A Pathetic Tune

A moment of respite — man and beast

NO — THEY WOULD not go quietly. Coming to terms with probable defeat was too much for most Germans.

But the evidence suggested, sooner or later, it would happen. Allied progress continued to be spectacular in terms of ground gained. Having taken Péronne, and Bapaume the previous week, a further raft of towns and villages fell into their hands — Manancourt, Etricourt, Roisel, the railway junction for St Quentin and Cambrai.

Retreat elicited a bleak obduracy. German commanders had a clear end in mind: to move back, as fast as possible, and entrench just in front of the Hindenburg Line. This meant that, for the first time in four years, the front line was a fluid affair, but this was a novelty which posed difficulties for the advancing Allies who often had no idea where the devil retreating forces had gone. That was what happened when, on 3rd September, the Coldstream Guards attacked German positions near the Canal du Nord.

They expected a fight. Instead, they found silence:

So strange and novel, indeed, was the sensation caused amongst officers and men by the unwonted absence of hostile machine-gun fire and the comparative silence of the enemy’s guns, that the troops first advanced with an unnecessary caution, suspecting some cleverly concealed trap.

The way was strewn with a few corpses and many dead horses. Then, five miles from the Canal, the Coldstreamers were halted: the Germans had established a defensive line on the Canal’s banks and set about attacking them intensively with artillery, machine-gunfire and gas shells.

This became the pattern: as the Allies pressed forward, the Germans would retire briefly, before mounting a ferocious defence. Private Frederick Noakes described:

Fritz had not waited for the attack, but had made off during the night! We, following, were marching for the best part of the day, and only towards evening did we get anywhere near the new positions. It was a most strange day. We kept meeting men coming back, and every time their reply was the same: ‘We can’t find the enemy’; ‘We’ve lost Fritz’. There were scarcely any dead on the field. I only remember seeing three, and I didn’t see a wounded man all day. I wish all battles were like that.

The Germans’ vanishing tricks could not, however, alter the cumulative logic of what was going on: in addition to the British successes, General Humbert’s Army retook Ham and Chauny and, by the end of the week, it captured both sides of the River Oise. By then, the Americans had reached the south bank of the Aisne. Over 150,000 enemy soldiers had been captured by the Allies since 18th July.

Lt Col Walter Vignoles

On 4th September, Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Vignoles recorded

The Boche is burning all the farms, and as three-quarters of a French farm is wood it doesn’t leave much. There is no doubt that Fritz is in a great mess.

Militarily, the biggest breakthrough of the week came on 2nd September with the piercing of the Drocout-Quéant line. Victory was conclusive but, yet again, the cost was terrible. Private Howard Cooper acted as a runner on the day and came across dreadful sights, when sheltering in a trench to avoid machine-gun fire:

I had been luckier than others for here lay a veritable pile of dead khaki figures, just on top of each other as they had fallen in, after being caught by the gun. There must have been eight or nine, long ways, upside down; their deathly faces and hands sticking out in various directions; small drying rivers of blood showed the bullet had done its work.

I paused to look at them a minute and realised I might have now been with them. Even their very legs looked dead. I cannot explain but a dead man’s very limbs somehow look like models dressed in clothes. On the soles of their boots was the mud and chalk on which they had so recently trodden. Their wide open eyes seemed to stare into ‘the beyond’. The hands, so white, were soiled with the work which I could hardly imagine they had done even an hour or so ago.

The rapid gaining of ground was gratifying for the Allies, but imposed a huge physical and nervous toll. On 7th September, Lieutenant Harry Siepmann of the Royal Field Artillery recorded:

We have been going hammer and tongs since August 20th and we are all a bit battered and exhausted… The great problem for me has been water. My horses use 10 gallons a day each and I have to find the water for the men as well, and for the little washing that we do. Most wells are dry and all pumping installations are hammered to pieces by our shell fire. The country is parched and thirsty and I have been at my wits’ end.

Of course the wastage of all sorts has been tremendous. I started the battle over-equipped. I am now threadbare. I have lost my saddlers, and my harness is getting useless for want of repair. My vehicles are shaken to pieces and all the wheels are loose. And my poor horses, that looked so well! My own dear little chestnut has been killed and my groom is wounded. Yesterday I had a man killed by one of those infernal machines that the enemy manage to leave behind them in a hurry.

