ONE HUNDRED YEARS on, it remains a struggle to enter into the mind of the last of the Tsars.
History has pitied the terrible fate suffered by Nicholas and his family, but is dismissive of his intellect. His rhetorical bleats about divine right, about the God-given nature of Russian autocracy, might ring out more impressively had he made much of an effort to cling on to either. But he refused, with a hatred which borders on the pathological, to wake up and smell the coffee. His reverence for tradition was immense, but he showed no obvious commitment to discharge his duties.
Everyone, more or less, was telling him now to come off it. As Carl Mannerheim reported:
The general mood in Petrograd is subdued. People are openly criticising the Tsar. Due to heavy snowstorms, tens of thousands of freight cars are stuck on the tracks with the bread and food situation in the capital and other major cities becoming particularly severe as a result.
Russia’s problems with distribution (which far exceeded those with production) can hardly be laid at the door of the last of the Romanovs. But, while he refused to surrender any power to the Duma, to diminish the trust he espoused in his German wife, he was laying himself wide open.
Subdued, lonely, thin-skinned, he was now cocooned in the splendour of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo while the Empress appears to have been frequently confined to her bed, a martyr to her numerous ailments. Nearby, the haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei was once more ill, and there was no longer the starets, no Grigori Rasputin, upon whom to pin hopes for his deliverance.
Never mind the nation - theirs was a family in crisis. Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, the Tsar’s younger brother, managed to gain an audience with the imperial couple on 23rd February, and urged upon them the need for reform. As it became evident that his pleas were falling on deaf ears, he vented his spleen on the Tsarina: “I see that you’re willing to die with your husband, but don’t forget about us! Do we all have to suffer because of your blind foolhardiness?”
Predictably, he was quickly shown the door. Another relative, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna now confided in the French Ambassador, Maurice Paleologue that, “The Empress has the Emperor under her thumb… I’m expecting the most dire catastrophes. And yet God can’t mean Russia to perish.”
Maybe he could. When the Chairman of the State Duma, Rodzianko, saw the Tsar for the last time on 23rd February, he told him bluntly that revolution was imminent:
I consider it my duty, Sire, to express to you my profound foreboding and conviction that this will be my last report to you.
The Tsar dismissed him without comment. His reasoning (such as it was) seems to have been shaped now by only two convictions. One was that root and branch reform of any kind was impossible in war. He said rather grandly: “I cannot act now. I cannot do more than one thing at a time” – which rather begs the question what, precisely, was the one thing he thought he was doing.
The other conviction was his towering resentment at the vicious criticism levelled upon his wife.
The Empress is a foreigner. She has no one to protect her but myself. I shall never abandon her under any circumstances.
That last assertion probably comes nearer to the truth of the man than much of the nonsense he spouted. First and last, he was a husband and a father. His emotional energies were bound up by these roles, almost to exclusion of anything else.
Poor Nicholas and poor Russia. While he and the Empress indulged their lengthy vapours, agitators on the streets of Petrograd, in deep snow and freezing temperatures, called for a general strike.
The implosion of Russia was anticipated, in a general sense, by many abroad, rather than hourly expected. The biggest fears of most statesmen in the West now concerned the effects of unrestricted submarine warfare. The toll of ships sunk this week included a naval yacht, HMY Verona, which hit a mine off the Scottish coast with the loss of 23 crew, and Clan Farquhar, a cargo ship which was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean by UB-49 near Benghazi, Libya, with the loss of 49 lives. Dutch ships had also been attacked by a German submarine in the Channel, despite a guarantee of safe passage on 22nd February. Although the crews were removed, the ships were sunk.
One way of measuring the increased threat posed by U-boats is to look simply at tonnage sunk. In January 1917: 153,666 gross tons of British shipping had been lost; in February, that figure had shot up to 313, 486. If one takes into account ships sunk for all neutral and Entente powers, the figure goes up to 546,000 tons. For the Germans, these totals were good – but not good enough. They had calculated that losses needed to rise to 600,000 tons a month if their plan to starve Britain of food and supplies were to succeed. There was a race against time here. Could they bring this off before America was finally provoked into joining the war on the side of the Entente?
Given that, the sinking of the Cunard White Star passenger liner, Laconia, on the evening of 25th February, proved momentous. Without warning, Laconia was struck by two torpedoes fired by U-50 as it proceeded on its journey from New York to Liverpool. At the time, it was about 160 nautical miles from Fastnet with nearly 300 passengers and crew on board, six of whom were American. One of these was Floyd Gibbons, war correspondent for the Chicago Times. His report suggests a reasonably orderly evacuation followed the explosion: passengers took to the lifeboats and, some six hours or so later, most had been rescued by the British ship HMS Laburnum. Twelve people perished, including two of the Americans.
