun to replace the ex-Konigsberg cannon, which has been shifted to a newly-repaired Belgian steamer, Vengeur

The biggest question on Spicer-Simson’s mind is a new name for Kingani; he quickly settles on Fifi, the French for “Tweet-tweet”. It goes nicely with Mimi and Toutou, Kitty and Doggie. So far things have gone well (barring the weather, which is now pouring rain on the camp). A pair of flat-pack British seaplanes have just arrived. Military success has smoothed ruffled feathers between Spicer-Simson and Major Stinghlamber, the Force Publique commander. For now, it’s all going rather well. More from them soon.

Change in the North Sea

The war in the North Sea isn’t going to be quiet for too much longer. Admiral von Pohl has developed liver cancer, and a few days ago he left his flagship for a Berlin hospital. He’s clearly not fit for further duty; in fact, he has barely more than a month to live. Meanwhile, the commerce raider Moewe continues her cruise. After briefly ducking into the Bay of Biscay to drop some more mines off Rochelle, she’s now operating with impunity between Finisterre and the Canary Islands. The ship has already captured five merchants, including one collier, which has been sent to a quiet Brasilian island under a German prize-crew for later rendezvous. In just a few more short days her tally will reach seven captures; and as none of the captured ships are yet due in port, nobody has reason to suspect that anything’s gone wrong.

Erzurum Offensive

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus, the Russians are launching an attack that isn’t supposed to work. This is their big, obvious assault into the Pasin Valley against the Ottomans’ extensive system of prepared defences, with shouts and great action. The object here is to spook the Ottomans into thinking that the last couple of days on the Cakir Baba was a distraction, and that this is the main offensive; of course, it’s really t’other way about. Come back tomorrow to see if it worked!

Mesopotamia

As his men carefully shuffle forward towards the Wadi, General Aylmer has a nasty little problem. Given a free choice, the sensible thing would be to withdraw, or at least to halt without fighting and await reinforcements. At best, he’s got equal numbers, at worst he’s slightly outnumbered. But he doesn’t have a free choice. The Siege of Kut needs to be broken, and soon. There’s no two ways about it.

So, in an effort to square the circle, he’s come up with just about the best plan possible. Most of the men are going off to the right, a few miles inland, to find a point where they can cross the Wadi while not under enemy fire, then attack from there. It’s not the most convincing plan in the world, but it’s all they’ve got.

Robert Palmer

Meanwhile, Robert Palmer narrowly avoids the most unpleasant duty of all.

In the evening D Company had to find a firing party to shoot three Indians; a havildar, a lance-naik, and a sepoy, for cowardice in the face of the enemy. I’m thankful that North and not I was detailed for the job. I think there is nothing more horrible in all war than these executions. Luckily they are rare. They helped dig their own graves and were very brave about it. They lay down in the graves to be shot.

The men, however, didn’t mind at all. I talked to Corporal Boughey about it afterwards, and remarked that it was a nasty job for him to have to do. to which he replied gaily, “Well, sir, I ‘ad a bit o’ rust in my barrel wanted shootin’ out, so it came in handy like.”

Tommy Atkins is a wonderful and attractive creature.

Add three more to the roster of Indians who were shot for military crimes and whose total number nobody seems to know. By my rough count the total number of men executed while in the service of the British Empire is now in the region of 400, without much sign of stopping. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, my arse.

Montenegro

After six days of fighting, the writing’s on the wall for Montenegro. The Government contacts Austria-Hungary to ask for an armistice. Meanwhile, the Army commander, General Vukovic, is not quite so ready just to stop. He sends out a general order to retreat to Scutari, and join the evacuation. Some go, some stay. Montenegro’s independence is, for the time being, about to end.

Mother

In Lincoln, Mother is going back into the factory yard with repaired caterpillar tracks. This time they work perfectly, and several members of the committee indulge themselves in driving up and down a number of heaps of slag and pig-iron. The prototype makes short work of them, and tomorrow they’re going to take the tank out on a longer drive through some quiet fields. Some of the drivers will be unable to resist driving right through a few hedges on the way. Just to prove it can be done, you understand.

The next step will be to test-fire one of the small 6-pound guns from Mother. Of course, there are first a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through in order to get some shells to fire…

Henri Desagneaux

Henri Desagneaux has dutifully taken himself off to Remiremont, in the hope that someone might tell him if he’s actually needed.

I arrive at the Army HQ. There, the same old story, they don’t know what to do with us. They have heard that some railway officers were to join a unit, but that’s all. No orders. Once again, there are phone calls to the Ministry, and to central HQ. Result, call again and we will see then. Finally, in the evening, we learn we are to have a training course for company commanders at Remiremont.

Looks like someone wants him after all!

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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