The Allies were excited by their advance, but feared what lay ahead. Once the Germans had regrouped behind the Hindenburg Line, it seemed to many Tommies that they would gather their strength and wreak a terrible revenge. Many German troops, especially junior officers, agreed with them. Leutnant Sulzbach wrote:

Leutnant Sulzbach

Ludendorff will find a way out! …However, now and then we do have the feeling that it will be barely possible for us to get the better of this giant army of Frenchmen, Englishmen and Americans and their swarms of auxiliary nations, their incalculable quantities of equipment, raw materials and food supplies. But we just have to do it! And so we have moved into the fifth year of the war, and no end is in sight yet.

On 2nd September, Hindenburg — still a greatly revered figure — issued a manifesto:

We are engaged in a severe battle with our enemies. If numerical superiority alone were to guarantee victory then Germany would long since have lain crushed to the ground. The enemy knows, however, that Germany and her allies are not to be vanquished by arms alone… He wants to poison our spirit, and believes that the German arms will be blunted if the German spirit is corroded.

The trouble, he acknowledged, was that the same German spirit was being corroded:

…This poison takes effect on men on leave and flies in letters to the front, and again our enemies rub their hands… ….Be on your guard, German Army and German Home.

And what of the Kaiser, claimed by many to be the principal architect of Germany’s grandiose ambitions in the early twentieth century? In so many ways, he was peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with the nightmare which was unfolding. He had taken to his bed at Schloss Wilhelmshoehe after the bad news of the breach of the Drocourt-Quéant (‘Switch’) line on 2nd September, but only after shouting at his entourage, ‘Now we have lost the war! Poor Fatherland!’

Rumours of his abducation swirled round the courts and chancelleries of Europe. In the imperial bedchamber, however, the ministrations of his wife purged his dark night of the soul. On 6th September, he walked with Admiral von Muller, admitting to him:

I have had a slight nervous breakdown as the result of the Empress’s illness and the news from the Western Front. But I retired to bed, slept for 24 hours and am a new man once more.

The Kaiser: reassuringly new

Resurrection proved insufficient, however, to reassure all of his critics. On 9th September, he decided to visit the Krupp Works in Essen — a vanity project on his part, if ever there was one. With elephantine bad taste, he dressed in the field-grey uniform of a serving soldier, which went down very badly with most of the 1500 steelworkers in his audience. Knowing better than his advisors, as he always did, he proceeded also to ignore the text which had been prepared for him, and improvised.

“Dear Friends” he began, confidently.

Even by his standards, what followed was an epic of poor judgement. Gems included:

To every single one of us his task is given — to you your hammer, to you at your lathe, to me upon my throne!

Someone, somewhere, seems to have told him about Henry V and St Crispin Day. Might this have been in his mind when he appealed to his bemused audience?

Doubt is the greatest ingratitude toward the Lord. And now I ask you all quite simply and honestly — have we really ground for doubt? Just look at the four years’ war. What immense achievements we have behind us!

Alas, this was Essen, not Agincourt, and he was a dim Hohenzollern. The deep unresponsiveness of his listeners dismayed him.

The apathy of German civilians seems to have been in contrast to the relative jollity of many German soldiers taken into captivity along the Front. Private Adrian Hart, with the New Zealand Engineers, recorded:

Today I have been a good deal amongst German prisoners, who are collected in the different cages behind the lines. Souvenirs can be had in the way of money, rings, watches, decorations and so forth. Of money and rings I got a good few in exchange for a few cigarettes, of course in the majority of cases the best of the souvenirs are taken off them before they get back to us. Many of them give quite freely of what they have, and a good many speak fairly good English. Certainly they seem to be well contented to be finished with the war and well they might.

Where next should the battle go? Haig was convinced that the war could be ended before the end of the year but it would require pressing home the advantage secured in battles and that, in turn, meant that politicians in London would have to stump up the troops and equipment. Haig — it may be surmised — considered the occupant of Downing Street and many of his colleagues to be lily-livered and morally supine. An exception was Churchill, always an action junkie, who agreed with Haig. He suggested, over-optimistically, that men could be released from his own munitions factories to boost the numbers in action.

