TO TALK OF beginnings and ends, of final victory or defeat, is not nonsense. But it glosses over pertinent truths. For war is a million different conflicts.
The results of these were often not in question: the British had indeed retreated from Mons, the Russians had lost Tannenberg – these, and there were many others. But from the autumn of 1914, the scale of victories and losses began, in the West anyway, to be measured in square feet rather than miles. This grinding attrition dismayed civilians and alarmed commanders.
For soldiers on the front line, however, grand strategy was remote. Friends and comrades were what counted. The intense loyalties which sustained those in action were typically focused upon members of the same company or platoon, for it was they alone who shared times of unalloyed loneliness and danger.
Thus it was that, when the French finally had their day of reckoning with the Germans at Verdun, they did not hold back. Magnanimity was not the order of the day. The final carrier pigeon message sent from German defenders of Fort Douaumont on 24th October 1916 at 12.50 read thus:
The entire combat position in Sector A has been completely smashed by a violent barrage of shells of all calibres which has been raging uninterrupted since 8 o’clock. Some men who escaped the fire indicate that their guns and hand grenades have been buried and that those of the garrison who remain alive are completely incapable of fighting. The whole hillside of Thiaumont, the Albain hilltop, the rear area are also suffering the most violent bombardment.
Under these conditions the position will not be tenable in the event of an enemy attack, the less so since the reserve company at Thiaumomt is in disarray because of men being sent up the line and the losses sustained, and because the combat group commander has in reserve only about five groups who arrived from the Albain ravine. It is absolutely necessary to bring up reinforcements (at least 1 battalion) as quickly as possible and to put our heavy artillery into effective action.
(Signed) — Officer commanding the 1st battalion of the 118th Infantry Regiment
Following the relentless bombardment of Fort Douaumont, most German soldiers had left the fort on 23rd October. The unhappy 20 who remained were under the command of Captain Prollius, whose appeals for reinforcements went unheeded. Before the French attack resumed on the following day, a French officer reported seeing the commander in charge, “Butcher” Mangin with eyes narrowed, licking his lips like a cat and vowing chastisement on the Germans.
Mangin now sent in his famous Regiment d’Infanterie Coloniale du Maroc (RICM) under Major Nicolai. Thick fog concealed them, as, well-rehearsed, they hurled themselves into the trenches. The German counter-bombardment was spirited in the circumstances, but it came too late to save their hide, and position after position fell. By afternoon, the mist lifted and Mangin, at nearby Fort Souville, could see his RICM soldiers on the dome of Fort Douaumont.
Victory, even now, came at a cost, although that fact was passed by in newspaper reports: of the Moroccans, Senegalese and Somalis who composed the RICM, 23 officers and 829 soldiers became casualties in the successful assault on the fort. The French President would decorate its regimental colours with the Cross of the Légion d’Honneur – the first such regiment to be honoured other than for capturing enemy standards.
24 October was the dies mirabilis for the French who, in the course of it, seized back all the ground that the German Crown Prince and his forces had taken four-and-a-half months to gain. The French heaped praise on the man in overall charge, General Robert Nivelle, and the headlines from Le Matin the next morning were euphoric:
Victory at Verdun!
A Magnificent Offensive!
On the Verdun front, after an intense artillery preparation, the planned attack on the right bank of the Meuse was launched at 11.40 a.m. The enemy line was attacked on a seven kilometre-wide front which collapsed everywhere to a depth which at its centre was as much as three kilometres. The village and fort of Douaumont are in our possession. The prisoners flow in: their numbers counted at present have reached three thousand five hundred of which one hundred are officers. The armaments captured have not yet been counted. Our losses are few.
Britain’s reaction to this immense achievement was a little less than joy unconfined, shaded as it was by a tinge of jalousie. After four months of pounding on the Somme, Haig would have loved to have achieved a significant breakthrough/success before the weather deteriorated further, and time in which to do so was running out fast. The rain had already created so much mud that shells were becoming ineffective, either from losing explosive power on landing or, as the mud impeded the action of the fuses, failing to explode at all.