Gibbons wrote a graphic account of the dramatic event within 30 minutes of being set ashore in Queenstown (now Cobh, Eire) and said of the sinking, “The question being asked of all Americans is, ‘Is it a casus belli?’”
High politics was invoked, but also strong emotion. His piece included extracts from the testimony of Able Seaman Walley who had been on Lifeboat №8 with the two Americans who had died, Mrs Mary Hoy from Chicago and her daughter, Elizabeth:
The women got weaker and weaker and then a wave came along and washed them out of the boat. There were lifebelts on their bodies and they floated away, but I believe they were dead before they were washed overboard.
Ironically, the greatest naval catastrophe of the week could not be blamed on the enemy. On the morning of 21st February the SS Darro (an 11,000-ton liner), ploughed into the SS Mendi, just off the Isle of Wight. With apparent disregard for everyone’s safety, she was steaming at full speed despite the thick fog, and the impact almost cut the smaller ship in half. Mendi sank in just 20 minutes.
The ship had left Cape Town on 16th January, and most of the passengers were members of the South African Native Labour Corps en route to Le Havre to join other comrades working on the Western Front. Mind-bogglingly, the Darro made no attempt to lower boats to rescue the survivors but stood off while boats from the Mendi’s escorting destroyer, HMS Brisk, rowed among the survivors, desperately attempting to rescue them.
Six hundred and seven black soldiers, nine officers and the entire crew all perished. This was naval tragedy on the grandest of scales. Stories abounded of the courage displayed by those about to die. Private Joseph Tshite, a schoolmaster from near Pretoria, encouraged others with hymns and prayers before he himself disappeared under the waves. Reverend Isaac Wauchope, a private in the Medical Section, is reported to have exhorted his comrades:
…let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa.
Set against a backdrop of such loss and uncertainty, the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was surely right to urge realism upon the British nation. On 23rd February, he told the House of Commons:
I am not going to withhold from the House the fact that if the nation is not prepared to accept drastic measures for dealing with the submarine peril, there is disaster in front of us…
The measures he now proposed in response would, he asserted, test “the national grit”. Britain, a nation accustomed to enjoying cheap imports from its Empire and Dominions, including 80 per cent of her cereals, was now going to have to set about digging up every available square foot of land in order to grow the food she would need in order to survive. For a populous nation living in a crowded island, it was an awesome prospect. And merchant ships were going to have to be replaced. The times would no longer allow for a stroppy workforce, or fixed wages, but simply payment-by-results. In peacetime, that suggestion alone would have been enough to have provoked a national clamour. Not now. There was an unenthusiastic but dogged awareness that the national emergency compelled acceptance.
Actually, the British had some excellent news this week – an out-and-out victory in their campaign in Mesopotamia was announced in the House of Commons on 26th February. This was not the kind of event which would do much to avert the U-boat menace, but it was sweet revenge for the humiliating loss of Kut el Amara the previous year. Then, the town had surrendered to the Turkish forces after a protracted siege, and nearly 12,000 prisoners had been taken into a hideous captivity. Of these, half were destined never to return.
Now, faced by 50,000 men led by General Maude, the Turks fled. The whole enemy position from Kut to Sanna-i-Yat was abandoned and 1,730 prisoners came into allied hands. When British and Indian troops entered Kut on 24th February they found the town deserted and in ruins.
Maude’s campaign had been cautious (some might have said plodding) and, with nearly three times as many men under his command as the Turks had amassed by way of opposition, people were relieved by his victory rather than excited. The Turkish commander, Kazim Karabekir Bey, had succeeded brilliantly in organising an orderly retreat from the town, saving some 2,500 soldiers from encirclement and capture. British gunboats gave chase on the Tigris, but the cavalry was too exposed to well-sited Turkish machine-gun posts to be used. In every respect, this was the precise opposite of the lamentable rout to which soldiers under the British Major-General Townshend had been subjected in Kut the previous year.
Along the Western Front, further evidence accumulated throughout the week that the Germans were effecting some sort of withdrawal. This was tactical, of course, as they prepared to dig in behind what became known as the Hindenburg Line. On 24th February the villages of Serre, Miraumont, Petit Miraumont, Pys and Warlencourt were evacuated, enabling the British to advance on the following day over a front of eleven miles south of Gommecourt to a depth of three miles. It was disconcerting, rather than euphoric, to move across ground unopposed. The enemy was palpably spoiling for a fight elsewhere, after all: the British launched successful raids at Monchy-au-Bois, Lens and in Champagne, and on 26th February, they captured the village of Le Barque, southwest of Bapaume. But the Germans were fighting back.
The relative hiatus in the West, nonetheless, offered a reassuring backdrop for the opening of the Calais Conference on Sunday, 26th February. What could be more natural and normal than for allies to thrash through common problems and shared objectives? Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Premier Aristide Briand led the way, with an innocuous enough discussion of the chronic railway problems in France and the difficulty of moving supplies and troops.
