A Terrible Sinking Inside

A British and German soldiers sharing the comfort of a cigarette, 1917

TOO MUCH, PERHAPS, has been already been said about Passchendaele.

The battle was, doubtless, more terrible than any of us can now imagine, but modern reportage has sometimes swapped understanding for sentiment. At the time, there seemed no good alternative, and that is a judgement which, even now, holds up well.

Soldiers of all armies who, in late July 1917, poured towards the front line were, of course, deeply apprehensive. In each of the armies, convention and necessity, however, encouraged no more than a controlled display of feelings. Some men enjoyed the advantage of transmitting their own sense of loss and longing into prose and poetry – for historians, incidentally, a priceless archive.

But even the best of these were, for their authors, a source of consolation and not of salvation. The minute-by-minute countdown to the new offensive subsumed everyone’s energies. Thousands of troops had arrived in the area ready for the assault. In the final 15 days of July, British artillery pounded the enemy round Ypres region with 4.3 million shells, while the French had their own series of battles with the enemy along the Aisne.

Haig had toured his different Corps and, on 27th July, he was told that Fifth Army patrols were already occupying some German front lines.

“We have never before found the enemy abandoning ground in this way before our attack, he noted. “The situation looks most satisfactory. More good news came from Trenchard. The RFC, he reported, were being effective in driving the enemy out of the air.

Just as aeroplanes were now a virtually unremarked part of the arsenal of war, so too had tanks become a relatively familiar sight on the Western Front. Deemed an essential support for infantry attacks, the so-called Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps was officially hived off and given official and independent status as the Tank Corps on 28th July. The timing was not a coincidence: great hopes were being invested that “the steel caterpillars” would push forward towards the enemy front line in ways which, the previous year, had proved impossible for massed infantry. Back at Tank HQ, however, concern was growing over the “Swamp Map”- on which the increasing area of blue denoted bogs created by the destruction of drainage dykes.

Zero Hour was daybreak on 31st July. This was also the feast day of the great soldier-saint, Ignatius of Loyola, someone for whom battle was an ever-present metaphor. It is unlikely the coincidence impressed itself upon the British Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, Haig’s last sentence in his diary on the eve of battle reads as laconically as ever:

Report received this afternoon states that of 136 Tanks to be moved up to positions E. of canal and Ypres, 133 are in position and all is well.

Altogether more fulsome, the splendidly named Major-General C.G. Blackader (sic) sent a message to his troops on the eve of battle on 30th July:

Major General C. G. Blackader, CB

Tomorrow the 38th (Welsh) Division will have the honour of being in the front line of what will be the big battle of the war. On the deeds of each individual of the Division depends whether it shall be said that the 38th (Welsh) Division took Pilckem and Langemarck and upheld gloriously the honour of Wales and the British Empire. The honour can be obtained by hard fighting and self-sacrifice on the part of each one of us. Gwell angau na chywilydd.

Haig had, in fact, hoped to start his attack on 25th July, but plans to do so had been delayed due to the poor weather, and also because the Germans had withdrawn their battered artillery out of range of the Royal Artillery. His army commanders had also pleaded for more time.

The main assault had been entrusted to General Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army on a front of about seven and a half miles. The entire front of the Allied attack extended from the Lys river opposite Dettlemont northwards to beyond Steenstaatt – a distance of over fifteen miles. Such a broad front diverted attention (it was hoped) from the fact that Haig was particularly anxious to disrupt the German rail system which supplied their troops to the front line. Bringing that off that would mean wresting control of the railway junction at Roulers.

Just five miles from Roulers, lying on a ridge, lay the village of Passchendaele. The name meant nothing to anyone just then.

Until 25th July, Haig’s preoccupations had still included obtaining the final go-ahead from the British government. It was only then that a telegram arrived at HQ from Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff:

War Cabinet authorizes me to inform you that having approved your plans being executed you may depend on their whole-hearted support and that if and when they decide again to reconsider the situation they will obtain your views before arriving at any decision as to cessation of operations.