But events were now moving in Haig’s favour. Recent successes had strengthened his hand, and Foch was also beginning to favour a forward policy, remarking on 4th September that, ‘the German is nearing his end’.

British soldiers, despite exhaustion and losses, appear also to have remained remarkably determined to see the war to the finish. Lieutenant Alan Philbrick of the 9th London Regiment wrote:

Yes, the battalion has had a pretty sticky time, and there are many good fellows gone, though, all considered, our luck as regards officers’ casualties holds good. The battalion has gone up this morning, having been out only two days. They are in reserve for a stunt once more which means they will drop into it once again, I suppose. I wish to God we could get out for a decent spell. The men are wonderful, but they’re very, very tired…

Fighting in other theatres of war seemed less conclusive — certainly at sea, where the motif was business as usual. Twenty-eight ships were sunk during the week, including an American troopship, Mount Vernon, and the ocean liner Missanabie. Two German submarines were also destroyed and 56 crew members killed.

The week also saw a silly spat in which the British Admiralty published the names of 150 U-boat commanders whose U-boats had been lost. They were goaded into doing so only because the Germans had denied a recent claim by Lloyd George that 150 German U-boats had been sunk since the start of the war. However, the ‘list’ contained no more than names and, for all anyone knew, these might have been pulled out of a telephone directory. The Germans were, understandably, scornful.

The Germans also inflicted some punishment in the air. On 4th September, a RAF flight of twelve Sopwith Camels was engaged over the First Army front by an estimated 30 FokkersEight of the British planes were brought down with four pilots killed and four captured. It was the greatest single loss sustained by a Camel squadron during the war.

Sopwith Camel

An aerial shoot-out was not enough, however, to reverse the increasing strategic confidence of the Allies. That same day, Clemenceau secured Lloyd George’s approval for an imminent Balkan offensive against the Bulgarians. The idea had been mooted a month earlier. Lloyd George, long an advocate of offensives away from the Western Front, had only held off agreeing at once because of the dramatic upturn of Allied fortunes in France. Believing now that the tide there might irreversibly have turned, he looked to an enhanced “southern strategy” as a means of safeguarding British interests in a post-war Europe.

Clemenceau was also preoccupied by similar thoughts of safeguarding France’s strength and prestige in a world without war. His particular concern was that the United States should not be allowed to dictate any post-war settlement. The best way to secure that, he believed, was for Britain and France to be the ones to deal the death blow to Germany — and that meant a major new military push, without General Pershing and his troops.

Lloyd George would have loved that too, but not if it meant finding the manpower to fill the 50 divisions for which Clemenceau was now calling. A general election was looming, and he was not about to risk antagonising a very war-weary electorate. For now, at least, the geopolitics of Europe after the war would have to wait. Victory was all that mattered. While the British media was calling the breaching of the Drocourt-Quéant line “one of the memorable victories of the war”, nobody at home was thinking of hanging out the bunting: yet more enemy aliens were interned, and gas workers went on strike. Low-key grumbling was just what the British did best.

There was nothing low-key about what was happening in Russia: two revolutions, one peace-treaty, regicide and civil war seemed to have been insufficient to assuage the bile and bitterness of its rulers. Some of the fury was bound up, no doubt, with the fact that they seemed to be losing the present contest. On 2nd September, the town of Oboserskaia, 75 miles south of Archangel, fell to the Allies. The following day, north of Vladivostok, the Japanese captured Khanarovsk, an important enemy base and, on 8th September, at Olovyanna in Siberia, the Czecho-Slovaks, delighted to be now recognised by the USA as co-belligerents, met other Czech forces moving from the east.

The response of Lenin and his acolytes was to make war on the Russian people. The People’s Commissar of the Interior, Petrovsky, signed a decree calling for more arrests and executions. No one was safe — certainly not peasants, who were being routinely imprisoned, beaten, and often killed.

Local officials lamely sought to justify their actions:

They told us at headquarters: better to oversalt than not to salt enough.

