A Little Tearful

Australians en route to Polygon Wood, 1917

NOBODY GAVE UP — that was a truism so far as the Western Front was concerned.

One can see it demonstrated time and time again. The next phase of the Flanders Offensive was planned for 26th September, but a pre-emptive attack mounted by the Germans the day before nearly put paid to it. They penetrated lines between Tower Hamlets and Polygon Wood before being thrown back, but there was no sign that British commanders, even though startled, were deterred. The following day, the British launched their major attack across a six-mile front east of Ypres, taking Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke and over 1,000 prisoners.

More costs, of course, accrued. British losses in infantry and artillery personnel were 17,000, very nearly the same as that of the Germans, who fought back ferociously over the following 48 hours, although without success. On 30th September, they mounted three attacks between the Ypres–Menin road and Zonnebeke. This time they used the dreaded flammenwerfer (flame-throwers), calculated to bring even the hardiest troops to the edge of terror, and recaptured two British advanced posts in the south-east corner of Polygon Wood.

The traditions of the British officer class — stoical, self-denying, but also ones in which the lives of young men of all classes were deemed ripe for sacrifice — sat uneasily on the Prime Minister’s shoulders. By temperament and history, he was an outsider, and he baulked at what was happening. On the night of 24th September, he set off to visit France with his Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey — an excursion which provoked an article in the Westminster Gazette, laced with innuendo:

Raid Item — Mr Lloyd George’s Country Retreat

The Prime Minister spent the night at his residence at Walton Heath, Surrey having left Downing Street about the time it first became known that the raiders were approaching London.

Combining both malice and inaccuracy, the Gazette editor and publishers had laid themselves wide open for an action. True, the Gothas were raising hell in London just now; true, the PM slept more easily when at Walton Heath rather than at Downing Street. But he had spent the night in question at a hotel near Dover for the unimpeachably good reason he was making an early-morning crossing of the Channel.  Lloyd George duly summoned his lawyers and prepared to sue.

Lloyd George: not really at ease with Top Brass

No doubt his time in France gave him ample reasons to slough off his irritation with Fleet Street. Following a private meeting with Painleve in the train at Boulogne on 26th September, the formal Anglo–French conference began. The French, he was told, had again postponed their planned attack designed to bring relief to the British. This would now not begin until 10th October. Digesting this disappointing news, Lloyd George and Hankey now motored to a village outside St Omer to dine with Haig who, as Hankey recorded, “was rather preoccupied about tomorrow’s attack, which has been somewhat dislocated by a big unsuccessful German counter-attack this afternoon”.

The following day, Lloyd George, Haig and Robertson conferred. What about Germany’s latest peace offer? How likely was it that Russia was on the edge of collapse? Haig remained adamant that the Germans were the power on the verge of collapse and that a sustained push by the Allies would finish the job.

As if to prove the point, the Prime Minister was despatched to see a cageful of German prisoners. Hankey recalled:

At a cross roads just outside Poperinghe a big 11-inch shell whistled over our heads and burst 100 yards away — too close to be pleasant. Our destination was a cage for prisoners brought down from the day’s battle — containing a number of nerve-shattered, tired, unshaved, and dirty men, who nevertheless sprang to attention as though under review by the Kaiser.

German Prisoner

It was rumoured that the most unprepossessing prisoners had been segregated into a separate cage, and that only this choice sample was shown to the visitors. Louis Avery, of 3rd Australian Field Engineers at Ypres, recorded that same day (27th September) a different kind of experience with a German PoW:

…One was a German officer of high rank. He refused to be taken prisoner by common soldiers, and demanded to be escorted by an officer of equal rank. There was not one within miles. He was stubborn, point blank refusing to move with the other prisoners.

As there was no time to argue there was only one thing to do and it was quickly done. It was most unfortunate but it happened when our boys were mad at a most regrettable incident which had occurred just prior to this. A German officer came in to surrender with his handkerchief over his right hand and both arms raised. When one of our boys approached him he suddenly dropped his right hand and shot the Australian with a small automatic. It is quite unnecessary to relate what happened to him. Big Sergeant rushed at him with a bayonet, narrowly escaping further bullets from the automatic.

Lloyd George, a civilian to his bones, was shocked and upset by the sight and aghast at the loss of life in this offensive. He was more than ever determined to deal with Haig. Before he returned home, however, he managed to enrage the Fifth Army’s commander, General Gough, at whose headquarters the hapless Germans were being held.

Gough later recalled:

I saw him [LL.G.] through my window… I was considerably surprised to see him, as I had received no intimation that he was coming into my Army area, much less to my own Headquarters. I asked one of my ADCs to find out what he was doing, and discovered that he was visiting some camps of German prisoners to see the deterioration in their physique — which I must say was not particularly apparent to me.

I was struck by the discourtesy of the Prime Minister in actually visiting the Headquarters of one of his Army Commanders and not coming to see him… It was an amazing attitude for a man in his position and with his responsibilities.

