Like A Meteor


For the French anyway. They attacked the Germans on 23rd October, and advanced two miles across a six-mile front.

These were distances unimaginable to the British just now, and the French capped their success by taking 11,000 prisoners and 129 guns over the next two days, and beating the Germans into a retreat across the Aisne Canal.

It was one of the most spectacular French victories of the war — made all the sweeter for having happened in the Chemin des Dames region where they had suffered so ignominiously during the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive. There was an additional satisfaction, too, that it came under Pétain’s watch — Pétain, who had been earlier shunted aside for Nivelle.

For the British, douceur was conspicuous only by its absence. Fighting around Poelcappelle and Houthulst dominated the first days of the week. The British hurled at them everything they could, but German resistance was implacable: on 23rd October, there were seven enemy counterattacks within one period of 24 hours, each — ultimately — unsuccessful.

Three days later, there came a new Allied attack near Ypres. Twenty thousand men of the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions advanced up the hills of the salient, while the British advanced on the main ridge towards Passchendaele and the French took the village of Dvaeibank. On that single day, the Allies suffered over 12,000 casualties — for just a few hundred yards gained. Three Canadians won VCs for their bravery that day, but one suspects this was scant consolation.

The mercilessness of the weather had intensified, over many weeks, the horror of the offensive.

Major Neil Fraser-Tytler of the 150th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, recalled:

While we were trying to locate our new front lines a Hun machine gun gave us a burst and we went to ground in the lip of a large crater filled with the usual reddish coloured slimy water. The Hun was shelling all around and a shell, luckily a dud, landed plumb in the water beside us, causing a great upheaval of slime. Then suddenly out of the depths there arose a hideous helmet-clad head — a dead Hun with features contorted in a ghastly grin and one arm outstretched, attempting as it were, to pull us into the mire also, and then slowly sank back into the loathsome depths from whence he came.

Field Marshall Ludendorff wrote later:

It was no longer life at all. It was mere unspeakable suffering.

And even Haig, the most outwardly unemotional commander of the lot, acknowledged that “The 7th Division were really engulfed in mud in some places….

Historians, like commanders, have sometimes sought to make a virtue out of a necessity, or to fashion a field of courage out of — to use the words of one Royal Engineer — “a porridge of mud”. The British Official History stressed the doughty persistence of troops, unquestioningly following orders and fighting in appalling surroundings:

That the attacks ordered were so gallantly made in such conditions stands to the immortal credit of the battalions concerned.

At their best, soldiers in all armies embodied these fine words. Arthur “Oc” Asquith’s Hood Battalion, for instance, part of the 58th Division, was in the heat of the action on 26th October, trying to advance over ground which the enemy bombardment had reduced to “a mass of shell-holes, flooded to a depth of several feet”.

During the ferocious fighting that followed, Oc personally reconnoitred positions and, critically, re-established contact with the Canadians. Witnesses testified to his extraordinary bravery as “in the teeth of heavy artillery and machine-gun fire, he [Oc] passed from end to end of the line we were holding and superintended the consolidation of our gains”.

When the battalion was relieved the following night, its losses amounted to only 35 dead and 114 wounded, a fraction of the average of over 500 casualties suffered by each of the other attacking battalions. The result was attributed largely to Oc’s leadership skills in minimising the risks to his men.

Not everybody was Oc, of course. Misery and resentment were widespread as casualties mounted and seemingly pointless attacks were ordered in the mud and the rain. According to Private Mark Yewdall of the London Regiment:

All this warfare pleases the Germans. They mow us down and have hardly any men there themselves… What a wicked thing it is to order an advance at this time of the year. It is simply driving men to their death — to gain a few yards.

Alongside Yewdall’s despair, one senses no grasp of any wider strategy and no faith that he and his comrades-in-arms were anything more than cannon fodder. Oc, by contrast, was supremely clued-up and believed utterly that Britain was worth fighting for and dying for.

The same, of course, might be said of Lieutenant Colonel Feilding of the Connaught Rangers, whose letter home on 27th October testifies to this — in a characteristically charmingly unselfconscious way — in the telling of a remarkable story:

Two nights ago Roche-Kelly’s battalion — on my immediate left — caught two German prisoners going the unexpected way. They had escaped from a French prisoners-of-war camp, and, though dressed in German uniform, were trying to make their way through our lines, back to their own.

This, I may say, is an almost impossible thing to do, besides being extremely dangerous, for the adventurer runs the imminent risk of being shot or bayoneted, not only by our people, but by his own. Therefore I regard these men as sportsmen. One was very sore at being caught. He said he had been fifteen years in the Army and wanted to go on fighting. The other, I gather, was a lesser kind of man, and did not carry it off with the same bravado.

French success notwithstanding, this was a week in which the Central Powers could afford to preen a little. Russia was dying by inches, and the Italians were beaten into a pulp at Caporetto.

There are several misconceptions about the Italians’ part in the war in general, and during this battle in particular. It is not true, as many have claimed, that they had been mainly losing the war until now. In the previous eleven battles of Isonzo, they had held their own against Austrian forces. Nor is it true that now, all of a sudden, the Austrians suddenly recovered their military mojo.