Foreigners were especially at risk of attack, even those who held diplomatic passports. On the evening of 3rd September, the diplomatic corps in St Petersburg, including the German and Austrian consuls, prepared an official protest and presented it to Zinoviev. The next day, the consul sent a personal note to Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs:

It is impossible for me to believe that you approve of the mad career into which the Bolshevik Government has now plunged. Your cause totters on the verge of complete moral bankruptcy. There is only one possible means of redemption. You must stop at once the barbarous oppression of your own people.

Bruce Lockhart

Chicherin was quite undeterred. The arrests continued, including that of Bruce Lockhart, Britain’s first envoy to Soviet Russia. On 6th September, Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, made an official protest:

Should the Russian Soviet Government fail to give complete satisfaction or should any further acts of violence be committed against a British subject His Majesty’s Government will hold the members of the Soviet Government individually responsible and will make every endeavour to secure that they shall be treated as outlaws by the governments of all civilised nations and that no place of refuge be left to them.

Maxim Litvinov and, presumably, Mrs Litvinov

The British now reversed an earlier decision to send 25 Russians home as a goodwill gesture and, instead, placed Maxim Litvinov, Soviet Plenipotentiary in London, and his staff under preventive arrest. Some might argue — as the Soviet authorities did — that, after four years of allowing its young men to go into the mincing machine of mechanised warfare, Britain and France were in no position to claim the moral high ground.

Edith Appleton at Le Tréport recorded a conversation this week with a soldier called Cooper, now one of her patients. He had stumbled across five dead Germans barely out of the entrance to a dugout — one a young boy still holding a little kitten.

Cooper told her:

A man standing there said that when they took the trench they called down the dug-out for the Germans to come up and waited for them with bayonets at the top. This un-British cold-blooded act turned me. They said the captain had told them, ‘Stick all the bastards’. At the bottom of the next dug-out I found the captain in a crude bunk and he seemed half drunk.

That was certainly not unique, but it was a rarity. Even though it may not have been clear to the Bolsheviks, traditional nostrums of decency still infused the behaviour of most Western civilians and soldiers. Margaret Mercer, a war widow, worked as a volunteer helper in a French hospital, based in a château in the ruined village of Coincy. Her diary for 5th September recorded:

I dread the grands blessés [seriously wounded] as they are nearly all waiting to be operated on so must not have drinks, and lie groaning on their stretchers, imploring me to give them something ‘à boire’. I long to run away but try to nerve myself to wash the blood off their faces etcetera — and after seeing men in this condition, one feels one ought never to complain.

Transporting the wounded by train

There is something very human in her apprehension, reassuringly so. Three days later, she noted:

Five Boches brought in today — one a very nice looking boy, who died in the night from shock, though he is not seriously wounded — it must be awful to be wounded and among a hostile crowd.

“A nice looking boy.” There is much in those four words which testifies to the pity of war, and to the irrepressible power of human beings to respond to one another.

The Army Chaplain, Julian Bickersteth, echoed the thought in a doleful letter home written on 1st September:

I buried about seventy of our lads today — such fine-looking fellows, many of them so young. Oh! what a debt England will owe to these lads when the war is over and we can settle down to enjoy the peace which they have won for us by the sacrifice — yes, cheerful sacrifice of their young bodies…

There was nothing arch in these remarks — the tragedy of brutal death was made somehow more poignant when the bodies of those sacrificed had scarcely grown into manhood.

Lieutenant Colonel Feilding, the bravest and best of officers, was moved to express a similar thought in his own letter home exactly a week later. He and some of his brother officers had been exploring the village of Moislains, which had been part of the great battle of 2nd September.

…We buried an officer and twenty-four men of the Civil Service Rifles there and then, and many others of the Brigade were still left lying. There was no time for anything elaborate, so the poor bodies with their blackened faces were just lifted into shell-holes or into the trench, one or two or three or four together, and earth was put over them. Then a rifle, with bayonet fixed, was stuck into the ground, butt uppermost, to mark each grave — with the names on a bit of paper attached to the trigger-guard.

 

Then, after Farebrother had read the burial service, we left them, and the same afternoon reached the Ancre, in which we bathed.

This evening I had my first opportunity of seeing the battalion quarter guard mounted. It is the practice in the battalion for the band to play at guard-mounting when out of the line, ending up always, as the old guard marches away, with the hymn ‘Abide with Me’. It is a pathetic tune I think, and always makes a lump come into my throat.