Life Worth Living

French refugees, 1918

GERMAN COMMANDERS KNEW, really. In their heart of hearts.

The fighting was still ferocious and bloody, but the enemy was no longer making the kinds of gain which could vindicate the appalling risk they were running. By week’s end, on 29th April, Ludendorff and German Headquarters had called off Operation Georgette.

“The situation is never so bad, nor so good, as first reports indicate” — those were Haig’s words and they were shown now to be correct.

Measured in terms of blood and guts spilled, however, the British had nothing to crow about. Over 10,500 British and Dominion servicemen were killed in action, or wounded, this week. The figures were far grimmer for the last 40 days of the offensive: 9,704 British officers and 230,089 other ranks were dead, wounded or taken prisoner. The last category accounted for some 70,000 alone. The French, whose more limited involvement was the subject of much dark muttering in British lines, lost over 90,000 men, of whom around 15,000 had been captured.

News that a loved one had been captured alive was, relatively, a source of relief for a family. For High Command, it was a bind: prisoners were lost to the war effort, but still a charge on the nation. Both the British and French were acutely worried about their thinning reserves. Their only consolation was that, for the Germans, it was worse.

Neither side, of course, advertised their shortages too noisily. Nobody wished to bring comfort to the enemy. Indeed, there seems to have been an element of smoke and mirrors even when discussing them with allies. General Pershing arrived in England on 22nd April and recorded in his diary for the following day:

Went to the Ministry of Munitions to see Mr Winston Churchill. He had nothing special to say. Stated that he has enough guns to replace another loss like they had in the recent offensive… that the Germans attacked one month later than they were expected to, therefore the British were one month ahead in ammunition.

General John Pershing

Really? These boasts of ample sufficiency seem odd when set against so many co

ntemporary accounts of shortages. Churchill, back in office after a spell in the trenches, was supposed to be keeping a low profile. One detects the prickliness of his manner — a refusal to admit that the Old World might ever come to depend upon the New. Indeed, when Pershing had dined the previous evening at The Savoy, munificence seems to have been the order of the day. According to his diary:

Was somewhat annoyed because the orchestra struck up ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as I entered restaurant; everyone stood up and made me feel conspicuous. A very gay place and little like anything I have ever seen in France — people very dressed up and no signs of food shortages. We had oysters, soup, salmon, chicken, asparagus and soufflé, all on a regular menu card.

Back in France, the shortage uppermost in the mind of French Premier Clemenceau, who met Pershing on 26th and 27th April, was that of men. How many American divisions were going to help the French, he wanted to know? And how many were being sent to the British? The clear suggestion was that the British did not need them — they already had, he was told, about “100,000 men in England in the depots, 700,000 of which are good for service in France”.

French suspicion was palpable: they, and not the British, had borne the brunt of losses since 1914 and they had seen their country invaded and despoiled.

Pershing set out to reassure frayed nerves. For all Churchill’s boasts, and for all the fine dining at The Savoy, he was not fooled. The British military cupboard was virtually bare. He told them straight  — “ the British have practically no reserves at all in England”.

For those in France, however, the focus of much of the week’s fighting was Villers-Bretonneux, a town ten miles east of Amiens. On 24th April, it was attacked by the Germans in the only genuine tank battle of the war — both sides mustering thirteen tanks apiece.

Lieutenant Ledward’s 23rd Brigade suffered terribly in the opening onslaught:

At Villers-Bretonneux the battalions were decimated in six hours by the perfectly infernal bombardment. Very few prisoners were taken. The German tanks… moved over our trenches and enfiladed them so that the wretched defenders were rendered defenceless and stood helplessly to be mown down. But it was the bombardment that did the worst damage. That was a truly ghastly business.

That day, the British lost the town — only for it to be re-taken by one British and two Australian brigades the very next day — propitiously, given that it was also the third anniversary of Anzac Day. Their success more or less brought to a halt the German advance on the Amiens front.

Lieutenant Ledward was staggered by the fitness and bravery of the Australians with whom he fought. They had, after all:

…only been out of the line for four days and they had to march twelve miles to reach the battle area. The line of attack selected for them was oblique to their old front and through very thick country. The Germans opposed to them were shock troops and had had an easy passage and must have been in good fettle. The night was dark and the actual situation of the enemy was only known in places.

Yet the attack was completely successful. Not only was Villers-Bretonneux retaken but the new line was established beyond where the old line had been, and a lot of prisoners and guns were captured.