Haig was remarkably uncomplaining of his burdens but this was hardly a ringing endorsement of months of preparation, nor indeed of his leadership. In a rare flash of bitterness, he acknowledged his hurt in a note to Lord Derby on 30th July:

How different to the whole-hearted, almost unthinking support given by our Government to the Frenchman [Nivelle] last January.

How different indeed! Thanks to Lloyd George’s passionate advocacy of Nivelle, as Haig might have seen it, he had to wrestle with disaster at Arras and continual postponement of his own offensive in Flanders.

On the other hand, politicians were not the exclusive authors of delay. The recent capture of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge, a superb British success which had cost nearly 25,000 casualties in only two weeks, had still not been followed up by Allied forces, even though the way had been cleared. The failure to do so had initially disconcerted, and then delighted, the Germans. They now reinforced their already impressive defences and waited for the next Allied onslaught.

The village of Wytschaete after its capture

The set piece battle, and the scale of preparation and provision which it entailed, no longer had any resonance in the east. The full extent of Russia’s impotence was becoming daily more apparent, especially in Galicia, where the impact of her political crisis had snapped military resolve.

On 24th July, determined to restore discipline in the army and to staunch the haemorrhage of deserters, the Russian High Command reintroduced the death penalty at the front. There is no reason to believe, however, it made much difference: all week, Russian defences crumbled. Towns on both fronts were taken by advancing Austro-German forces – Stanislau, Tarnopol, Kolomea, Kutz – the list went on and on. In the Carpathians, the retreat became a rout, less because the Russians were overwhelmed by force majeure, but far more because thousands refused to fight. Many just turned and fled, and guns, ammunition and equipment were discarded without a care.

German soldiers in the train station of Tarnopol, 1917

Could one even speak any longer of an “army”? The word implies something integrated and collective. But the spectacle unfolding in the east was of a disintegrating mass of weary men whose raison d’etre, the defence of Mother Russia, elicited only contempt.

This was not, for the moment anyway, true of southern Moldavia where the Romanian-Russian armies advanced a respectable ten miles during the week and captured thousands of prisoners. Their contrasting fortunes were probably deceptive, however, inasmuch as the intervention of French arms and personnel, as well as the forthright person of General Berthelot, appear to have done much to galvanise the demoralised Romanians after a long period of setbacks.

Sailors in Russia seemed a bit less desperate as well. From the pen of Feodor Chaliapin, the hugely famous and popular Russian basso profundo, came glimpses of resilience and of good spirits on 21st July:

Have just got back from Sevastopol, where I gave a concert to a large audience of sailors. The proceeds are to go to those injured in the war and to supporting popular education. I gave the concert dressed in a simple sailor’s jacket, which I was also photographed in. The sailors bore me aloft over their heads and I sang them songs and made speeches.

Feodor Chaliapin

The spirit and stomach for war lay thin on the ground at home as well. Little displays of patriotic feeling emerged, but they seem to have been suspiciously cinematic. On 27th July, a Cossack guard of honour escorted seven of the 20 Cossacks killed during the July Days to lie in state in St Isaac’s Cathedral. Hundreds of mourners processed past the coffins during the night and, the following day, an elaborate Orthodox funeral was held with music, incense, icons and crosses in abundance.

There was no denying the splendour of the spectacle which unfolded. Huge crowds gathered to watch as the coffins “borne on ornate canopied hearses drawn by black horses” were taken for burial at the Alexander Nevsky cemetery. As the last coffin was carried out of St Isaac’s, Kerensky arrived, making his first public appearance as Prime Minister. Dressed in plain khaki and puttees, he was greeted by a “mighty cheer” as people shouted his name. He made a short speech, (short for Kerensky, anyway), and then, hatless and head bowed, walked in procession behind the coffins. The American novelist Ernest Poole commented, “On that day the government seemed embodied in this one man.

He wished. Others, including another American, journalist Bessie Beatty, were less impressed:

The casual observer in Petrograd would have said that revolutionary disturbances were a thing of the past, that order had come to stay. But the casual observer would have failed to understand the breadth and depth of the movements stirring beneath the surface.

 She was sure that the July Days had been “only the beginning of the class struggle in Revolution”.