France, so far as Lloyd George was concerned, was not the problem. Haig was. Barely contained beneath the surface of ritual courtesies during that first day, a poisonous power struggle between the two men bubbled. Fighting troops knew nothing of such matters and mainly did not care.
Lieutenant Colonel Feilding of the Connaught Rangers had been caught up in a costly raid, during which nine officers and 190 other ranks had attacked the German wire following a dash across No-Man’s-Land. His letter home on 20th February, the next day, penned from “Doctor’s House”, Kemmel, illustrates that living minute by minute was what counted.
After some two hours the firing on both sides died away, and by 9.30 all was quiet. An incident then took place which I think was as remarkable any that this most unchivalrous of wars can yet have produced… a man came running to me and reported that the enemy had allowed what he called “an armistice” for the purpose of collecting the wounded who were lying in front of the right extremity of the section… parties of men were out dressing the wounded and carrying them back. One of my officers and a German were bending together over a wounded man alongside the enemy wire. The Germans, in considerable numbers, were lolling over and even sitting upon their parapet, watching the proceedings. My own men were doing the same…
The whole proceeding was of course highly irregular, and the last of our wounded and dead having by this time been recovered, I ordered the men below the parapet, and a second or two later every head on both sides had disappeared: both the German trench and ours had become normal, and the war had restarted.
That highly unofficial armistice brought its share of trouble. For one thing, Feilding discovered that the “enemy had exacted payment” for his generosity, as the Germans had taken an officer and a couple of others prisoner, the officer possibly because he hadn’t disarmed before going out. For another, word of it reached Higher Authority.
His letter on 26th February, written from Curragh Camp, Locre (the battalion had now been out of the trenches for eight days) took up the story:
There is a sequel to the affair of the 19th. It has been suggested that the so-called ‘armistice’ constituted a breach of the order which forbids fraternization…
According to a memorandum he had just received:
A case had recently occurred in another part of the line in which the enemy are reported to have been allowed to approach our lines and remove the bodies of some of their dead. Whilst doing so he was probably able to secure useful information as to the state of our wire and the ground in its vicinity, and in any case to deprive us of what may have been a valuable identification…
It went on for some time. One can almost imagine Feilding’s weariness as he contemplated its contents. He ruefully told his wife:
Ruthlessness is to be the order of the day. Frightfulness is to be our watchword. Sportsmanship, chivalry, pity — all the qualities which Englishmen used to pride themselves in possessing — are to be scrapped. In short, our methods henceforth are to be strictly Prussian…
Feilding, so scrupulous in the discharge of his duty, seems to have become altogether cheesed off – a very fair and understandable indulgence within the strict confines of marital intimacy. In reality, the British were not brutes at all – not mainly at least – and they still enjoyed high esteem in many quarters. Three days earlier, Signalman Eachus, at a lecture in Amiens, had heard, from the lips of the French General Baptiste, no less, an altogether glowing portrait of their many virtues and excellences:
He spoke of our 3,000,000 volunteers with the highest esteem. Three million men he declared who were not forced to serve in the ranks, was a revolution and that in all the history of the world there was nothing to approach such a magnificent display of patriotism… He very solemnly warned his hearers that it was the duty of his countrymen never to forget the loyal support of their ally, and impressed upon them the fact of France’s obligations to L’Angleterre. He mentioned our national characteristics of tenacity, which was likened to the grip of a bull-dog… The whole of the speech was in fact positively full of praise…
The allure of counterfactual history can be hard to resist at certain moments, and this week provides one of them. On 22nd February, one Italian soldier’s active service came to an abrupt end when he was wounded whilst fighting on the Isonzo Front. There is nothing so interesting in that, no doubt, save for the fact that the young man in question was named Benito Mussolini.
The event in question was later described – perhaps not very reliably – in his war diary:
It happened during the bombardment of enemy trenches in Sector 144 — the Karst Sector — under a deafening hail of shells. Here, I experienced something that is commonplace in the trenches. A group of twenty of our men were hit by one of our won grenades. We were showered with mud, smoke and torn metal.
Four men died. The others were seriously injured. I was taken to a hospital in Ronchi, a few miles away from the enemy trenches… It was thanks only to the patience and skill of the doctors that I had forty-four pieces of grenade extracted successfully. My flesh was torn and my bones splintered. The pain was hideous; I suffered agonies…
Not nearly enough, one is tempted to say, given the baleful influence upon the later history of Europe of the man destined to become Il Duce. At the time, however, according to his Inspector General:
[Mussolini’s] promotion to corporal was recommended because of his exemplary conduct and fighting quality, his mental calmness and lack of concern for discomfort, his zeal and regularity in carrying out his assignments, where he was always first in every task involving labour and fortitude.