Afternoon sports

A fanciful depiction of the Battle of the Isonzo

THE FAMOUS BOAST of Carlo Alberto, King of Piedmont before 1848, was Italia fara da se  – Italy would “make herself by herself”.

The King had known that there were foreign powers (notably the French) for whom Italian national self-determination offered rich pickings and one motive which underlay his words was the wish for them to butt out.

Such hubris! During that year of revolutions, Italian nationalists proved not to be up to the task they had set themselves and, in consequence, they took a terrible drubbing. By the beginning of 1849, Austria was once again in control of the peninsula.  More than another ten years passed before Italian Unification got seriously underway – and when it did, the French troops of Napoleon III played an indispensable part.

Now, nearly 70 years later, Italia fara da se was even more implausible. During the previous two weeks, the tenth Battle of Isonzo had been raging between Loga and Bodrez in the Plava area. The Italians had done well, having reached the slopes of Monte Santo and chased off the Austrians from Hill 652. But they had needed British assistance, and continued to do so. On 23rd May, with the help of ten British batteries and monitors, they managed a great advance from Kostanjevica to the sea, capturing several important positions and taking 9,000 prisoners. Even with the help of their ally, however, difficulties remained. In bitter fighting on 27th May, they crossed the river Timavo and regained Hill 126, east of Gorizia, but only after 13,000 of their troops had been captured. Still, by the following day, their guns were within ten miles of Trieste and commanders claimed to have taken 24,000 Austrian prisoners in the last fortnight.

Less fanciful: Italian troops with a captured Austrian machine-gun

The wider strategic rationale of these gigantic tussles seems now obscure. Not so at the time. To most Italians, Austria was the historic predator and natural enemy: Habsburgs had exercised ill-defined and often tyrannical rule across much of northern Italy since 1815. Not merely did the ruling House of Savoy now hope to expunge them from the peninsula, once and for all, but also to occupy the South Tyrol.

If all this seems arcane, even self-defeating, the military progress along the Western Front just now was scarcely better than opaque. Confused fighting and smallish actions continued all week but both recent offensives had more or less stalled. On the Vauclere Plateau near Craonne, the Germans attacked early on 23rd May. They were thrown back within a few days, but did rather better on the Chemin des Dames near Braye, making three attacks in Champagne on 26th May.

The British and French seemed able to do nothing better than attempt to dig in. Critics might have called it blundering, but the British had big plans for a summer offensive in Flanders. Trouble was, following the collapse of the recent Nivelle offensive, their commanders were in an agony of apprehension lest French promises of support be so much hot air.

Pétain insisted the reverse was the case. After meeting Haig in Amiens on 18th May, he followed up with a letter to the C-in-C, assuring him of full cooperation. The French, he said, would undertake two offensives: one to take place around 20th June, while British forces were attacking the area around Wytschaete - Messines; the other would be in mid-July, during the British operations north of Ypres.

That sounded good. Sir Henry Wilson, the Anglo-French Liaison Officer, was unconvinced, however. He wrote in his diary:

The old Eeyore: Sir Henry Wilson

Of course, this is quite hopeless. There is no sign of combined operations at all. No mention of the Boches being able to bring over divisions from Russia, no subordination of the French plan to ours, nothing but Haig’s plan and Pétain’s plan, which happen to come off in the same year.

Haig seems to have thought Wilson a bit of an Eeyore, according to his diary:

He [Wilson] would like to see Pétain acknowledge more fully that his position is subordinate to mine… it was Nivelle’s adoption of such an attitude towards me which caused so much friction between our respective Staffs. I told Wilson that the important thing for him is to find out how the orders given by Pétain to his Army Group Commanders are being interpreted — what attacks are being prepared? What do the troops intend to do? Are the attacks to be serious ones on a considerable scale and to last a long time or not?

The questions seem sensible, but rather obvious. What is striking is that Haig seems to have believed answers would be difficult to tease out, even of their closest and most important ally.

While he sought out this intelligence, troops along the Front were variously employed. Lieutenant Colonel Feilding, at Coulomby, wrote this week to his wife:

We have been training, and this keeps me out from early morning to late afternoon, after which I am tempted to ride out and enjoy this glorious part of the country, and enjoy the spring scenery. You will understand what a pleasant contrast our present surroundings are to the ear-splitting, war-torn zone from which we have come…

The other day I went to St Omer, where I lunched with G.H.Q. (Gas Department), and afterwards was shown a very interesting exhibition, which Colonel Foulkes (who has control of these eccentricities of modern warfare) had kindly arranged of the latest and most horrible ways of killing our enemies. It was an instructive afternoon, and there is no doubt that we are already miles ahead of the Germans at their own game… At the rate we are going I think the enemy ought to be beaten very soon.

Horrible ways of killing our enemies: soldiers and mule in gas masks

That mixture of pastoral rhapsody and dystopian horror was a very authentic texture of wartime. On 26th May came a whiff of wholesome Edwardian pleasures:

Tomorrow (Sunday) I have arranged a battalion day; platoon and section competitions on the morning, and in the afternoon sports: — a nice free-from-the-war day for the men and officers, in fact. We have put up jumps, as the programme includes horse-jumping (in which I am going to compete)…

May 27 …In the afternoon we had our sports after all, and many people came. The weather was perfect, and all was a huge success. Moreover we managed to get some English stout and gave each man — the visitors as well as the men of the battalion — a free drink, which gave great satisfaction to all. I won the horse-jumping competition.