Prophetic words. On (what could now could be termed only ironically) the Home Front – there were fresh reasons for disillusionment. Arthur Ransome, working in Russia as a correspondent for the Daily News, was desperate to get home, writing to his family on 23rd July:

You do not see the bones sticking through the skin of the horses in the street. You do not have your porter’s wife beg for a share of your bread allowance because she cannot get enough to feed her children. You do not go to a tearoom to have tea without cakes, without bread, without butter, without milk, without sugar, because there are none of these things. You do not pay seven shillings and ninepence a pound for very second-rate meat. You do not pay forty-eight shillings for a pound of tobacco.

That was around £20 and £120 respectively in today’s money. Ransome added, with feeling:

If ever I do get home, my sole interest will be gluttony.

Arthur Ransome

A sense of impending fresh crisis even permeated the walls of Tsarskoe Selo where the former Tsar and his family tried hard not to think about what kind of future awaited them. Elizaveta Naryshkina confided to her diary on 25th July:

Terrible news from the front: the army has melted away completely. In the heat of battle soldiers begin to question whether their officers are really worth following, often resulting in their taking off and leaving their comrades in greater danger. The rout is complete: artillery, ammunition, field hospitals and even nurses are abandoned to the enemy; those soldiers who do not forget their duty and try to remain loyal to their officers are shot by the deserters.

Shame, disgrace! The people are without honour and conscience.

The same words were used by the Tsar two days later when he was moved to comment upon the same events: “It’s a shame and a disgrace!”

Their fear and exasperation needs no explanation. Yet these were the effusions of an ancien régime which remained, apparently, blind to its own responsibilities for all that had unfolded.

Even so, others – from very different walks of life – agreed. Zamardev, a peasant, wrote the same day:

The situation with the army is far from good. The soldiers, thoughtless and blind, are leaving the front in their thousands. Nevertheless there are some, who have conscience and understanding, who are dying in their thousands. The first are traitors and betrayers of their motherland, the second are true defenders, to whom all honour and glory. The officers press ahead, dying in their thousands and inspiring some of the soldiers. But half the soldiers attack, and the other half run in disgrace.

That was the kind of “analysis” which would have recommended itself to the inhabitants of Tsarskoe Selo. A different take came from the anti-war revolutionary Inessa Armand in Moscow on 25th July:

Inessa Armand

On our front blood is being spilled again, again they are mutilating our husbands and brothers in the name of capitalists’ and landowners’ interests. Contrary to the wishes of the people, contrary to the wishes of our soldiers, our troops are being thrown into an offensive. The current war was not started in the name of people’s interests, neither the peasants nor the workers needed it, it could only bring new suffering to all of them, only new hunger, only new hardships.

It is often forgotten by historians that, right at this moment, it appeared as if the Central Powers were on the edge of invading Russia itself – of pouring into Petrograd, then the capital city, and, maybe soon after, into Moscow. The question as to whether or not the country could recover a sense of national purpose was more practical than academic. On 28th July, the wife of the US Naval attaché, Pauline Crosley, wrote that Kerensky:

dashes busily around, from rear to front and from one front to another, making impassioned speeches… My Russian friends assure me matters will become ‘normal’ (normally unsettled) for a time — that the anarchists will not make another serious attempt until they have completed their organization, that they now know how easy it is to take the city and the next time they capture it they will keep it.

Any chance of Russia’s military salvation would depend, at the very least, on soldiers doing what they were told. But, among commanders, the stomach for enforcing discipline seems to have been lacking. According to a note written on 29th July by Britain’s military attaché, General Alfred Knox:

Kerensky presided over conference at G.H.Q. with all the Commanders-in-Chief of different fronts. General Denikin spoke out as a brave and experienced soldier, demanding the abolition of all elected committees in the army and the restoration of all authority and disciplinary power to officers. He seems to have been only half-heartedly supported by his comrades, and no definite decision was reached.

The final countdown to Third Ypres represented a moment of extraordinary gravity for the Allies, and scarcely less for the Central Powers. The impending collapse of Russia heralded an era in which every rulebook would have to be rewritten. But the greater story of the Great War was that of multiple and incessant crises. This was also the week in which the Irish Convention assembled in Trinity College, Dublin with a view to coming up with a scheme for the future self-government of Ireland.

