Wulverghem | Supplies to Russia | 30 Apr 1916

Gas at Wulverghem

There’s been another German gas attack on the Western Front, this one at Wulverghem, just south of Ypres. (It’s close enough to Plugstreet that, had Winston Churchill not left the front recently, he might have been in its way.) It’s been preceded, like the attacks at Hulluch, by deserters and suspicious signs. And, like the attacks at Hulluch, it’s intended to allow German raiding parties into the BEF’s trenches. There is one major difference, though.

The Germans suspect that Wulvergem is the location of a major BEF mining effort, with the entrances to many of their mining galleries there. They’re hoping to get to the galleries and blow their entrances up with explosives; but those raiding parties are quickly driven off. Just another day at the war. Nothing of importance has occurred, apparently.

Supplies for Russia

Speaking of “nothing of importance”, hohoho. There have been fears in various government circles about a shortage of supplies in Russia. Efforts to send convoys round the northern route to Archangel are being stepped up, with an order having just been placed for new icebreakers to keep the sea route open. Former French prime minister Rene Viviani is already on his way to see what can be done, and if the French are going to send someone…

According to Colonel Hankey’s telling, various people tried to foist this job on him, which he evaded. He’s also apparently heard that, of all people, Lord Kitchener might be interested in going. It would probably mean spending some weeks there, at the very least, and they’re going to need someone. More soon as diplomatic efforts continue to support both the Russian and the Italian war effort.

German morale

As the Battle of Verdun grinds hopelessly on, morale is apparently holding on both sides. For a given value of “morale”, mind you. A few days ago, a German, Grenadier Rudolf Koch, recently wounded in yet another failed attempt to capture the whole of the Mort Homme, had a go at putting that given value into words.

The soldier does his duty and does not question why. It was duty alone that held us upright and together the whole time. One cannot speak of enthusiasm in such a place; everyone wishes they were a thousand miles away, and the easy wound that will get them home is everyone’s silent desire, from the company commander to the lowliest grenadier.

But if we had to go in to attack again the next day, we would have clambered out of our trenches with a simple sense of duty just as quietly as before, most of us from force of habit. The order arrives and is carried out, some acting from fear of the shame and ridicule of the others if they remain behind. And even if a soldier brags that he has managed to dodge his duty, he will be harshly judged after his day of shirking, and all the others will be examined thoroughly to see if they were there, if they remained behind, and how they behaved.

This is an assessment that might just become familiar, the more chance we have to dig into the situation of battle-hardened and battle-weary men.

March to Kondoa

One way or another, the march of the 2nd division to Kondoa Irangi is now coming to an end. The first infantry battalions are straggling in, and they are bringing supplies with them. There’s plenty of rations to go around by now. It’s not uncommon for companies or battalions to have lost more than half their men to disease, or starvation, or man-eating lions, or some combination of the above, during the march. They’re arriving in a condition not all that much better than the now-former garrison of Kut.

And of course, that’s to say nothing (as is all too often the case) of the human cost in African porters and labourers. People talk about the Western Front for needless slaughter, but ye gods, Smuts and van Deventer are making their contribution right here.

Edward Mousley

Siege over, the Ottomans are now removing the British Empire soldiers from Kut with a minimum of delicacy.

I had slept in my boots and hidden all my loose kit, but they commenced to seize what they wanted from others. One took General Melliss’ boots from under his bed and another his shoes, and made off, notwithstanding the general’s loud protests. He jumped out of the bed and followed them. A scuffle ensued in the street. The general reappeared, and put on his cap and jacket showing his rank and decorations, and then returned to the fray.

While he was gone more Turks swarmed in and robbed patients who were too ill to move, taking shoes, razors, mirrors, knives, and anything they fancied. To crown all, the disastrous news has come that, despite most elaborate assurances to the effect that the garrison would be conveyed upstream in barges, the men have been ordered to march to Baghdad with kit through this fearful heat. They have no rations except the coarse black Turkish biscuit.

In some cases there are no Turkish officers, but merely Turkish sergeants or privates in charge of our prisoners. We are all many stages past indignation. General Townshend, we hear, has already left for Constantinople by a special steamer and car, and is permitted to travel en prince.

I can believe already the prophecy of the reverend father that surrender would mean a trail of dead.

