Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night…as reinforcements plough through yet more ridiculously snowy weather high up a mountain, heading for the heights north of Erzurum, the Russians begin attacking the strong group of forts that block the east road from Koprukoy. General Yudenich’s plan is to concentrate his small allocation of artillery to obtain local superiority against each fort. In comparison to what the Germans have wheeled out on the Western Front, these are barely pop-guns. But they’re not trying to destroy the forts; just to worry the defenders. From noon until eight in the evening they fire the guns.
And then, under cover of darkness, the Russian army tries to take a modern fortress by infantry attacking with fixed bayonets. It should never have worked. But of course, as mentioned, the garrisons are severely under-strength and they have only a quarter of the artillery that had been planned to occupy the forts (and almost none of it quick-firing). In short order, one of the forts has been broken into, and hand-to-hand fighting goes on all night. We’ll come back tomorrow for a progress report.
Battle of Verdun
Speaking of foul weather. With just 24 hours to go before the Battle of Verdun, the weather in south-eastern France has turned, and torrential rain is pelting down. The German Fifth Army begins considering a postponement of the offensive; and, with no bombardments planned before the day of the attack, they have the flexibility to do this without losing surprise. A postponement may even work for them; more supporting attacks can now be launched in Artois and the Ypres salient. It all depends on the weather tomorrow.
Meanwhile, intelligence about the German attack continues coming in. It’s correctly identified the German Fifth Army, and its commander. It’s identified a major buildup of heavy artillery. It predicts “a large offensive in the region of Verdun”. And still General Joffre is determined to see no sense in a major German attack there. It can only be a clevair ruse, by Dieu!
Time to check back in with Mesopotamia. Reinforcements are dribbling up the River Tigris to General Aylmer at his camp near the Hanna chokepoint, and he now has a new plan for relieving the Siege of Kut. If Hanna can’t be successfully attacked, perhaps it can be bypassed. His transport can supply an expedition of about 12,000 men. The Engineers will build his expedition a new boat-bridge across the river. They cross the river and march right round Hanna to Es Sinn, where there’s only a small Ottoman garrison on the last fallback position before Kut-al-Amara.
Once Es Sinn is taken care of, it should then be a simple matter to march to Kut and extract General Townshend from the rather large hole he’s dug for himself. They still estimate the besieging force’s strength at only 4,000 (they’re wrong, but never mind that for now); a 12,000 strong relief column should be more than enough to deal with them. With all the reinforcements he’s been promised, Aylmer can send that many men away from Hanna and still have more than enough to prevent the Ottomans in the chokepoint trying any funny business. (He’s been ordering intermittent bombardments as ammunition supplies permit, with little effect on the deep German-designed trenches.)
Anyway, thank God someone’s capable of developing plans that don’t boil down to “launch a frontal attack!” Speaking of which…
General Malleson (who we last saw in July 1915, making a horrible bollocks of an attempt to capture Mbyuni) is squabbling with one of his subordinates. General Beves commands the South African Brigade, and he doesn’t like the plan one bit. Malleson is quite certain that he’s opposed by only 300 men with no artillery; Beves wonders if perhaps the enemy might not have brought up some reinforcements over the last two weeks of overflying Salaita Hill and poking it with a stick. Malleson is sure that a frontal attack will suffice; Beves wonders if they wouldn’t be better served by flanking Salaita and then attacking it from multiple sides at once.
To Malleson, a career staff officer with little previous experience of field command, things are simple. The numbers are heavily in his favour. His scouts would have told him of any reinforcements, or any artillery. There are none, and precious few machine-guns besides; a frontal attack will suffice. It will be spearheaded by the inexperienced South Africans, and will be useful experience for them. It will be tomorrow. General Smuts is just leaving Pretoria to take up his new command today; Malleson and his boss, General Tighe, are both quite determined to make a welcoming present to him of Salaita Hill.
The actual German garrison on the hill, by the way, is about 1,400 strong, in concealed and well-prepared positions. They have twelve machine-guns, ten more than Malleson knows about. And they also have a field artillery piece and two pom-pom autocannons. This is sounding so very depressingly familiar.
Private E.S. Thompson and the 7th South Africans, of course, know nothing of this. All they know is that there are orders to move and marching to be done.
Saddled up mules. Great fun watching mules that hadn’t been broken in. Marched to Serengeti (4.5 miles) and made temporary camp. Came to rain about 1 o’clock and got under canvas covers. A good many of the chaps from the regiment took their clothes off and tried to get a bath in the rain, but they were worse off than before.
We have begun business properly now. At night got marching orders and were told that we were to attack Salaita Fort. Great excitement.
This sky-high morale is reflected again and again in personal accounts from all over the force. It’s going to be the South-West Africa cakewalk campaign all over again. Right? Right?
Bernard Adams reflects on his rear-area billets for when he’s out of the line. It seems that he’s been lucky with those, at least.
Morlancourt is situated in a regular cup with high ground all round it. The roads all run down into it from every quarter. It was a cosy spot, and a very jolly thing after that long, long weary grind up from Meaulte at the end of a weary six days in, to look down on the snug little village waiting for you below.
For, once over the hill and “swinging” down into Morlancourt, one became, as it were, cut off from the war suddenly and completely. It was somewhat like shutting the door on a stormy night: everything outside was going on just the same, but with it was shut out also a wearing, straining tension of body and mind.
Yes, we were very lucky in being billeted at Morlancourt. It was just too far off to be worth shelling, whereas Bray was shelled regularly almost every day. So was Meaulte. And there were brigades billeted in both Bray and Meaulte. There were troops in tents in the Bois des Tallies, and this too was sometimes shelled.