Canada was meanwhile defying its hallowed reputation for unquestioning loyalty to the crown. The Military Service Bill, permitting conscription, was passed on 24th July. Riots had broken out in Quebec when this was first mooted, but the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, had been embarrassed that the numbers produced by Canada’s voluntary enlistment had fallen short by comparison with other countries. For those Canadians unsympathetic to the claims of big government, bad news was compounded when, on 25th July, income tax was introduced for the first time.

And there was also a big row with the French. C’était normal, perhaps, but it threatened to turn serious. Lloyd George, in Paris for an Allied Conference to discuss the situation in the Balkans, was pressing for the withdrawal of one division from Salonika in order to relocate it in Egypt. Nationalist sentiment was growing in Cairo, something which the British wanted very much to nip in the bud. To the French, this seemed the height of selfishness. The demands of war and the security in the Balkans must surely, they argued, take precedence. No decision was reached and a fresh conference was arranged in London for 5th August.

For domestic audiences in France there was, at least, the arrest and trial of Mata Hari to ensure an alternative diet – a potent brew of patriotic indignation and raw titillation. Famed for her exotic dancing and for being the mistress of an array of high-ranking politicians and military top brass of various nationalities, she had been arrested in February 1917 and was currently being held in St Lazare prison, accused of spying for the Germans. Mata Hari was a Dutch national, whose real name was Margaretha Zelle, and her trial opened on 24th July to a great blast of publicity. It was nice to have an excuse to think about something other than the Western Front.

Mata Hari

But the impending battle there could not be put indefinitely out of mind. Second Lieutenant Edwin Vaughan wrote in his diary on 29th July that he and his comrades in the Royal Warwickshires had arrived at Poperinghe at dawn:

We were struck very soon by the different appearance of the landscape here. It was perfectly flat, devoid of trees or hedges and relieved only by compact, tangled hopfields. For a while we passed ruined brick houses, but later we came across little bungalows built entirely of packing cases and beaten out tins… The air was again charged with electricity, and we chattered noisily about the rumours that had reached us of the fierce fighting and terrible conditions that lay ahead… We finished our drinks as he pinned a map on the wall and we returned to our hut. But before we left we heard Pepper say ‘and those red squares are concrete pillboxes, reinforced with iron and absolutely shellproof’…

Edwin Vaughan

Ewing was sorting out maps for us, and as we gathered round a large-scale trench map of Pilckem, he said he had no definite news for us. He only knew that in about a week or ten days, we would be taking part in an attack somewhere along the Steenbeck stream. But he confirmed Pepper’s statement that the German defences consisted of enormous concrete blockhouses so situated that the guns mutually enfiladed each other.

I felt a terrible sinking inside when I heard this, for it appeared that any attack must be unsuccessful, but when we had discussed it exhaustively we came to the conclusion that the reports must be exaggerated, and we decided not to worry about them…

For Walter Williamson, of the 8th Cheshire Regiment, just getting to the front line on 30th July was a hazardous affair:

… suddenly, as if the enemy had waited until he knew that the Canal Bank was packed with troops, he put down a heavy barrage that seemed to include everything he had but boiling oil. There came gas shells, H.E. shells, Shrapnel, nicely mixed…  The night was dark enough in itself, but with gas helmets on, hardly room to move one’s arms, and the cries of the wounded heard through the shriek and bursting shells, seemed to make the night a black one indeed.

Suspicion that much worse lay ahead now festered in his mind:

This, too, seemed to breed a suspicion in our minds, that the morning’s attack was not going to be the big surprise to the enemy that some of us fondly imagined… We eventually managed to extricate ourselves and made a dash for the wooden footbridge that crossed the Canal. This had already been badly smashed, and crossing it in the darkness with gas masks on, further casualties occurred. There was no hope for anyone who fell into the canal, as, weighted with ammunition and equipment as we were, the unfortunate one would sink like a stone and nothing could be seen in the darkness…