ON 16th APRIL, Nivelle launched the new 1917 offensive. “The hour has struck!” he proclaimed. “Confidence! Courage! Vive la France!”
Talk about hubris. It bombed.
Nivelle’s bubble reputation, which had been forged in the blood-soaked siege of Verdun, did not survive the opening days of the offensive which bears his name. After a protracted bombardment, which left the Germans in no doubt that an attack was imminent, 30 French divisions attacked on a 40-mile Front from the Montagne de Reims to the Oise. By evening, the attack had become bogged down in mud, facing the full fury of enemy guns and barbed wire. Only 600 yards had been gained.
Human folly played a part. Nivelle had insisted the attack go ahead, even in appalling weather. Detailed plans were found on captured French officers and worse, thanks to the commander’s woeful propensity to talk boastfully and incautiously, the Germans knew exactly from where the attack would come.
What followed was pitiful. The French were slaughtered. Colonial troops, especially the Sengalese, suffered especially.
One poilu remembered:
We had been taught to believe theirs would be a headlong assault, a wild savage onrush. Instead, paralysed with cold… faces tinged with grey, they reached the assault trenches with the utmost difficulty. Most of them were too exhausted even to eat the rations they carried, and their hands were too cold to fix bayonets… They got quite a long way before the German machine-guns mowed them down.
By 18th April, the extent of Nivelle’s failure was becoming apparent and the French government was getting distinctly apprehensive.
The intention was that
if the offensive operations near Soissons by the French did not develop successfully very quickly, to stop them, and do nothing until 1918 when the Americans would be able to help.
In other words, no repetition of Verdun or the Somme was to be permitted. That sounded excellent news, but it left the British horribly exposed, since they had just begun their own offensive – demanded of them by Nivelle and Lloyd George – to divert some of the German fury away from the French.
…to assure me that the French Armies would continue to operate energetically, because what I feared was that, after the British Army had exhausted itself trying to make Nivelle’s plan a success, the French Govt. might stop the operations… Nivelle assured me that neither he nor his Government had any intention of stopping…
Nivelle was therefore sounding a very different note to that of his political masters. And, true, the French had indeed made some gains across the Chemin des Dames on the Aisne Front and they advanced north of Sancy on the Vregny plateau on 20th April. But casualties were astronomical. French casualties from 16th–25th April were given as 118,000 of whom 28,000 were killed, 5,000 died of wounds, 80,000 were wounded, 20,000 of whom were fit to return to their units by 30th April, and 5,000 were taken prisoner. French medical services also proved woefully inadequate. In one hospital, in a particularly egregious example of administrative uselessness, four thermometers were allocated to 3,500 beds.
If any charge of cowardice were to be levied, it should not be at Nivelle himself but at the supine and faceless politicians and military top brass who had failed to act upon an unease which had been rumbling for months. Gradually, awareness spread that nearly everyone else in authority had opposed Nivelle’s plan as hopeless and yet nobody had had – what? the judgement? the courage? – to block him. Until now, French soldiers had mainly bought into the idea that there was some overarching purpose to the terrible yoke under which they laboured. Maybe no longer.
The British tried to play the supporting role with appropriate phlegm. Lieutenant Colonel Feilding was back on the front line with the Connaughts. His letter home on 17th April observed the opening day of the French offensive cautiously.
The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena… but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.
The weather! It takes an Englishman to fill up space in his correspondence devoted just to that. He continued:
I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than today. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench.
British troops were also busy this week in the Middle East. There was broadly good news in Mesopotamia, where they forced the passage of Shat-el-Adhaim, the left tributary of the Tigris, between 17th and 18th April. The following day, under General Maude, they defeated the 18th Turkish Army Corps on the right bank, taking 1,200 prisoners.
In Palestine, fortunes were mixed: the second battle of Gaza opened on 19th April when the British, under General Murray, attacked the Turkish positions. Eight tanks and 4,000 gas shells had been provided but the British were held off by the well-constructed system of Turkish trenches. The nearest to success came the following morning when British biplanes attacked Ottoman cavalry on its way to Abu Hureira for water and rest. Within a very few minutes, their bombs inflicted more damage upon the Turks than the Army had managed the whole of the previous day.
Venezuelan-born de Nogales described the scene:
Almost two hundred horses lay on the ground in their death throes, or fled in all possible directions, maddened by pain and with blood spurting from their dangling guts. Any riders whose feet had been caught in the stirrups were dragged with them and any soldiers foolish enough to try to stop them were trampled under their hooves.
But the British airmen did not have it all their own way. A German anti-aircraft battery managed to hit two of the planes; one flew away, the other crashed about three miles away. Rafael de Nogales took lancers with him in a rush to save the pilot. They found him already dead:
The dead officer was blond, his hair somewhere between tawny and red, and he was still very young. The only apparent wound on his body was in the chest, where a piece of shrapnel had entered and penetrated the lung. Because of the tremendous impact caused by a fall of more than a thousand metres his blue or hazel eyes had been pushed out of their sockets.
He had already been stripped naked and mutilated with his feet chopped off – presumably the looters were in a hurry and opted not to waste time unlacing his boots. De Nogales was moved. The wretched pilot’s body was loaded on a camel and, back in Abu Hureira, he wrapped the pilot in his own cloak and gave him a proper burial.
This lurid incident was only one of many desperate moments for British airmen whose flying machines, just now, seemed often unequal to the demands placed upon them. April 1917 saw around 500 aircrew killed and more than 1,000 aeroplanes destroyed – its most terrible losses of the war.
Their commander, General Hugh Trenchard, had issued his famous order requiring “a full breakfast table, with no empty chairs”.
