HERE WAS THE toxic reality of British politics in late 1916: a millionaire demagogue playing politics with a great nation. A queasy prospect indeed.
For months, the Press baron, Lord Northcliffe, had been circling his prey. He had decided that the current Prime Minister was idle and incompetent and, being the owner of the ever-pungent Daily Mail, was in a position to do him a great deal of harm.
After the desperate death and destruction meted out during the Somme offensive, it is unsurprising that Asquith should have been a focus of discontent. Having been Prime Minister for eight years already, the idea that he might be tired, or that fresh blood might be needed (not a happy metaphor just then) was scarcely outré. There was also a PM-in-waiting – the Minister for War, David Lloyd George.
And there was Northcliffe himself: a narcissist; a millionaire; thin-skinned and unforgiving.
Lloyd George was an inspired speaker and an instinctive populist. Asquith – intellectually far more brilliant – was an Edwardian to the tips of his highly polished boots. He did not recoil from people of less exalted birth, but he could no more have reached out to them than have strummed an acoustic guitar. He was not of that time.
In late November, Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Carson had drawn up a proposal to refashion the War Council into some smaller and more executive. The plan had been presented to Asquith who had prevaricated — seeing it, quite rightly, as a deus ex machina which had been fashioned to ensure his marginalisation and removal from office. Now Lloyd George began threatening resignation if the Council were not created, with himself serving as its chairman.
On 1st December, Northcliffe, rather better informed of these machinations than a layman might consider appropriate, ordered his staff to “get a smiling picture of Lloyd George and underneath it put the caption ‘do it now’; and get the worst possible picture of Asquith and label it ‘wait and see’. Rough methods are needed if we are not to lose this war.”
He instructed them further:
I want the word ‘Government’ in quotes all the way through this article… That will shake them up. It will make things lively for you tomorrow… You understand it is important and must be strongly handled.
The following day, 2nd December, under the headline, “The Limpets”, the Daily Mail presented a two-column editorial claiming to be the paper “that is combing them out”:
A moment in our struggle for existence has now been reached when ‘Government’ by some 23 men who can never make up their minds has become a danger to the Empire. The burden of administration in war makes demands on the body and mind which cannot possibly be supported by idle septuagenarians like Mr Balfour and Lord Lansdowne or by such a semi-invalid as Lord Grey of Fallodon… The notorious characteristic of our ‘Government’ of 23 is indecision… It just waits till the Press and the Germans have done something which forces it to decide in a hurry — and too late.
Northcliffe’s other newspaper, The Times, struck a more sober note, as befitted an organ whose readership was overwhelmingly Establishment, but warned that the political crisis represented “The Turning-point of the War”. That evening, the Evening News had placards which read “Lloyd George Packing Up!”’
Events now began to assume a critical momemtum. Hankey’s diary on Saturday 2nd December gives a sense of domestic panic within the Prime Minister’s own household:
…very shortly after lunch the Prime Minister left by motor for Walmer Castle. It was very typical of him that in the middle of this tremendous crisis he should go away for the weekend! Typical both of his qualities and of his defects; of his extraordinary composure and of his easy-going habits.
Asquith had ignored his wife’s pleas to remain saying he needed “sea air and rest from the awful strain of colleagues etc”.
The sensationalism of this plotting, and the sense of relish among its perpetrators seems a squalid recompense for the horrors being meted on the various battlefields.
Milner reported in a letter: “The rumpus here is simply awful… L.G. is really making a Gigantic Effort to get rid of Asquith.” Indeed, by Sunday evening on 3rd December, the anxiety of his family and supporters was such that the Prime Minister was persuaded to forego the benefits of sea air and return to London to meet with Lloyd George and the Tory leader, Andrew Bonar Law.
The heir apparent was obviously anxious to strike an emollient tone. Asquith later informed his wife that Lloyd George had been “protesting his perpetual devotion and loyalty. He almost put his arm around my neck and begged me not to believe all the stories that McKenna was spreading about that he [Lloyd George] wanted to take my place, and was disloyal etc.”
It is not hard to imagine the withering contempt of Mrs Asquith. She had always regarded the Welshman as a fraud and, judging by what unfolded the next day, she may have been right. An editorial in The Times – approved by Northcliffe – appeared the next morning, suggesting that the PM was now reduced to a figurehead status with the real power residing with Lloyd George.
That kind of public humiliation was more than Asquith, normally so languid, could bear. He fired off an angry letter to Lloyd George there and then, complaining of “the infinite possibilities of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of such an arrangement as we discussed yesterday”, and citing The Times editorial by way of evidence. He also added a warning:
Unless the impression is at once corrected that I am being relegated to the position of an irresponsible spectator of the War, I cannot go on.
By the evening of Monday 4th December, a crisis had broken out. As Asquith had seen, the editorial was a hatchet job – widely believed to have been written by Northcliffe with information supplied by Lloyd George. Northcliffe had been spotted waiting that evening at the War Office, adding to the likelihood that the two were in cahoots and, if so, the Welsh radical was indeed keeping dangerous company. In an article of 2nd December, the liberal paper, the Daily News predicted doom “for any government which lives by the sanction of a press dictator”.