And so the first march begins, officers separated from their men. Mousley himself remains in hospital in Kut for the moment, in too much pain to go anywhere except possibly a hole in the ground. There will be some small negotiation in days to come over those too wounded to march, and about a thousand men, almost all of them Indian soldiers with a very few officers attached, will be exchanged for an equivalent number of Ottoman prisoners.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas is still suffering under the punishing rear-area regime of drill and field-exercises. However, their evenings are still their own. Sort of.

My friend V… and I went out to buy a couple of bottles of good Meuse beer, and we looked for a quiet corner in which to enjoy them in an interminable game of manille, of which we were fanatical players. At the edge of the village, next to a fine-looking house, was a shady garden where we set ourselves up quite comfortably on a grassy green lawn. Our game hadn’t been going for five minutes when a captain suddenly turned up and headed toward us, looking furious.

Dumbfounded, we wondered what crime we had committed. Well, it was having come to play cards right under the window of our colonel’s lodging. What audacity for a couple of simple poilus! Louis XIV noticing a trespasser strolling across his lawns at Marly would not have been more scandalized than was our colonel, who had us chased away from the garden manu militari [by force of arms], not without noting down our names and serial numbers and warning us that a severe punishment would teach us to pick another spot to play our game of manille.

You know, just in case you were in danger of thinking Colonel Douce was a great man. Guess he’s just a good man. Well, he’s all right. Marly was a palace in France built as an escape from court at Versailles; and quite why Barthas chose not to give the name of Private “V” is, as usual, unclear.

Evelyn Southwell

Evelyn Southwell is about to get the leave that he tried to go on two weeks ago, and he’s in a good mood, reflecting on his recent promotion.

Quite honestly, I am sorry Captain Barclay went so soon, for naturally I don’t pretend to the same experience or capacity as his. Of course, as I wrote to him, one does and ought to feel that it is a good game, being a Company Commander. But I do think the Company would have benefited by some more of him, and so should I. However, one must just try to carry on. The secret of the whole thing, as he ran it, was not merely being busy himself, but being able to act as a sort of centre of activity and make everything move round him.

In fact, I believe many very fine commanders have been successful by doing little themselves and, as it were, sitting in a kind of spider’s web and controlling from inside. At present this is a very tempting picture, but I don’t know nearly enough yet to be able to indulge in such methods. But one does learn the unimportance of one’s own work and inspections and orders, etc., compared with the value of being able to make all the other subordinate officials run their own provinces for all they’re worth!

Irony time! We know that a soldier transferred from Southwell’s battalion to Malcolm White’s a while earlier; and the word was apparently that Southwell meant well, but was trying to run the Company by himself. Nice to know he’s been issued with a small ration of common sense along with his third pip.

Berrnard Adams

Meanwhile, on the Somme. Bernard Adams is the battalion’s sniping and intelligence officer, the two roles being combined into one. One day in the trenches, he’s in an observation post, looking up at Fricourt village.

I was drawing a sketch of the village, when lol and behold! Coolly walking down the road into Fricourt came a solitary man. I had to think rapidly, and decide it must be a German, because the thing was so unexpected; I could not for the moment get out of my head the unreasonable idea that it might be one of our own men! However, I soon got over that.
“Sight your rifle at two thousand yards,” said I to Private Morgan, who was with me. “Now, give it to me.” Carefully I took aim. I seemed to be holding the rifle up at an absurd angle. I squeezed, and squeezed–
The German jumped to one side, on to the grass at the side of the road, and doubled for all he was worth out of sight into Fricourt! Needless to say, I did not see him again to get another shot. “They’ve been using that road last night, sir,” said 58 Morgan, while I was taking a careful bearing on my empty cartridge case.
“Yes,” I said. “Why yes, of course, they must have used it last night. I never thought of that. Good. We’ll get the artillery on there to-night, and upset their ration-carts.” This pleased the fancy of Sniper 58 Morgan, and a broad grin came over his face at the thought of the Boche losing his breakfast
“Maybe, sir, we’ll see the sausages on the road to-morrow morning.”
For which thought I commended him not a little: a sense of humour is one of the attributes of a good sniper, just as rash conclusions are not.

Adams does some clever sums and reasons that the German must be living in a particular cottage. In the night they call in a heavy artillery bombardment. Not only do they take some chunks out of the road, they do significant damage to the cottage, which turns out to have been conveniently sited for use as a machine-gun nest. Nest no more. Nothing of importance has occurred, mind you. Although it is interesting that Adams pulled the trigger on this shot himself…

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Armenian Genocide
Battle of Verdun

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