Alexander Pepys’ War Diary – February 1917

The Third may be the shift of the balance of power in this awful conflict. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany: the reprisal to the Kaiser and his use of unrestricted sinking of all ships, whatever their cargoes. With this industrial warfare, it will be those who can finance and manufacture the equipment and munitions who should win.

However set against this are reports that the Russian armies are becoming ill-disciplined: officers are not obeying orders and soldiers are deserting the Front and hiding in their villages. Industrial unrest is widespread. How long the social structure can be held together by the Tsar is debated vigorously in the Carlton Club when I call in mid-evening on the way here.

The response of the enemy on the Western Front has been to begin shortening their lines by moving away from the Somme into newly developed trench fortifications set back by 10 miles. Having to defend some 40 kilomtres less of trenches, their manpower requirements are reduced. Perhaps this is a sign that their casualties of last summer, at Verdun and on the Somme, coupled to losses in the East, are now putting a strain on the numbers of youngsters and older men available to replace their casualties.

Kut was a debacle in Mesopotamia for our Empire. News has been coming in that the Turks have been retreating to Baghdad, quitting the former battlefield. By retreating from this symbol of their military prowess, perhaps the power of the Ottoman empire is also on the wane.

The Army HQ in France is planning to take advantage of the enemy pulling back. But the land between has been wantonly vandalised. When the time comes to push forwards, the normal gauge track will take too long to ballast, lay, and thereby carry the weight of the locomotives and wagons loaded with ammunition and tanks. Geddes has decided that our colleagues co-operate with GHQ by planning for the speedy extension of the light railways forwards from the trenches where our troops have been surviving the winter. The short sections which will need to be bolted together are being prepared in the home factories, our trains then carry them to storage depots once they are landed in France. They will then be able to be taken forward to be speedily laid with minimal ballast, to carry small train units of some 25 tonnes. The ‘miniature’ locomotives will not be steam-driven but powered by petrol, making their presence less easily spotted by enemy observers, on land or from the air.

On my home front, Natasha feels her medication is helping her. Certainly she is less inclined to suffer depression from the gassing since Delphine came to live with us. Which makes it a more loving relationship when we are together in the flat or at home. She has been telling me about a friend Rose is working with. At Gommecourt wood, this young Captain tried desperately to force a way through the uncut wire for his North Midland company but was shot in the thigh. Badly wounded, he was brought back to England, was awarded an MC, but is now lame. Rose says he is over any mental distress, dismissing his injury as one of those things when one gets mixed up with the Army.