Feilding seems to have been sustained by an enviable, if always understated, self-belief. Edwin Campion Vaughan, a 19-year-old subaltern in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was less protected. His diary just now details him as having been at the receiving end of tellings-off from senior officers for a range of minor infractions, all unintended. His chief excitement this week appears to have come from meeting a battery of Australian artillery:

[Their chief] had no collar or tie and his open tunic bore the Australian badge on the lapels… I have been particularly struck by the niceness of the Australians’ conversation. They never swear and their ordinary talk is very gentle and homely, the kind and intelligent discussions contrasting sharply with the coarse or harsh inanities that resound in the messes of most British units. They seem to have tremendous respect and admiration for their skipper too, although they are all so familiar.

One senses strongly he would rather have hung out with this lot than his own. But then these days of waiting to go back into the front line were always stressful:

May 24  We returned to where the MP was on duty… Just past the last house on the left was a small pond, whence protruded the grey-clad knee of a dead German. The water around him was green and on his knee was perched a large rat making a meal.

May 28  The usual ‘day-before’ — inspections, returns of working strength, carting working materials back to HQ etc. There was no excitement as we are familiar with the sector, but I believe my lads are quite pleased to be going back to the wild poppy-covered land of night patrols and daydreams. I know that there is that feeling somewhere in my mind…

Edwin Campion Vaughan

The war in the air this week spawned excitement of just the kind nobody at home wanted. For some time, it had become apparent that Zeppelin raids were virtual suicide missions. Allied pilots had learned a huge amount about how to exploit the Zeppelins’ slowness and lack of manoeuvrability. Among the Germans, this realisation had provoked a search for a new technology –  something less vulnerable to enemy attack.

The fruits of their quest now became apparent in the guise of the massive Gotha IV bombers. These had a wingspan of 77 feet, carried a crew of three and a bomb load of over 600lbs and could travel at a height of around 21,000 feet at a speed of 90 m.p.h. They also carried up to four machine-guns and, flying in formation, would be able to defend themselves against attacking fighters. Confident that the Entente would be confounded, a new campaign of daylight bombing of Britain was decided.

On 25th May, 23 Gothas set off for a daylight raid on London. True, two had to turn back due to mechanical problems and, given the bad weather, the German commander ditched the idea of the remaining 21 getting all the way to London. Instead they headed to Folkestone, an important supply port on the Kent coast, and dropped their bombs on an airfield at Lympne, then on Folkestone itself, before finally launching those that remained on the neighbouring army camp at Shorncliffe.

The Gotha IV

Unfortunately for the British, the Gothas did well. Being new technology, they had big surprise value. Civilians were understandably slow to recognise the planes as German and no air raid warning had been given. Tontine Street in Folkestone bore much of the brunt of the attack: it was a big shopping district and, although the raid lasted only ten minutes, that was long enough to rain down death and destruction. Civilian losses were always especially painful, and this one came at a very grim time. Ninety-five people died in all, and 192 were injured, mainly in the Folkestone area. Beating a rapid retreat home, the Gothas were pursued by RFC and RNAS aeroplanes and the British claimed two or three, although the Germans admitted only to losing one.

The Russians could reasonably claim that many of their civilians were enduring hardship and terror, of course. The obvious rejoinder, however, was that, by now, very little of it was any longer much to do with the war. The British Ambassador to the new Russian Republic, Sir George Buchanan, noted that Kerensky, the new Minister of War, embarked this week upon a tour of the Front, where he was to make “passionate appeals to the patriotism of the soldiers and to galvanize the army into new life…”

Not that Buchanan held out any great hopes of it yielding much:

The Russian soldier of today does not understand for what or for whom he is fighting. He was ready formerly to lay down his life for the Tsar, who in his eyes represented Russia; but now that the Tsar has gone Russia means nothing to him beyond his own village.

That was not very polite, but not far wrong either. Anyway, many Russians no longer knew what they were fighting for. Under the Romanovs, winning control of the Dardanelles and possessing Constantinople had been a driving force. No longer, however. Most soldiers were peasants and most peasants now saw a chance of satiating their land hunger through the expropriation of noble estates. What had that to do with the war?

The Marxist theoretician, Georgi Plekhanov, considered that the reasons for which Russia had entered the war in 1914 no longer had popular resonance. There were big implications to that:

If neither in territory nor in indemnity… can [Russia] be compensated for the enormous expenditure of life and money which a vigorous prosecution of the war will entail… [demands for a separate peace would only increase].

Kerensky would never have admitted it, but he might have agreed. By 24th May, he had visited the Gulf of Finland where the navy was anchored. The Baltic fleet he believed, “has been thoroughly embedded in German spies and Lenin’s agents”.