It was the most wonderful performance of which I had direct knowledge during my service. At their own request they had no barrage or support of any kind from the artillery. They just went forward, each man for himself, in the way that only they had mastered.

The danger with that kind of reminiscence is that it can make a successful outcome seem just a matter of willpower. At the same time, it is salutary: fitness, toughness, and self-belief were each part of the armoury of war.

Villers-Bretonneux, April 1918

The shifting frontiers of war exerted a high cost on French civilians. Hundreds of refugees blocked roads, impeding the passage of troops, their plight deeply upsetting British soldiers of a more sensitive disposition. For those who had befriended locals — perhaps through being billeted in their homes, or drinking at the estimanet, a sense of guilt now added to the daily burdens of war. A poignant letter on the subject was written on 28th April by Major John Lyne of the Royal Field Artillery:

The reddest horror of the battlefield grows smaller by comparison with what war brings to these poor inhabitants. People in England imagine that all the terrors of war are theirs when an air raid comes, but they have never seen the stark misery we saw a fortnight ago. Things were so sudden, so hopelessly unexpected, and those who should have given warning had none themselves. Even in our first position, people would come weeping to us to know if they should go or stay, and we couldn’t tell them.

They looked to us for help we couldn’t give them, they looked to us to stay the attack while they collected their few belongings and we couldn’t do it…

What I have been telling you is such a pitiably incomplete fragment, just a glimpse here and there of the tragedy of it all, impossible to describe, but never to be forgotten.

And so much of it is our fault, more than they will ever realise, I hope.

Captain Harry Graham felt the same way:

One of the most terrible things about this battle, to my mind, as compared with our other shows, is the awful casualties among civilians. Even the Hun must have felt stirred to loathing when he reached Bac-St-Maur and Estaires and other places and found the bodies of women and children and poor old people lying about the streets…

Gordon Highlanders with a young French boy

And, as was often the case with the British, pity was sometimes fastened onto the animals of war. Gunner Lincoln Godfrey wrote on 24th April from Mailly-Maillet, near the frontline:

My wounded mule is developing tetanus and must be shot. I just now went to say good-bye to him but he gave me such a piteous glance that I had to beat a hurried retreat.

Mailly-Maillet, April 1918

Trouble was — there was too much about which to be sad. We should try also to imagine the reactions of those receiving the postcard written on 23rd April by Private C. Smith of the 7th Bedfordshires:

Just a line to say that I am still in the pink and out of the line, hope you are all well.

So far, so perky. Attached, alas, to the card was the information that he had been killed at Villers-Bretonneux the following day.

It is the jauntiness of these words which, as much as anything, makes the heart lurch. Private Smith sounds to have been still a young man — perhaps a very young one — and there he was, in his final hours of life, spending his meagre leisure by finding the right words to reassure those at home.

So many other families would get similarly devastating news this week — especially those with sons at sea. This was the week of the famed naval raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend. The brainchild of the mercurial, brilliant, but notoriously egocentric, Admiral Roger Keyes, the raid was an attempt to block the entrances to the harbours of both places.

The attractions were obvious: both served as bases for the German Flanders Flotilla, including U-boats. The plans managed to seem both plausible and attractively audacious: an obsolete Royal Navy cruiser would ram the Zeebrugge lock gate and two others would be sunk in a V-shape in the mouth of the canal preventing access. Smoke screens would be launched and a diversionary assault would be carried out on the breakwater, known as The Mole, by Royal Marines. Meanwhile, a submarine filled with explosives would be rammed into the viaduct to prevent reinforcements reaching the Mole.

So much for theory. The raid itself took place from late afternoon on 22nd April and lasted all night. The cruiser HMS Vindictive carried the assault troops to the Zeebrugge Mole while obsolete cruisers, Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia, each filled with concrete, were due to be scuttled at the Bruges canal entrance. In all, 75 vessels set off from different ports, each aiming to converge on Zeebrugge after dark.

Just before midnight Vindictive managed to moor alongside the Mole, and then, as one of the Marines later recalled: “…we got hell. There is no other word to describe it.”

Hell took the form of “a tornado of shells and machine-gun fire”. Able Seaman Abett on the Vindictive recalled:

The guns on the Mole got going, and so did ours, but they had the advantage over us as their searchlights kept us in sight, but ours got blown absolutely to pieces.