The victory here belonged to the Germans. Advised by the Austro-Hungarian Commander-in-Chief, Arz von Straussenberg, that earlier Italian attacks were sapping resources, German High Command diverted seven German divisions and a large amount of artillery from the Eastern Front — enough to require the services of 2,400 military trains. Secrecy was strictly observed and, by 22nd October, German troops, many specially trained for mountain warfare, were in place and ready to launch their offensive.

In lending this assistance, the Germans were not merely being thoughtful. The new Emperor, Karl, seemed more than ready to contemplate peace with Italy, if he could do so on decent terms. This was a prospect which spelled strategic mayhem to the Germans, who would now be vulnerable to attack from the south as well as from the west.

So it was that, on 24th October, after a two-day delay due to bad weather, despite the fog, the German commander of the new Fourteenth Army, General Otto von Below, opened his attack at 2 a.m. by firing 2,000 gas shells, followed by mortar and artillery bombardments and machine gunfire directed at the Italian first and second lines. Having no proper protection against the gas, the defence imploded fast and by 9a.m. the village of Caporetto had been captured by Prussian troops and the Italian Second Army was routed. Ten thousand prisoners were taken.

Austro-Hungarian troops passing Italian wreckage, en route to Udine, October 1917

But that was just the start. Caporetto owes its infamy not to what had just happened, but to what now followed. During the retreat, which began the next day, the Germans mopped up, bagging (they claimed) a further 30,000 prisoners and 300 guns. On 26th October, the Bainsizza Plateau was evacuated, chalking up a further 60,000 prisoners and 500 guns. Then, on 27th October, the town of Cividale, west of Isonzo, went up in flames which yielded another 80,000 prisoners. By the next morning, the retreat had become a stampede. An attempt was made to round up deserters but, by now authority had broken down and Italian forces succumbed to the brutality of desperation, kangaroo courts and random executions. By nightfall, the Austrians had occupied Gorizia and the Germans claimed another 100,000 prisoners and 700 guns.

Fitness, as well as willpower, played a part in the victory. A young German officer, Leutnant Erwin Rommel, and his battalion were part of an attempt to take Italian positions on three mountains: Kolovrat, Matajur and Stol. In 52 hours, from 25th  to  27th October, without any sleep, they climbed those peaks, and took 9,000 prisoners — with the loss of only six dead and thirty wounded. His own role was acknowledged through the award of Germany’s highest honour, Pour Le Mérite — rarely bestowed upon a mere Leutnant. Always an imaginative opponent, Rommell now perfected a technique of getting behind enemy lines and surprising the Italians while they were distracted by a frontal attack. He claimed to have found very little appetite to carry on the fight.

Rommel wearing his Pour Le Mérite

On 28th October, the Italian commander, General Cadorna, issued a communiqué:

A violent attack and the feeble resistance of detachments of the Second Army permitted Austro-German forces to pierce our left wing on the Julian front. The valiant efforts of other troops were not successful in preventing the enemy from penetrating to the sacred soil of our Fatherland.

This was a disaster. More than a quarter of a million Italian soldiers were casualties, of whom 10,000 were killed and around 200,000 taken prisoner. In four days Italy had lost every square inch of ground gained during the previous two and half years. Boselli was replaced as Premier by Signor Orlando, while the British and French grimly confronted the strategic implications of their ally’s collapse.

Lloyd George telegraphed his CIGS, Robertson:

…unless the Italian morale is restored this movement may well end in overwhelming disaster… We must help them…

Robertson agreed to send two divisions immediately and the French four, though it would take ten days before they were ready.

Italian prisoners after Caporetto

If the Italians’ future participation in the war was looking uncertain, what of the Russians? Rumours were now being spread by the Petrograd Soviet that Kerensky was preparing “to surrender Petrograd, the main fortress of the revolution, to the Germans”.

The potency of such an idea is hard to overstate. In effect, Petrograd’s citizens were being invited to choose between foreign occupation (one in which the bogey-status of the Kaiser was hammed up to the utmost) or a workers’ state, in which all power would be transferred to the Soviets, which would seek an immediate armistice and then negotiate peace terms.

A more credible leader than Kerensky might have persuaded its citizens that nothing was so simple. Alas, there was no such person. Meantime, the German presence around Riga and the bombardment of Kuno island by its navy gave credence to the urgency of the moment, while the Petrograd Soviet also ordered supplies of newspapers in German and Polish for distribution at the front so the German forces could learn more about the Russian revolution and its current aftermath.

For the Bolsheviks, the dilemma was whether to risk the political capital they had accumulated since the ignominy of the July Days and seize power now — or to wait. Lenin was baying for action with not a moment’s delay. Stalin, his increasingly powerful acolyte, supported the idea, declaring on 26th October:

Power to the Soviets means a thorough cleansing of any and all governmental agencies, from back to front and top to bottom. Power to the Soviets means the dictatorship of the proletariat and revolutionary peasantry.