Russia’s grave weakness threatened everyone  – but, just now, the fate of those most closely associated with the old rulers was particularly frightening. Anna Vyrubova, erstwhile confidante to the Tsarina, now incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress, testified to that:

Three times, drunk soldiers broke into my chamber threatening to rape me and I escaped by a miracle The first time I fell to my knees, holding the icon of the Virgin Mary to my chest, and begged them to spare me for the sake of their mothers, and my elderly parents. They left me. The second time, in my fear I threw myself against the wall, hammering and shouting. Ek.V. heard me and also shouted, until soldiers from some of the other corridors came running… The third time one sentry officer came. I pleaded with him tearfully and he spat at me and left…

Vorubya’s plight was pitiful but, in the wider context of what was happening in the motherland, we can see that she might have had just to take her chances.

Anna Vyrubova

What rights, one might wonder, remain to any citizen when their nation is fighting for its very survival? The idea of all being fair in love and war left a big scope for tyranny of all kinds, and even the British had a taste of that. Horatio Bottomley, one-time Liberal MP turned demagogue editor, was at his bombastic best on just this subject in this week’s John Bull. His polemic was in response to the recently settled engineers’ strikes and addressed to “the Man in the Street”:

…in the present condition of affairs no strike is in any circumstances justifiable. A strike today is an affront to the patriotism of the Empire — a blasphemy against our holy cause. It can have no ‘merits’ — its evil is rank beyond forgiveness; it stinks to Heaven and in the nostrils of all honest men.

And much, much more of the same. This was a populist rant:

…do not, for a moment, think that I attach less blame to employers — be they Government Departments or private firms — who, by harsh regulations, or breach of faith, impose intolerable conditions upon workers and, above all who endeavour to line their filthy pockets with bloodstained gold. Speaking of such people two years ago I said: ‘May their souls writhe in hell for their villainy;’ and I repeat that aspiration…

Pot and kettle come to mind whenever this trickster pontificated on villainy. Bottomley’s was a world in which goodies and baddies wore primary colours.

Horatio Bottomley

Whatever the travails of British workers, worse things happened at sea. Some 80 ships were sunk this week and over 300 lives lost in areas from the Shetlands to the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Bay of Biscay. Many neutral ships were also victims: Norway, Denmark, Spain and Brazil suffered losses, the latter annulling its neutrality decree on 26th May. On the same date, the French Minister of Marine announced that the Germans had sunk 2.4 million tons in the first four months of 1917.

Perhaps grimmest of all, another Red Cross hospital ship, HMHS Dover Castle, travelling from Malta to Gibraltar, was torpedoed by UC-67 in the Mediterranean north of the Algerian coast. The initial explosion killed seven boiler stokers, but the ship was then evacuated and survivors picked up by the destroyer HMS Cameleon.

Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman in Berlin during the war, reflected on this event in her diary in a more carefully nuanced way than anything offered by the press of either country:

Great discussion over the torpedoing of hospital ships, the German view being that they were bogus ones, carrying ammunition and troops hidden on board… I have heard from someone, who is in a position to know, that the orders [to attack] were so worded as to leave too much to the discretion of the commanders, who, in cases where it was impossible to identify the real character of the ship in question, took the benefit of the doubt and acted as their feelings or ambition prompted them.

I met a lady the other day who was actually on board one of the torpedoed hospital ships, and was saved by clinging to a plank. She described something of the ghastly experience, and says she will be haunted to her dying day by the expression of agony on the faces of the helpless wounded men, unable to make the slightest effort to save themselves in their tight bandages, as the waves closed over them.

On 27th May, an unrepentant Germany threatened to sink at sight all hospital ships in the Mediterranean. And the bitterness proved by the downing of the Dover Castle lingered. After the war, the commander of UC-67, Karl Neumann, was tried at the Leipzig War Crimes trial. His defence was that he was obeying orders. The Court upheld his view.

HMHS Dover Castle

Attempts to lay blame for the war’s greater horrors were generally a civilian enthusiasm, and most of these lay in the future. Just now, the most fervent hopes of those at sea was to stay clear of torpedoes. That was certainly in the mind of the VAD nurse,Vera Brittain, who left Malta on 22nd May to brave the journey back to England:

One only hopes for the best; ‘the Gods are not angry forever’, & perhaps for once they will be kind to those to whom they have been so cruel.

There was a deep sadness to her words, and weariness as well. But she had lost neither compassion nor hope:

May 27  Woke up at 5.00 when train stopped at Amiens. Seething crowd of British & French officers & soldiers, most of them in a trench-state. Thought of Roland, Edward & Geoffrey as having been here; don’t think Victor ever was. Felt very near the War. Left Amiens at last, went through Abbeville & Etaples. Etaples seemed one enormous & very dusty camp; we were much cheered by Tommies in a troop train that we passed, & cheered & waved to by the soldiers in the camps along both sides of the railway. Made me very glad I elected to be a nurse & remain one, instead of doing something else.

And, blessedly, a scintilla of amused exasperation seems also to have persisted:

Crossing very good & smooth. It seemed very strange to be in Victoria again; same old crowd round barriers, same old tea-rooms, same old everything. One began to believe one hadn’t really been away.

Victoria Station during the Great War

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