The convulsions taking place within the walls of Westminster contrasted oddly with the relative calm on the Western sector where, if not exactly all quiet, it was less eventful than for a long period. The closing down of the Somme offensive heralded a phase of reduced intensity – and also one of painful reflection. Everyone was determined to learn lessons from what had just ended.
For the Germans, this meant the secret construction of western defences, known variously as the Hindenburg Line or the Siegfriedstellung.
Ludendorff wrote of the prospects for the new year:
[German] G.H.Q. had also to bear in mind that the enemy’s great superiority in men and material would be even more painfully felt in 1917 than in 1916. They had to face the danger that ‘Somme fighting’ would soon break out at various points on our fronts, and that even our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely, especially if the enemy gave us no time to rest and for the accumulation of material… If the war lasted our defeat seemed inevitable…
The Field-Marshall [Hindenburg] and I were fully at one in this anxious view of the situation. Our conclusion was no sudden one, but had gradually grown upon us since we took over our posts at the end of August, 1916. Accordingly, the construction had been begun as early as September of powerful rear positions in the West… Whether we should retire on them, and how the positions would be used was not of course decided in September, 1916; the important thing then was to get them built.
This kind of defensive talk was a far cry from the hubris of the Schlieffen Plan just over two years earlier. Some context for its sober conclusion can be seen in the pen-portrait of the Somme by infantryman Ernst Jünger:
This area was meadows and forests and cornfields just a short time ago. There’s nothing left of it, nothing at all. Literally not a blade of grass, not a tiny blade. Every millimetre of earth has been churned up and churned again, the trees uprooted and torn apart and ground to sludge. The houses shot to pieces, the bricks crushed into powder. The railway tracks turned into spirals, hills flattened, everything turned to desert. And everything full of corpses who have been turned over a hundred times. Whole lines of soldiers are lying in front of the positions, our passages are filled with corpses lying over each other in layers.
In fact, the chief drama on the West this week was the first daylight bombing raid on London. On the morning of 28th November, a German navy bomber took off from its base at Mariakerke in Belgium, carrying six 10 kg high explosive bombs. With a range of 200 miles and a top speed of 80 m.p.h., its destination was the Admiralty offices in Whitehall.
A quarter of a century later, such an expedition would have been unlikely to get beyond the Channel before being blasted out of the sky. Back then, however, Deck Offizier Paul Brandt, the pilot, and the observer, Leutnant Walther Ilges, navigated their way over Essex and the Thames estuary in hazy conditions, photographing potential targets as they went – Ilges took 20 shots of airfields, oil storage tanks, ammunition dumps, government buildings and factories.
The plane appeared over London around noon and “very few people stopped to stare in wonder at the silvery shape of an aircraft passing overhead. Reporters could later find only two people who claimed to have witnessed it and neither connected that extraordinary sight with the explosions that rumbled through the streets between Victoria and Knightsbridge a few minutes later. As the bombs began to fall from a height of 13,000 feet, Londoners realised with surprise that they were under attack. The bombs exploded near Victoria Station damaging a bakery, mews houses in Belgravia and the Palace of Varieties Music Hall, injuring ten people.
It did not quite go all the Germans’ way, however. On the homeward journey, engine trouble forced the crew to land at Boulogne, where they were promptly captured.
The greater dramas of the war had shifted east in recent days. In Greece, King Constantine’s professed neutrality had by now been dismissed as a nonsense. His blatant sympathies for the German cause had already sapped the patience of many of his countrymen and now provoked the Allies into action. On 28th November, French sailors were landed at Piraeus, reinforced by more Allied troops two days later.
It took four days before Constantine acknowledged he had had the equivalent of a hard smack. On 2nd December, he ordered Greek troops to cease all hostilities towards the Allies, an embargo was placed on all Greek ships in Allied ports and the Greek government agreed to hand over several field batteries. In Athens, however, the order went down badly among that section of the population sympathetic towards the Central Powers and, following an eruption of massive public unrest, another 1,500 French troops were landed at Piraeus. Only then did the Greek government bow to the inevitable. On 3rd December it abandoned neutrality and pledged its support to the Allies. Point made, the French troops re-embarked.
The Allies were also making some progress against the Bulgarians who had occupied Giurgevo on the Danube but were pushed back by the Serbians north of Gumishta on 2nd December. Despite persistent fog, engagements took place around Monastir all week, and the French-Serbian force advanced east of the city on 4th December. The extraordinary British-woman-turned-Serbian-Army- officer Flora Sandes lay recovering in hospital where, as she recalled, a fellow patient “had the curiosity to count my wounds. The count completed, she informed me that I had twenty-four, and I felt that it was high praise when she said I could bear pain as well as a Serb.”
