Alexander Pepys’ War Diary – July 1916
It is now a month since when the New Armies began their assault. I find it difficult to understand what has been achieved for the loss of thousands of casualties. Whole Pals Battalions have been wiped out by enemy cannon and machine-gun fire. Whole streets of families in Northern cities are receiving official telegrams of the deaths of their husbands and sons. The printed lists are far longer than for Loos. To the north much of the enemy wire was uncut. What progress was made was in the south . The French broke through but were obstructed by British units failing to keep up. I have heard from colleagues that the British bombardment stopped before the infantry ranks walked forward – giving time for the enemy machine-gunners to set up their guns and observers to direct shrapnel onto to our exposed soldiers. In the two weeks that followed severe fighting gained ground, such as Mametz and other Woods.
On the 14th the commanders tried another tactic, by bringing up the assaulting troops close to the enemy trenches. Once the bombardment stopped the soldiers rushed in and captured their trenches. The advance was halted for the cavalry to be brought up. In the hours this took the enemy had recovered. The initiative was lost. Next day in Delville Wood the South Africans held on to the salient they had captured but paid a heavy price in casualties. The infamous High Wood nearby remains in enemy hands.
The Australians have taken Pozieres after bitter fighting. They are experiencing shell and machine-gun fire worse than they faced so stoically in Gallipoli. They have also taken many casualties
So much hope was invested in the Big Push and in the power of cannon to destroy enemy trenches. We know enough ammunition was available but their trenches are too well constructed. The British command is reduced to launching small assaults, capturing small pockets of land but taking large casualties – hopefully inflicting similar numbers on the enemy. Colleagues tell me the policy is known as Attrition. It is based on our troops being more numerous than theirs. The thinking is Verdun must have reduced their number considerably. This is my private diary so I can comment on what seems to be a murderous policy without being charged with treason. I shall do my duty and continue to help with transportation of men and munitions to the Front – but with a heavy heart.
My colleagues in charge of routing hospital trains have had to find ways of cramming more wounded into them and directing them to widespread railheads near hospitals with the capacity to treat the soldiers. The injuries are such that many die on the journey from France.
Jellicoe is being blamed for not achieving another Trafalgar. Many ships were sunk, besides the Invincible. However Speer took the German High Seas Fleet back to port and keeps it there. The Grand Fleet is back isolating Germany from world markets. For its civilians, food supplies are declining.
The Brusilov Russian offensive has been taking large numbers of German and Austrian prisoners. Hopefully this will reduce enemy reinforcements to our Front. Thereby increasing opportunities for the break-through.
News of the Home Front pales into insignificance besides the losses of our brave soldiers in France. Natasha prevailed on me to ask permission for Madame Roches-Legrande to come to stay at our home. Last week I visited the French Embassy to request permission out of courtesy as her husband was a RI commander. They agreed so she is now invited. I am not sure of Natasha’s motive; she has not been straightforward with me – somewhat unusual. It may be to help Delphine recover in a happy household, it may be related to her own lung injury, it may be to help Rose recover from Rory’s death. It may be to provide a friend for our two sons now she is grown up. Women are a mystery.