In addition to these travails in the field, nasty office politics obtruded. War Minister, David Lloyd George, had launched an inquiry into how it was that the French had enjoyed such success in (apparently) gaining more ground with fewer casualties than the British. It is not difficult to understand why Haig might have found that provocative. However, it was the choice of the person to head the “fact-finding” mission – the former Commander-in-Chief Sir John French (ennobled as Viscount French of Ypres) – which proved incendiary.
Haig could only grit his teeth as French was now given carte blanche to meet with Foch and other leading French generals, presumably with a view to eliciting from them unflattering comments about Haig.
I would not receive Viscount French in my house. I despise him too much personally for that, but he would receive every attention due to a British Field Marshall.
As ever, Haig was a man of his word. French had returned to England on 15th October, but without visiting Haig at GHQ. The impact of his visit is difficult to assesses, but it is difficult to believe it had any impact on grand strategy. Foch stayed sympathetic to Haig and shared his anxiety to try to break the deadlock before the weather broke completely.
A letter from the great German Expressionist artist, Hermann Max Pechstein, on 26th October rather reinforces the idea that, for numbers of Germans fighting on the front line, the British on the Somme had achieved nothing as spectacular as, say, the French at Verdun:
We will soon have these days on the Somme behind us, thank God for now, and it’s my dearest hope that the next time will not come too soon. Because it takes a damned good measure of courage to keep your zest for life. So much is just damned well against all human dignity. Up to now, the British have not managed any success in our Division’s sector, just like last time when we were holed up around Courcelette, at present we are on the Bapaume road.
And, like most reflective people, he still drew inspiration from the thought of a possible future:
But that is by the by, above all my dear, let us think about later and our peacetime work, the thought keeps me afloat, I say to myself I must reserve as much energy for myself so that when these nerve-racking years are past, I can do as much for my art as I want to do and must do.
The inconclusive nature of the Somme offensive may have been vexing for Haig, but it kept open, at least, the possibility of ultimate victory. There were no longer any such hopes being espoused in the case of the Romanian campaign which had turned into a rout. Mackensen and his Turkish, Bulgarian and German troops had taken Constanza, the country’s major seaport, and now prepared to march on Bucharest. Exhausted Romanian soldiers streamed out of the Carpathians followed by thousands of Transylvanian Romanian refugees fearing Hungarian reprisals.
Earlier in the month, Queen Marie had appealed for help to her cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, but he was too beleaguered already. The Russians were facing major shortages of men, ammunition and supplies and he sent only 20,000 men to assist in the defence of Dobruja. Family loyalties were all very well, but national survival required him to draw in his horns.
Marie was bitter:
Our Allies assured us that when we came in, such tremendous efforts would be made on all the fronts at once that we would not find ourselves fighting against forces quite beyond what we could cope with.
She was simultaneously threatened with domestic tragedy on 23rd October, with her three-year-old son, Mircea, being diagnosed with typhoid fever. The Queen chronicled his decline, writing on October 27th that all while he lay there, his eyes half upturned in their sockets, his hands and feet were icy. The following day, after a quick visit to her regiment about to go into battle, she rushed back to Buftea to find Mircea, deadly pale –”my heart stopped beating, but he opened his eyes and looked at me”.
For the Allies at large, the gloom of the week was intensified by losses at sea. Mines and U-boats took a heavy toll: U-69, working off the Isles of Scilly on 26th October, torpedoed and sank the cargo ship North Wales. It was the kind of incident which passes almost unremarked, but all 30 crew drowned and later, it sank the Rappahannock with another 37 killed. The hospital ship Galeka struck a mine off Le Havre, was beached and written off, with the loss of 19 medical staff. Then, on 29th October the Greek ship, Angeliki, was torpedoed and sunk in the Aegean sea with the loss of around 50 of the 400 aboard. Survivors were picked up by a French navy destroyer and a Greek merchant ship.
