What did commanders in the West think they were up to? It can be the hardest of all things to understand.
Back in 1916, the big thinking had been that enough hard slogging might weaken the enemy front. More recently, and even more disastrously, Nivelle had believed he could win a sudden and spectacular victory. Now came a re-think.
And with good reason. The war was going disastrously at sea and Britain faced starvation. That piled on the pressure. Then there was the fact that Russia, the key protagonist in the Entente’s war effort in the East, had come to a virtual military standstill.
When the War Cabinet met on 1st May, Lloyd George said that Pétain’s new plan to remain on the defensive until 1918, at which point American help would arrive, had “some appeal” for him. It had no appeal for Haig and Robertson who protested that passivity was just what the Germans wanted. It would make the Allies look frightened, would encourage Germany to turn aggressive, and give them a breathing space in which to crush Russia and Italy. In other words, they said, if we were to be at war we must make war. Milne wrote to Robertson on 1st May saying, “Our object is not primarily the direct defence of French soil, but to win the war and secure British interests.”
What were the best next steps? Jellicoe had argued that it was vital to deprive Germany of the naval bases on the Channel coast and the South African general, Smuts, insisted that France should take over more of the line. The Allied generals agreed that,
our object can be obtained by relentlessly attacking with limited objectives, while making the fullest use of our artillery. By this means we hope to gain our ends with the minimum loss possible.
Future operations would, in other words, not endeavour to break the German line but would aim at “wearing down and exhausting the enemy’s resistance”.
“Relentless attack” amounted to a policy of attrition as, even if the German line were not broken, “we might bring them to a frame of mind in which they would agree to a peace on terms which would be acceptable to the Allies”. It was agreed the BEF would lead the next great offensive with the French in support.
For Lloyd George, this meant a volte-face. He had previously - noisily – championed Nivelle and slapped down Haig. At the Paris Conference on 4th-5th May, he seemed a man transformed. As Esher informed Haig:
He has entirely changed his point of view as to the respective merits of the chiefs of the Allied army, their staffs, and powers of offence. It is almost comic to see how the balance has turned. For the moment I do not think you could do wrong.
On 3rd May, Haig’s diary recorded that:
At 9.30pm I saw the Prime Minister with Gen. Robertson… He is here, he says, to press whatever plan Robertson and I decide on. Rather a changed attitude for him to adopt since the Calais Conference.
Haig recorded that the Prime Minister
made two excellent speeches in which he stated that he had no pretensions to be a strategist, that he left that to his military advisers, that I, as C. in C. of the British Forces in France had full power to attack where and when I thought best. He did not wish to know the plan, or where and when any attack would take place. Briefly he wished the French Government to treat their Commanders on the same lines…
Was this all an act on the part of the P.M.? If so, Haig was taken in. He recorded in his diary on 6th May:
The P.M… seemed quite converted in his views about the British Army, was loud in its praises, and heartily congratulated me on the success of my operations! If we had been ‘held up’ like the French, he does not know that would have happened!
In strategic terms, this amounted to a subordination of the French to the British in the Western theatre.
Lloyd George’s apparent flexibility may have owed more to desperation than revelation. At the end of March, Balfour had warned him that if Britain failed to overcome the U-boat threat “…we must play for an early peace, as honourable as we can make it”. Judged by the previous seven days, the U-boat threat was more menacing to Britain’s survival than ever. At least 123 Allied and neutral ships were sunk. SS Transylvania, a passenger ship now serving as a troop transport, was en route from Marseille to Alexandria packed with Allied troops to serve in Egypt when it was torpedoed by U-63 off Savona in the Gulf of Genoa. Twelve crew, 29 army officers and 373 soldiers were killed. Many bodies were recovered and were given an honourable funeral and buried in a special cemetery plot in Savona. Locals there were amazed at survivors all saying they would continue to serve as combatants.
Quite apart from the traumatic loss of life, the spectre of starvation in Britain felt very real just now. Devonport’s scheme of voluntary rationing clearly had had little impact. As part of the psychological preparation for compulsory rationing, the King’s Proclamation on 2nd May was dedicated to leaving citizens in no doubt whatsoever as to the gravity of Britain’s food situation. The King urged his people to slash their consumption of bread by a quarter. This, given the dearth of affordable alternatives and the fact that bread enjoyed a unique importance in the British working class diet, was an immense ask. Nothing less, in fact, than a civilian call-to-arms.
News of the Royal Proclamation certainly proved unnerving to some on the Front. Second-Lieutenant Edward Chapman of the 20th Royal Fusiliers was shortly to go on leave. In rather plaintive terms, he now wrote home:
Shall we have MEATLESS DAYS? If so I think I will stay out here! Today we have had new potatoes, and fresh cauliflower! And I have drunk red wine of the best. If I come home shall I have to dig potatoes?