The following day, he derided the “bourgeois Provisional Government” for:

…slapping us with false promises that they are not planning to flee Petrograd and surrender the capital.

Again one sees the adroitness of tuning into public fear. Petrograd’s citizens, after centuries of aristocratic oppression, were predisposed to believe that — when push came to shove — there would be one rule for the privileged caste, and another for them, and that the Provisional Government would be ready to abandon the city if that was what it took to save their own hides.

Evidence of civil breakdown was accumulating.The head of the British Military Mission, Albert Knox, recorded seeing “2,000 to 3,000 soldiers busily engaged in selling boots and clothing to civilians”. In the course of 1917, the British had sent three million pairs of boots to Russia, in the passage of which their sailors had risked their lives at the hands of German U-boats. Knox protested to the Minister of War, but one suspects without much hope in his heart. The spirit of the times, in Russia, had moved very sharply left.

Nahezdha Krupskaya, the formidable wife of Lenin, noted on 29th October:

There was an extended session of the Central Committee… Lenin’s resolution [for an immediate uprising] won the majority of votes — 19 votes,2 were against, 4 abstained. The issue was decided. At the closed session of the Central Committee a Military Revolutionary Centre was established.

Krupsykaya — not a soft touch

It was one of the key moments of the twentieth century, some would say: ideological purity and pragmatic calculation both supported launching an immediate coup d’etat. On 29th October, Stalin wrote:

They say that we need to wait for an attack by the government, but we have to understand what can be construed as an attack. An increase of bread prices, a despatch of Cossacks to the Donetsk region, etc., all this is an attack. How long should we wait if there is no military attack? What Kamenev and Zinoviev are suggesting, objectively, allows the counter-revolution to prepare to organise. We will retreat constantly and will lose the revolution.

In that last sentence there lies an inkling of the future terror he would unleash against his fellow Bolsheviks.

On the same day in Moscow, the philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, wrote despairingly:

The nation has brought itself to suicide… An evil envy towards one’s neighbour, whether material or spiritual, lies at the foundation of Russian democracy.

Many aristocrats, doubtless believing that discretion was the better part of valour, were getting out of Russia while they still could. The remainers prepared to hunker down, often finding themselves buffeted by a chill financial wind. On 24th October, Prince Gavril Konstantinovich wrote:

I went to the Marble Palace to visit Mama… Money was tight, and we were forced to sell some of our things. A Muscovite merchant bought one particularly fine album of Alexander II’s coronation for 50,000 roubles.

Money wasn’t the only problem:

In the evening of the feast day of our regiment I put on my uniform. I very much desired to celebrate the important day by being in uniform. I dared not, however, go outside, as those in epaulettes were much harassed.

Prince Gavril Konstantinovich, sporting his epaulettes

The preoccupations of the former Tsar were characteristically centred on his family who, he noted, had already spent two months in captivity in the house in Tobolsk. The Tsarina fretted about their frail haemophiliac heir, Alexei:

Baby’s toe hurts to walk. It is swollen so he lies on my sofa and has his lessons in my sitting room.

How a mother refers to her sick child is undeniably her business. Still — Alexei was thirteen years old by now. The impression of the Tsarina as ineffably neurotic is hard to shake off.

The Tsarevich Alexei

Altogether more game (and, in most respects, with fewer problems), Cynthia Asquith divided her time this week with her usual dizzy round of socialising, including a visit to D H Lawrence and his wife:

28th October …I bicycled to Mecklenburg Square to lunch with the Lawrences. They have had a very handsome bed sitting room lent to them, but they are both pining for their Cornwall cottage. They cooked an excellent omelette by the fire, and we lunched off that plus sardines and pears. He was sore and aggressive, but accused me of being even gloomier. As a matter of fact, I am feeling much better after my temporary collapse.

And then it was time to whizz off (presumably also on her bicycle) to see Brigadier Freyberg:

Freyberg’s bedside atmosphere was a very sharp contrast. He has been awfully ill. They feared not only for his leg but for his life. He is much better now, though chafing at the prospect of another two months at least in bed…

Freyberg was luckier than Arthur Rhys-Davids. The young ace, who had only flown in France since March 1917, had managed to clock up 27 victories, and to pick up a DSO, MC and bar during that time. Now his luck ran out. He disappeared on 27th October chasing enemy fighters in the vicinity of Passchendaele, and was last seen going down in a steep dive.

A terrible period of waiting ensued for his distraught mother. It would be December before a German note was dropped in the British lines, confirming his death.

Cecil A Lewis, a fellow pilot in the 56th Squadron, heard the news while on leave in London:

Was this boy the hero of half a hundred fights? I could not reconcile the strange division, till one day, when I had praised him, he shrugged his shoulders: it was our job, he said, we ought to do it well, but when peace came, we would do better. When peace came! I hope the gunner…  shot him clean, bullet to the heart, and that his plane, on fire, fell like a meteor through the sky he loved. Since he had to end, I hope he ended so. But oh, the waste! The loss.

Arthur Rhys-Davids (far right) with members of 56 Squadron, 1917. The little girl whose hand he holds was Thais Marson, the Recording Officer’s daughter.


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