…I have since understood that he blamed me for this Ypres battle and for its long continuation. But it is difficult to believe that a man in his position could be so ignorant of the system of command in an Army. Neither the inception of this battle nor its continuation was any more my responsibility than that of one of my Corps or Divisional Commanders. I merely received my orders from the Field Marshall.

General Gough

If Gough’s upset really did owe most to Lloyd George’s breach of etiquette, he just seems to have been weird. It surely owed more to his apprehension that the PM was unhappy with him and to the terrible anxieties of being in command of a battle which was in dire straits. In the first two months of the Third Battle of Ypres, the Allied casualties already amounted to 88,790 killed, wounded or missing for an advance, at the deepest point of penetration, of only three and a half miles.

Yet, despite ferocious German defence and appalling weather and ground conditions, the troops had in fact got half-way to Passchendaele Ridge. Haig, typically, refused to share in the gloom. At a meeting with his commanders on 28th September, he

urged the necessity for preparing to exploit our success… I am of the opinion that the enemy is tottering, and that a good vigorous blow might lead to decisive results. If we could destroy, or interrupt for48 hours, the railway at Roulers there would probably be a debacle… there must be fresh troops available, also Tanks and cavalry. Army commanders are to work out the details…

Hubris, alas. Nor did his imperturbability endure when, the next day, he learned that the French attack was again to be delayed. He poured his bile into his diary:

What a wretched lot the majority of the French are! Here is an attack which was promised for the middle of September not ready to go in till the 15th October. I doubt if it will go in then! If the ‘intention to attack’ existed the attack would have been ready to time… History will doubtless conclude that the French are not playing the game!

Rowland Feilding, back in command of the Connaughts at Croisilles-Ecoust Railway Cutting, was also sometimes oppressed by distinguished visitors, as he explained on 1st October in a letter to his wife:

We do not resent visitors, but I think we are apt to regard them something like trespassers. That is because we get so few. The popularity of the infantry seems to vary with the section of line which it is holding. At Wytschaete, which was a boisterous place, we were left severely alone. Here, on the contrary, where we are in what is — for the time being at any rate — a sort of haven of rest, our privacy is frequently invaded.

Perhaps it is a coincidence but Red tabs of high degree [officers of the General Staff — ie non-combatants] are a common sight in the trenches here. Even Corps Commanders come to see us. They go into our forward saps, and so peaceful do they find their surroundings, that they pull out maps, and exposing themselves freely, identify the outstanding landmarks.

Then they pass on their way, and, perhaps a quarter of an hour later, the sentry group occupying the sap gets shelled.

In self-defence we have put up a notice or two, worded as follows: “Visitors are requested not to show themselves, as by doing so they may give away our positions to the enemy. We live here. You don’t.”

Captain Darling — epitome of the despised “Red Tab”

Visitors were the least of Russia’s problems. Exodus was the bigger issue: foreigners were leaving Petrograd in their droves, convinced that a Bolshevik coup was imminent. Western observers’ descriptions of these days, however, recall an abandonment more like the last days of Ancient Rome than the dawn of a new era:

[there were] scantily clad people standing in the bitter cold [and queuing outside] pitifully empty shops, gambling clubs functioned hectically from dusk to dawn, with champagne flowing and stakes of twenty thousand roubles. In the centre of the city at night prostitutes in jewels and expensive furs walked up and down, crowding the cafes.

Kerensky resigned his position on the Petrograd Soviet on 26th September. The following day, the arrest of Lenin was ordered and the Russian Democratic Congress opened in Petrograd, attended by around 1,600 delegates. The journalist Harold Williams described it as “a rough and hastily constructed lean-to, full of gaps and crevices”In a portent of the ethnic strife which lay round the corner, the Non-Slav Congress in Kiev had demanded autonomy for all Russian nationalities six days earlier, on 20th September.

Petrograd Soviet, 1917

How Lenin must have loved all this! He was still in hiding, but confident enough to send out increasingly strident calls to his supporters on 28th September, urging them to seize power and “form a government which nobody will be able to overthrow”.

Its manifesto, just then, would have fallen on many willing ears:

immediately proposing a democratic peace… immediately giving the land to the peasants and… re-establishing the democratic institutions and liberties which have been mangled and shattered by Kerensky

Even so, Elena Lakier in Odessa, writing three days later on 1st October, suggests that the Russian popular press had not been entirely won over:

There’s no bread. There are queues everywhere, several blocks long. A rationing system has been introduced. Newspapers write about the horrors happening in Riga; before the German invasion the brutality of ‘Comrades’ (the word used for the troublemakers in the army) exceeded all limits — they were robbing, murdering, raping people. Their own people!

Ironically, perhaps, despite the collapsing morale in most of the army, some Russian units still succeeded in defending the route towards Petrograd. At the end of the week the Germans were pressed back south of the Pskoff road in the Riga sector. Their allies, the Austrians, were doing very much less well against the Italians. On 29th September, the Italians took 1,400 prisoners on the Bainsizza Plateau. Quixotically, their Commander-in-Chief, Luigi Cadorna, then decided to halt his offensive and resume a solely defensive policy. In the process, he dealt a stunning blow to Lloyd George, who had been sponsoring the Italian offensive in the hope of diverting resources from the Western Front. Haig knew this, and was delighted.