The boys were falling right and left, but we still kept on and eventually reached our objective, but minus most of our storming gangways. Those that were left we immediately lowered and, with a cheer ‘over the top’ went our storming parties and then Fritz got a surprise as the bayonets got to work, and ran in all directions.

The landing parties tried to inflict as much damage as possible:

After bombing and setting alight the destroyer, we formed up and forced our way ashore at the point of the bayonet. We charged the gun crews on the beach which had been giving us so much trouble, and after killing a number, dispersed the rest and captured the guns. All around us we could hear the noise of the conflict, the cries and shrieks of the dying and wounded. It was horrible, but our men behaved magnificently.

HMS Vindictive after the Zeebrugge Raid

While the landing parties distracted the Germans, Intrepid and Iphigenia were sunk in the mouth of the canal but Thetis ran aground.

Truth was that the Zeebrugge raid was, at best, only marginally successful: the canal was out of action for a month — a modest respite for the cost of 176 British lives. The assault on Ostend was an even damper squib: two of the raiding ships ran aground.

The public needed a victory, however, and it suited the navy and the newspapers to flaunt it as such. The former, for so long the cradle of British greatness, had singularly failed to live up to its billing since war had broken out, and now — hurrah! — came this display of derring-do and virtuosity. Eight Victoria Crosses were handed down on the men, as well as a host of other decorations, for those who had shown particular gallantry under fire. The New York Tribune claimed,

All that was romantic and adventurous in the traditions of the British Navy lived again in the exploits at Zeebrugge and Ostend. It was the rebirth of the spirit of Nelson and Drake.

The Zeebrugge Raid — in glorious propagandist technicolour

One hundred years later, the gap between perception and actualité feels embarrassingly large. But rescuing morale was not a frivolity in wartime, and Zeebrugge helped.

In Germany, by contrast, grief piled on grief. Much of the country appears to have gone into mourning following the death, the previous week, of Manfred von Richthofen, supreme fighter ace with 80 kills to his name. And the Germans did grief so well. For days, flags flew at half-mast and newspapers were full of black-bordered obituaries and tributes.

Survivors did not always find it easy to enjoy their supposed good fortune. This was certainly true of the pilot claimed by the RAF as Richthofen’s conqueror: Canadian Captain Roy Brown, DSC. He already had nine kills to his credit — a figure which pales by the side of Richthofen’s 80, but was still considerable — and was now awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross. As a letter to his parents makes clear, he had only realised the identity of his victim after he had landed, and then gone to see the body, laid out on a raised platform.

He appeared so small, so delicate. He looked so friendly. Blond, silk-soft hair, like that of a child. His face, particularly peaceful, had an expression of gentleness and goodness, of refinement.

Richthofen in 1917

Suddenly I felt miserable, desperately unhappy, as if I had committed an injustice. With a feeling of shame, a kind of anger against myself moved in my thoughts that I had forced him to lay there… If I could I would gladly have brought him back to life… I could no longer look him in the face. I went away. I didn’t feel like a victor. There was a lump in my throat. If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow.

His fellow Canadian ace, Raymond Collishaw, described Brown’s state of nervous exhaustion:

He had lost 25lbs, his eyes were bloodshot and sunken and his hair was quickly greying… Brown was definitely in a bad way, both mentally and physically. He was both nervous and had lost his nerve.

Captain Roy Brown, DSC

Brown acknowledged that he felt ill, and that he was drinking lots of brandy and milk to counter the nausea and vomiting caused by ingesting castor oil spewed into his face by his Camel’s rotary engine — the kind of detail too easily lost to history. On 27th April, he wrote to his parents again:

I feel just about all done in today the way things have gone. My stomach has been very bad recently and the doctor says if I keep on I shall have a nervous breakdown and has ordered me to stop active service flying.

Like so many good flight commanders, he did not want to desert his team and protested — but to no avail. Too ill to travel home, he was sent to Etaples military hospital.

Far away in Tobolsk, the Romanov family now found themselves in the vortex of both national and personal dramas. As the civil war intensified, their Bolshevik captors were determined to keep them well away from any rescue attempts from the Whites, already uncomfortably close at hand. The obvious solution was a move from Tobolsk to some location more safely in the hands of the Reds.