The danger with this kind of roll call is that it tempts one to gloss over the individual narrative which attended each tragedy – above all, the ineffable terror of being drowned. In diplomatic terms, the most dramatic naval loss of the week was the sinking of the American ship Lanao off Portugal on 28th October. In that case, the crew survived, but the action enraged US citizens and raised, inevitably, questions as to how long the government would adhere to neutrality – especially since the sinking of the Marine came on the same date, with six Americans numbered among the 18 dead.
The British experienced a particular humiliation overnight on 26th/27th October when a brilliant raid by a flotilla of German torpedo boats in the Dover Strait attacked drifters supporting the Dover Barrage. The unexpected sortie, made possible because Ludwig von Schroeder’s Flanders Flotilla had just been increased to 23 torpedo boats (click this link to find more info. on them), took the British by complete surprise. In the confusion and darkness, British commanders initially mistook the German raiders for Allied vessels. The Germans managed to sink one destroyer, an empty troopship and several of the protective drifters, and damage other vessels before escaping with only minor damage to one of their torpedo boats. Forty-five British died, four were wounded and ten were taken prisoner; there were no German casualties.
The evidence of “a bad week” for the British therefore mounts. Commanders, after over two years of war, knew perfectly well that bad news tended to come in bouts. The worrying part (less acute, just now, for the British than for some) was calculating how long one could continue to fight if the present rate of loss continued. The British public drew its sense of the wider state of war through official sources, and news from loved ones on the Front. Neither was entirely reliable and both came piecemeal.
In terms of civilian morale, it was the Germans who were – this week anyway – far nearer succumbing to a sense of tragedy akin to despair. This had been prompted in particular by the death, on 27th October, of their star aerial ace, 25-year-old Hauptmann Oswald Boelcke, leader of a new fighter squadron, Jagdstaffel 2.
Boelcke’s death had come at the hands not of the enemy, but of his friend, Boehme, in a mid-air collision. It was the fighter pilot’s equivalent of an own goal, only with consequences far more terrible. Boehme remembered:
On Saturday afternoon we sat around in a state of readiness inside our little cottage at the airfield. I had just begun a game of chess with Boelcke — when shortly after 4.00 [16.00] we were called up to the Front during an infantry attack. Boelcke himself led us, as usual. Very soon we were over Flers and attacking several British aeroplanes, fast single-seaters, which ably defended themselves.
In the fierce aerial combat which followed, during which we had only a brief time to fire, we sought to drive them down by alternately cutting them off, as we had done so often with success.
Boelcke and I had an Englishman right between us, when another opponent pursued by our friend Richthofen cut in front of us. During the simultaneous lightning-quick evasive manoeuvre, Boelcke and I, obstructed by our wings, did not see each other for an instant and that is when it happened.
Boehme was predictably devastated and had to be persuaded not to commit suicide:
How can I describe for you my feelings at that instant when Boelcke suddenly appeared a few metres to my right, dived down, [while] I pulled up,[and] yet we grazed each other and had to go back to the ground! It was only a gentle touch, but at such a furious speed it also meant a collision.
It also transpired that Boelcke had failed to do up his safety belt tightly and, as he never wore a helmet when he flew, he had no chance of surviving the impact of his crash landing. As ever, the chivalric code of air combat was honoured: a special RFC mission was detailed to fly over the German lines with a token of condolence. German troops at Lagnicourt found a parachuted wreath with the inscription: “To the memory of Captain Boelcke, our brave and chivalrous foe. From the British Royal Flying Corps”.
According to Manfred von Richthofen, in a letter he would later write to his mother:
Nothing happened to the other poor fellow [Boehme]. At first Boelcke went down normally. I followed him immediately. Later one of the wings broke away and he went rushing down. His skull was crushed on impact; therefore he died instantly. It affected all of us very deeply — as if a favourite brother had been taken from us.
During the funeral I carried the Ordenskissen. The service was like that of a reigning prince. In six weeks, we have had six killed and one wounded; two are washed up because of their nerves.