Luigi Cadorna

It is unlikely the PM had much time to brood on this reverse. On 25th September, one of the great figures of the Easter Rising in Dublin, Thomas Ashe, died in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, five hours after prison guards had held him down in an attempt to force feed him. This was the kind of PR that no government needed, even in the balmiest times.

Ashe had been a popular and charismatic Irish teacher who had led Irish Volunteers in Ashbourne, Co. Meath. Court-martialled and condemned to death, his sentence had been commuted to penal servitude for life. However, he had been released in June 1917 as part of the general amnesty granted to Irish political prisoners. Two months later, he had been re-arrested and, charged with sedition, and sentenced to two more years in gaol. Thus he had found himself in Mountjoy Prison, campaigning alongside 40 others for political status. That led to him beginning a hunger strike on 20th September, an action which put the already anxious authorities on the defensive. Force feeding began on 23rd September. The jury at the subsequent inquest would condemn the prison staff for the “inhuman and dangerous operation performed on the prisoner, and other acts of unfeeling and barbaric conduct”.

Public reaction was massive. Ashe lay in state in Dublin City Hall and a crowd of over 30,000 followed his funeral cortege to Glasnevin Cemetery. Irish Volunteers fired a volley over his grave and Michael Collins delivered orations in Irish and English. His death became part of the martyrology of Irish republicanism.

The funeral of Thomas Ashe

Public reaction on the mainland appears to have been muted, no doubt based on historic indifference but above all being diverted by narratives both at France and at home. German Gothas took advantage of moonlit nights to mount a series of night raids on London on five nights during the week, during which 50 people were killed and some 200 injured. Only on one night, 28th September, were British planes able to drive off the raiders.

The sense of powerlessness contributed to civilian outrage. Ostend had already been bombed on 25th September and, two days later, seaplanes raided the St Denis Westrem aerodrome near Ghent and damaged 15 Gothas. Zeebrugge and its aerodromes were bombed the following night and St Denis targeted again on 30th September. It was important to do something — and to be seen to have done so.

Civilian air raids fascinated Cynthia Asquith, of course, as her diary testifies:

27 September  My thirtieth birthday — the femme de trente ans. It’s sad, but I am thinking about it very little. Ivor Churchill came at 12.20 and took me… to see the huge shell-hole in Green Park just behind the Ritz. All the windows at Wimborne House were broken by it.

29 September  [Dining at Canuto’s in Baker Street]: There had been an air raid warning, but the ‘all clear’ signal had come through. However, as we were finishing our dinner, a terrific row began. A nervous waiter was infuriated by our nonchalance. I was delighted at last to come in for a war perquisite. It is very difficult to restrain one’s sight-seeing instincts.

1 October… [another air raid] …The sudden silence that falls on London is wonderful: all the traffic ceases, and the streets magically empty…

Air Raid Shelter at Elephant & Castle, by Walter Bayes

Nonchalance may come more easily to those upon whom life has already scattered the blessings of wealth, beauty and erudition. Today’s readers may find themselves identifying more with the nervous waiter than the diarist. A more useful perspective upon what, just then, the war was dishing up can be seen in the recollections of Private Harry Patch, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, who this week lost his machine-gun crew and was severely wounded:

The shelling was bad. You could hear the big shells coming over, although if you could hear them that was all right, they’d gone over. You never heard the whiz-bangs coming, they were just there. And you never heard the shell or bullet that hit you. Of course whizz-bangs were shrapnel and that was worse than a bullet. A bullet wound was clean, shrapnel would tear you to pieces. It was a whizz-bang that killed my friends and wounded me, it was just bad luck. They had those four magazines over their shoulders, fully loaded. That’s why they all got blown to pieces…..

Harry Patch

I don’t recall anything else until I found myself in a tented encampment, a casualty clearing station where there were nurses and where a doctor cleaned the wound of congealed blood and lice and put a clean white bandage on… There were a lot of seriously wounded there, so I had to wait for the rest of the night and all through the next day… You read in the Bible about the Tower of Babel, and you had it there, wounded all over the place, calling for help, in German, French and English.

A two-inch jagged piece of shrapnel was removed from him, and he was put on the list for Blighty.

I was taken to Rouen with hundreds of other wounded men. Rouen was a massive base camp, but we weren’t take to hospital, rather to a warehouse. Here we were stripped, shirt, trousers, pants, tunic, everything went. Nurses put a waterproof dressing on my injury and gave all of us a hot bath and shampooed our hair… We got into another bath where the water was clean, and then they put us each in a suit of sterilized hospital blue. What they did with our clothes I don’t know, but my clothes were ridden with lice and blood so they may well have been burnt…

There were submarines in the Channel so we sailed the next night, no lights, and landed at Southampton on a typically foggy autumnal morning. We were laid out on the dockside under blankets to keep us warm. I don’t care to admit it, but I was a little tearful after what I had been through…

Harry Patch lived to become the oldest military survivor of the Great War when he died in 2009, aged 111. Requiescat in pace.