There may have been more irony in the enquiry than words alone convey. Quite apart from monotony of food available, budgeting had become a nightmare for people of ordinary means. The Board of Trade had estimated in March that the cost of living for working class families had risen by 65% since the start of the war, but that the price of food alone had risen by 92%.
Nor was food the only headache for Britain’s rulers. Although Russia’s status as an ally was insisted upon in all official circles, the story on the ground was very different. French Ambassador Paleologue kept a careful note of the assorted processions and meetings which, since the fall of the Tsar, seemed to have become part of daily life in the capital. On 29th April, wounded soldiers paraded, who:
came in their thousands to protest against the pacifist theories of war. At their head was a military band, and the front file carried scarlet banners inscribed thus: ‘War for Liberty to our last breath!’ or: ‘Let not our glorious dead have died in vain!’ or: ‘Look at our wounds! They call for victory!’ or: ‘The pacifists are disgracing Russia. Down with Lenin!’
…This mournful troop seemed a living embodiment of all the horrors of war and to stand for all that human flesh can endure in the way of mutilation and torture. A religious silence greeted them; heads were bowed as they passed and eyes filled with tears…
Very dignified, no doubt. But hardly a rallying-cry. Paleologue described a different occasion a couple of days later when there was a massive celebration on 1st May, Workers’ Day, being marked in Russia for the first time. The Petrograd Soviet
had decided we shall nationally adopt the Western style [of dates] to fall in time with all the proletariats of all countries and illustrate the international solidarity of the working classes, in spite of the war and the illusions of the bourgeoisie.
The holiday was rich in symbolism – not just for the so-called fraternity of workers, but because the temporary move from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in the Empire allowed it to be celebrated along with other powers. Thousands gathered on the Champ-de-Mars, with music, flags, and speeches all made by
men of the people, whether wearing the workman’s jacket, the soldier’s greatcoat, the peasant’s sheepskin, the priest’s cassock or the Jew’s gabardine.
Most speeches called for social reform and the partition of land and were listened to with rapt attention. The war was mentioned as “an affliction which will soon end in a brotherly reconciliation”.
Not that reconciliation seemed likely to embrace the former Tsar. Zinoviev told the crowd:
Today is a holiday of socialism, comrades! You made a great feat, you realised a dream for which whole generations of revolutionaries gave their lives; you achieved political freedom, you locked up Nikolai the Bloody. On the day of May 1, we call on you, comrades, to fight for socialism, for the destruction of wage labour, for a full brotherhood.
The man himself seems not to have been unduly perturbed. From the Alexandra Palace, His Imperial Majesty recorded in his diary:
Abroad it’s the 1st May today, so our blockheads decided to celebrate with street processions, musical choirs and red flags…
For all the euphoria such events generated, they could not disguise the lawless condition of the country. Many workers were on strike and public services on Petrograd had all but broken down. The Soviet entreated them in the rhetoric of socialism:
Do not imitate the infamies of the old regime! Do not let your brothers die of hunger!
A fat lot of good that did. The reply came:
No – it is not our pleasure to do so. We are free!
The memoir of Nicholas II’s cousin, Maria Pavlovna recalled:
The streets were carelessly cleaned. Crowds of idle, dissolute soldiers and sailors wandered continually about, while the well-dressed people who owned carriages and cars hid away in their homes. Police were not to be seen. Things ran themselves, and very badly.
Even those of our servants who had been in our service for many years, sometimes even for generations, were influenced by the new currents. They began to present demands, form committees. Few remained faithful to the masters who had in all times taken care of them, pensioned them in their old age, nursed them when they had been sick, and sent their children to school. Petrograd frightened me.
If the cities were bad, it was worse elsewhere. The credibility of officers in the army had virtually broken down – officers were recruited overwhelmingly from the ranks of the elite, after all, and this was a bad time for toffs. Russia, as a military machine, had virtually ceased to function: over 1,200,000 deserters were now wandering around the country, taking over and re-routing trains. Civilian transport was becoming impossible.
As always, these larger narratives of war become more meaningful when seen through the prism of individual experience. The increasing ferocity and deadliness of aerial war was perceived acutely this week after it was reported that the great ace Leefe Robinson had been killed in action on 5th April, when his plane had been brought down near Mericourt by a member of von Richthofen’s Jasta 11 squadron.
Robinson was a huge national star who, back in September 1916, had shot down the first airship to be destroyed over Britain. The feat had dazzled the public imagination and his subsequent celebrity made the authorities anxious to keep him safe. Robinson would have none of that, however, and had insisted on returning to the Front.