At the end of November, Sandes had been visited by Captain Milan Jovicic, the handsome, charismatic half-Serb, half-Scottish aide-de-camp to Crown Prince Aleksandar. In the presence of “as many others as could be collected round the bed at short notice”, he pinned the gold and silver Karadorde Star with Swords for non-commissioned officers and men onto her pyjama jacket. This was Serbia’s highest decoration for bravery under fire and carried with it automatic promotion to sergeant major. The order’s citation read:
Volunteer Sergeant in the 2nd Infantry Regiment Miss Flora Sandes, an Englishwoman, has distinguished herself by her courage and by a rare spirit of self-sacrifice in all combats in which her unit had taken part up to the day on which she was wounded twenty steps from the Bulgars. At Hill 1212, she served as an example to her company by her bravery.
Sandes’ bravery is the stuff of legend, and one also wonders (a perfectly wholesome thought at that) whether or not Sandes was not susceptible to the charms of this attractive young man and of the cohort of young soldiers among whom she had surrounded herself.
The sexual dynamic was, of course, a powerful drive to stay alive. So too were the claims of affection and family – and yet each of these were endangered by the challenges of war. Long periods of separation, fears of death, of disfigurement and incapacity were more likely to drive people apart than to bind them closer together.
Lady Cynthia Asquith had toyed with the feeling that
I should give myself the chance of starting one [a baby] before Beb goes out… in the circumstances, I have a superstitious feeling that one ought not to postpone… Teresina said she though it doubtful whether one ought to have a baby on account of nerves during a very anxious time, but I don’t agree, and personally feel a baby would always steady me.
Meanwhile, soldiers on the front agonised about wives left at home facing domestic hardship. The diary of the Russian peasant soldier, Vasily Mishnin, this week was evidently written in a state of some distress:
4 December. It’s a clear day and there’s a good frost, but my heart is cold. How could I not be worried and anxious after reading the letter I received from Nyura today. She is suffering for herself and for me, my poor little one. She is pregnant again and all on her own. She has so many worries she says she would be sinning if she went to see the midwife [to have an abortion]. My poor Nyura, you never imagined when you married me that you would suffer like this? But it isn’t my fault that we’ve been given so little time together.
I am out of my wits. What if something happened to her, please save her, dear Lord. I love her with all my soul and I worship her. No, take these thoughts away from me, dear Lord, let my poor one be healthy and let this problem be the last one, never ever to be repeated. And what if she dies? No, no, I cannot write any further.
Others used different tools to ponder the human spirit, and to record the assaults placed upon it by war. On 1st December, Grant Richards published Bullets And Billets. This was the first autobiographical effort of the extraordinary Bruce Bairnsfather who had begun depicting life at the front in cartoons, which often featured his walrus-moustached invention “Old Bill”.
The foreword explained very simply why this was such an important publication:
Down South, in the valley of the Somme, far from the spots recorded in this book, I began to write this story. In billets it was. I strolled across the old farmyard and into the wood beyond. Sitting by a gurgling little stream, I began, with the aid of a notebook and a pencil, to record the joys and sorrows of my first six months in France. I do not claim any unique quality for these experiences. Many thousands have had the same. I have merely, by request, made a record of my times out there, in the way that they appeared to me.
He also described being wounded in April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres:
I lay in a filthy stagnant ditch covered with mud and slime from head to foot. I suddenly started to tremble all over. I couldn’t grasp where I was. I lay and trembled… I had been blown up by a shell… How I ever got back I don’t know. I remember dragging myself into a cottage, in the garden of which lay a row of dead men. I remember someone giving me a glass of water there, and seeing a terribly mutilated body on the floor being attended to. And, finally, I remember being helped down the Wieltj road by a man into a field dressing station. Here I was labelled and sent immediately down to a hospital about four miles away… In three days I was back in England at a London hospital — ‘A fragment from France’.
The fame of the cartoons was widespread. The resilience, sense of humour and doggedness of the characters in them seemed to articulate something both profound and heartening and, such was Bairnsfather’s reputation, the first edition of 50,000 copies of Bullets and Billets sold out within a week.
A rather different kinof book, also just published, had been inspired by the so-called Madonnas of Pervyse. Elsie Knocker, now the Baroness T’Serclaes, and her friend, Mairi Chisholm had continued their work with Belgian soldiers near the Front for the past two years. The Cellar-House of Pervyse: A Tale of Uncommon Things was an “authorised” book about their exploits, written by Geraldine Mitton. It had arrived in the shops in November, timed for the Christmas market. The Manchester Guardian described it as “a record of a harebrained but astonishingly heroic adventure of two English girls… and few individual achievements in this war can outshine that which is herein recorded”. The Evening Standard claimed that it was “an incredible tale” and that “no women can have faced death such hundreds of times”.
The royalties covered the cost of a new motor bike – more of a necessity than a luxury, given that the two women’s ability to make a difference to the men they supported required them to move around a great deal and often at speed. They also celebrated the book’s publication with a special dinner for their Belgian officer friends. Held in Rabelaar Hut, one of the wooden huts they had built in the autumn, they gave everything on the menu a resonant name: potages aux tomates à l’eau d’Yser, Filet de sole au Canal de Loos, poulet au Rabelaar, petit pois aux mitrailleuses, truffles à la Pervyse. Cakes, fruits and dessert followed, all washed down with liqueurs and champagne.
It was a far cry from their usual diet – but also rather uplifting: after all they had seen and known, an appetite for life and the instinct for celebration remained.