But then came a complication: the young Tsarevich was ill, and the family did not wish to be split up. Pierre Gilliard, the children’s tutor, noted in his diary on 24th April:

We are all in a state of mental anguish. We feel we are forgotten by everyone, abandoned to our own resources and at the mercy of this man. Is it possible that no one will raise a finger to save the Imperial family? Where are those who have remained loyal to the Tsar? Why do they delay?

The following day, it was decreed that the Tsar and Tsarina would leave, accompanied by one of their daughters, Maria. The remainder of the family would follow whenever the young Tsarevich’s health allowed.

Gilliard’s diary now becomes positively mawkish:

The family have spent the whole afternoon at the bedside of Alexei. This evening at half past ten we went up to take tea. The Tsarina was seated on the divan with two of her daughters beside her. Their faces were swollen with crying. We all did our best to hide our grief and to maintain outward calm. We felt that for one to give way would cause all to break down.

The Tsar and Tsarina were calm and collected. It is apparent that they are prepared for any sacrifices, even of their lives, if God in his inscrutable wisdom would require it for the country’s welfare. They have never shown greater kindness or solicitude. This splendid serenity of theirs, this wonderful faith, proved infectious.

Others might beg to differ. The Tsarina’s own diary for the day records:

Took leave of all our people after evening with all. Sat all night with the children. Baby slept and at 3 went to him till we left. Started at 4.15 in the morning. Horrid to leave precious children.

That endearment ‘Baby’ seems revealing. Alexei was three months shy of his fourteenth birthday. The Tsarina’s obsessive preoccupation with her sick child seems to have dominated everyone’s lives.

The Tsarevich

By way of role reversal, Vera Brittain was now caring for her mother who had suffered “a complete general breakdown” and moved to a nursing home. Summoned home from her nursing work as a VAD at Etaples, she arrived in England in late April. After dealing with hundreds of badly wounded soldiers, the business of caring for her mother threatened to catapult her back into the constricted world of her girlhood and, after the incessant dramas through which she had been living, such a prospect felt dreary and useless.

Her brother, Edward, wrote understandingly to her on 26th April from near Monte Grappa in Italy:

I sympathise with you very much at having to go back just now especially as nobody at home will understand that you particularly wanted to stay where you were… I realise that Mother is ill and not quite as usual but it is most annoying…

By way of an aside, he also included a sober assessment of the military state-of-play:

Incidentally Mother and Father seem to have got it firmly into their heads that the Bosch is going to get the Channel Ports and that we are going to lose the war etc… As a matter of fact we have done extraordinarily well in this Hun push as you will know yourself… Either the Bosch or we had to do a big show and whoever did it stood to lose everything if he failed. We await the counter-offensive.

Two days later, on 28th April, Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, died in prison in Theresienstadt, aged 23. The war which had been unleashed by his trigger-happy hands had evolved out of all recognition from anything which he could have envisioned. In 1914, he had escaped the death penalty because he was still 19 and, under Habsburg law, it could only be given to those over 20. Instead, he had been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment — in his case, a doubtful mercy. He had been held in harsh conditions, contracting skeletal tuberculosis which eroded his bones and resulted in the amputation of his right arm. Malnourished and neglected, he weighed only 6st. 4lb when he died.

Hearkening to an earlier world — The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, minutes before they were murdered in June 1914. Inset: Gavrilo Princip, the assassin

There was no comfort to be drawn here. But, somehow, even oppressed human spirits continued not merely to cling to life but to find reasons to savour it. In France, 2nd Lieutenant Harry Drinkwater was now back with his old platoon, and pushing them and himself hard in digging, sandbagging and reinforcing trenches. His diary was a paean to the psychic relief afforded by sufficient sleep, food and drink — and by nature. He recorded that, once work had ended on the night of 28th April, he had been taken to billets in the Nieppe Forest:

We looked very weird by lamplight. We were covered in mud and dirt and most of us had not had a shave for the last six days. Dog-tired, we turned into sleep one by one; I about 3 a.m., and slept like a log till midday. It was the second time I had taken my boots off since leaving Le Havre.

Later, he wandered around on

a glorious afternoon… It is impossible to describe the feeling of relaxation and safety that comes over one after a period in the front-line trenches, especially under these conditions when, day and night, we expected the Germans to come over en masse and given our emphatic orders that we hold the line to the end and, if unable to hold the line, no man was expected to return.

Now for a short time, that is over and we can stroll about the woods. Childish though it may appear, this liberty of action makes life worth living…

A very early colour photograph taken by French soldiers during the First World War — some countryside, miraculously, remained.