In fact, he was not dead but in a prisoner-of-war camp in Freiburg-im-Breisgau. From here he wrote to his parents:
We are really very comfortable here and altogether a very lazy crew. I have two other officers in my room, both of whom are receiving parcels so we feed awfully well, and start off with a regular English breakfast of porridge and bacon every morning and sausages when we can get them. I’ve got things going here a bit by now. We’ve formed a committee and I’ve started a library of English books — we’ve already got just over 100 books. We are also getting up a sports club, and hope to get a club room out of the German authorities which we’ll fit up as comfortably as we can.
So you see life is quite pleasant here although of course one gets awfully sick sometimes when you think that if things had been a little bit different we would still be on the other side of the wire doing something instead of slacking here out of it all as it were!
The tenor of this is all a bit too John Buchan to be quite believable. Perhaps it is better understood as the laudable efforts of a loving 21-year-old son to put on a brave face for his parents. Perhaps mindful of this, as well as of the censors, he opted not to mention that he was already involved in tunnelling – the first of his many escape attempts.
With Robinson imprisoned, public devotion in Britain focused increasingly on another fighter ace, the 20- year-old, handsome and enigmatic Captain Albert Ball, DSO, MC. Since his return to the front on 7th April, he had already destroyed twelve enemy aircraft. Given the frequency and intensity of combat, the odds against his survival were never going to be good.
On 7th May, disaster struck. Flying north of Lens, he was among 17 British flyers who ran into a swarm of enemy aircraft, among which was Richthofen’s much-feared Jasta 11 squadron, which included Lothar von Richtofen. During the dogfight which ensued, Ball’s aircraft disappeared from sight. He had captured the hearts as well as the imagination of many, and the news that he was missing in action created deep sorrow.
Lothar’s brother, meanwhile, the famous Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen, spent 2nd May at the Kaiser’s Headquarters in Bad Kreuznach. He wrote later that he
would never have dreamed that on my 25th birthday I would sit at Hindenburg’s right hand and be mentioned in a speech by the Field-Marshall.
By now he had amassed 52 kills to his name – but the birthday would be his last.
A less grandiose drama, but still poignant, had played out on the Western Front a day earlier. On 1st May, Wilfred Owen’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Luxmoore, observed the poet-soldier behaving strangely. Owen received orders to report to the Battalion Medical Officer and, in consequence, wrote the following day to his mother from the 13th Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly:
Here again! The Doctor suddenly was moved to forbid me to go into action next time the battalion go, which will be in a day or two. I did not go sick or anything, but he is nervous about my nerves, and sent me down yesterday — labelled Neurasthenia. I still of course suffer from the headaches traceable to my concussion. This will mean that I shall stay here and miss the next Action Tour of Front Line; or even it may mean that I go further down & be employed for a more considerable time on Base Duty or something of the sort. I shall now try and make my French of some avail… having satisfied myself that, though in Action I bear a charmed life, and none of woman born can hurt me, as regards flesh and bone, yet my nerves have not come out without a scratch. Do not for a moment suppose I have had a ‘breakdown’. I am simply avoiding one.
He seemed anxious to reassure her and belittle his own sufferings – another good son.
The letters of Lieutenant Colonel Rowland Feilding of the Connaught Rangers are all characterised by depth and wisdom. Being an older man and writing to his wife seems to have allowed him to write with less restraint:
May 5 Another glorious summer day. After breakfast I walked round the Nuns’ garden [at Locre in Belgium]. It was the first time I had been there. In one corner is a shrine to the Blessed Virgin — a sort of miniature Grotto of Lourdes. In front of this is a flower-bed ,in the centre of which — planted over and surrounded by flowers — is the grave of a Canadian private soldier, beautifully cared for by the Nuns, with his name and number on a polished brass plate, fixed to a cross which marks the head. Should it be my fate not to survive this war, I cannot imagine a more pleasant resting-place, and, if I get the opportunity, I shall mention this to the Reverend Mother.
His concerns seem to have been far more on his wife’s worries than his own:
May 6th [Now in reserve at Butterfly Farm, near Locre.] I am afraid you are having a trying time, what with servant troubles and worries about food for the children, and I cannot express how much I feel for you.
The rigours of the Home Front were shared widely. Even Cynthia Asquith, the daughter-in-law of the former PM, was struggling to appear on time as a sitter for portrait painters:
May 7th Had the utmost difficulty in getting on to my bus at nine o’clock to go to McEvoy. I fought like a beast, but others fought more successfully and I failed to get on three consecutive ones. Arrived late at the studio…
The artist had his own preoccupations, it appeared:
McEvoy seemed rather overtired and nervy. He has been called up for re-examination before a medical board. He implied that he would be glad to fight, but as there was no chance of that he hoped he would be left to paint in peace, rather than put in an office.