At the time, Boelcke was Germany’s highest-scoring ace, with 40 kills, and a national hero. He and his friend and fellow ace, Max Immelmann, were the first airmen to be awarded Germany’s highest honour, Pour Le Mérite, in January 1916. His manual, “Dicta Boelcke”, was the first systematic analysis of air combat and remained a Bible for all German airmen. In September alone he had shot down eleven British planes.
Wartime propaganda depended on painting every event and every participant in primary colours – one’s own countrymen and allies were Good, and every enemy was Decidedly Not. Boelcke made that harder. Known as the “gentleman pilot”, holder of the Iron Cross, First and Second Class, he had also received a Lifesaving Medal on the recommendation of the French for saving a French boy from drowning in a canal near his airfield in August 1915. A modest man, he had stated: “Everything depends on sticking together when the Staffel goes into battle. It does not matter who actually scores the victory as long as the Staffel wins.”
This injunction to (in effect) appeal to the greater good was evidently the stuff of universal wisdom. And war created contexts to which people of all kinds might yet respond. If one, for example, considers the rotten insufficiency of much of women’s education in Britain, as well as the cultural straitjacket into which so many were laced, it is hard not to rejoice at those who used the war to realise themselves in colours unimaginable hitherto.
Because nursing saw many women dance, as it were, attendance upon men, the occupation might be seen as reinforcing gender stereotypes. But it also imposed the need to make radical and brisk decisions, on which hung life itself, as well as holding out the chance to travel and of possibilities of all kinds.
Edith Appleton’s diaries are brisk and businesslike – she often lacked the time to reflect very deeply. But there is a calm authority to her entries which, by comparison to the life she might have led in peace, gives one pause for thought. This week’s includes:
October 28 — I am afraid one of my Boches will lose his left foot, and his right leg was amputated the day after he arrived here.
October 29 — My very DI [dangerously ill] Boche is, if anything, better. There is rumour of a naval battle. We heard that a hospital ship has struck a mine, and 30 RAMC drowned, but the sisters were all saved and one is at №2 General Hospital, Le Havre.
Vera Brittain was now in Malta, having recovered from the case of severe food poisoning which had affected many of the VADs on their journey to work in the island’s hospitals. Notwithstanding the gravity of her work, and the weight of sorrow following the loss of her fiancé, there is irrepressible excitement in the new phase of life which now opened up before her.
Tuesday October 24th — Was discharged from Imtarfa & came down to St George’s Hospital, a lovely 9 miles’ drive. I was driven by a very skilful driver; even to me, accustomed as I am to motoring, the pace seemed terrific, & these blind-alley-like roads made it all the more alarming. As for anything that was round the corner, it just took its chance!
This is a most beautiful hospital, built on a peninsula of land running right out into the sea. The ground all round is very rocky, with patches of deep red sand in between & vivid green little bushes, quite different from the dusty brown ploughed fields & farmlands at Imfarta. The sea is right below the rocks but there is a delightful little bay which is quite safe & very shallow though full of large fish; here we have our bathing place, & it is so near that we can go down from our rooms with mackintoshes over our bathing dresses.
Wednesday October 25th — We all wear white shoes & stockings, low soft colours & Panama hats; no one seems very particular about uniform, unless you are unlucky enough to meet the Principal Matron. The difference between the stiffness & starchiness of the nursing Profession in England & the freedom here is quite remarkable. No one minds whether you come into meals in your mess-dress or cat & skirt or indoor uniform & no one says anything if you are late. The Sisters treat you like friends & equals instead of as incompetent but necessary evils whose presence they resent.
A great adventure, by any other name. Social and cultural historians, observing many of the harsh conditions of life before 1914, find no difficulty in understanding why so many of the young reached out eagerly to war in the hope of finding something better. For all its legion sorrow, Brittain’s enthusiasm reminds us that this terrible war could not only, even by its contemporaries, be wished away.