His argument was that
If as an ordinary pilot you see no vacant places around you, the tendency is to brood less on the fate of friends who have gone for ever. Instead your mind is taken up with buying drinks for the newcomers and making them welcome.
It was pragmatic, if unsentimental. Rather as front line soldiers began to exhibit signs of mental strain when exposed too long to acute danger, the strain of aerial combat, often with many sorties a day, took a toll.
Albert Ball, one of the very greatest of all, felt it acutely. He had told his parents back in September 1916:
I feel so sorry for the chaps I have killed. Just imagine what their poor people must feel like. I must have sent at least 40 chaps to their death. However it must be done or they would kill me.
A sensitive, rather introverted young man, Ball was also a “lone wolf” flyer of outstanding courage and skill. He had fashioned a way of stalking his prey from below, and of then firing with his Lewis gun upwards through the enemy’s fuselage. The fact that he flew without goggles or helmet added to his singularity, as did his preference for doing his own mechanical work on his planes. He was promoted captain on his 20th birthday on August 1916 and, by the end of September, he had 31 victories and a Military Cross to his credit. By the end of November, he was the first man ever to have been awarded three DSOs.
Baubles, however plentiful, could not protect Ball from the debilitating strain nor the ongoing risk of being shot down. After a period of enforced leave and then instructional duties, he was clamouring to return to the Front. The old magic was evidently there in abundance: on 23rd April, in five separate dogfights, Ball brought down two more enemy aircraft, despite having to change planes when his first one was badly damaged.
That was the same day on which Manfred von Richthofen notched up his 47th kill. Now the Red Baron received an invitation to visit the Kaiser at Supreme Headquarters. The Germans liked to laud the successes of their pilots very publicly: top-scoring aces became national celebrities and there is no evidence that Richtoften attempted to buck the trend. That wasn’t Ball’s style at all.
It was no better at sea. The one consolation for the continuing decimation wrought on merchant shipping was that the Americans were given no reason to doubt the rightness of their recent decision to enter the war. One hundred and fifteen ships were lost this week, including a number of their own. On 17th April, the Senate confirmed measures to suppress the export of foodstuffs to Germany, and the next day, the “Old Glory” USA War Bill concerning the loan of $400 million passed the Senate.
Losses at sea this week included two hospital ships, carrying wounded from Le Havre to Southampton, which were sunk without warning in the English Channel on 17th April. HMHS Donegal was torpedoed by UC-21; 29 wounded soldiers and 12 crew perished. HMHS Lanfranc was torpedoed that evening costing the lives of 22 British, including two officers and 18 Germans were also wounded. The fact that both ships were clearly marked and illuminated was a gift for Allied propaganda, ever ready to believe and to trumpet the very worst of the Germans.
In fact, the biggest naval drama of the week came when six German destroyers slipped across the Channel and bombarded Dover on the night of 20th–21st April. Patrolling vessels, HMS Swift and HMS Broke pursued the raiders and what is remarkable is that the ensuing contest saw an almost Nelsonian style battle of close combat between the ships. The crew of HMS Broke fired a torpedo which hit the German G.42 and then tried to ram it.
Commander Evans of HMS Broke later recalled:
A cloud of smoke and sparks belched forth from their funnels and we got a momentary whiff of this as we tore towards her; it all happened in a few seconds, and the feeling of exhilaration as we were about to strike her can never be repeated.
The two ships were locked together and Broke’s crew armed themselves as they expected to be boarded. Evans continued:
In a few seconds after the shock of the collision had been felt a deadly fire was poured from our fore part into the huddled mass of men who, terror-struck, were grouped about the enemy destroyer’s decks. Many of them clambered up our bow and got on to the forecastle, to meet with instant death from our well-armed seamen and stokers. There was no question of the enemy boarding us with the idea of inflicting damage. They came on board to save their own lives…
The battle continued with shells and torpedoes exchanged. Then the other German warships steamed away at full speed covered by darkness as G.42 sank. HMS Broke was eventually towed into harbour to a warm reception. Twenty-one crew had been killed. Commander Evans was promoted to Captain and awarded the DSO. This was the onetime Lieutenant Evans who had been part of Robert Falcon Scott’s Second Antarctic Expedition, and had brought the expedition’s survivors home in 1913. He seemed adept at packing in material for an eventful life.
The dangers and challenges in Russia seemed to be contoured around domestic politics rather than military action. Sometimes it must have felt as if the Brusilov offensive of the previous summer, or the doughty fighting of Russian troops over the previous three years, had availed nothing. Certainly the Russian armies were contributing very little to reassure their partners in the Entente. Germany had few doubts that she could now concentrate her firepower and manpower elsewhere, since Russia seemed to pose no imminent threat.
Indeed, war seemed, just now, to have become peripheral to the concerns, if not of her politicians, then of many of her citizens. Lenin and his comrades denounced it as a bourgeois conspiracy. On 19th April, he presented his Theses (“Bread to the workers; Land to the peasants; Peace for everyone”) to the Bolshevik members of the All-Russian Conference of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Later these dinky soundbites were to have immense resonance but, at the time, there were many doubters. The government’s Foreign Minister, Pavel Miliukov, confided in the French Ambassador, Maurice Paleologue, that Lenin had been a “hopeless failure” and wouldn’t survive. Paleologue wasn’t so sure.
What was not in doubt was the increasingly undisciplined state of the Russian army. The British observer, Alfred Knox, currently in Riga, noted the collapse of discipline and offered his own pithy analysis of the peasant soldier:
He formerly fought because he was afraid of his officers and of punishment. Now he has lost all respect for his officers and he knows he cannot be punished.
Trouble was, Knox was right. The consequences of this breakdown were a source of despair to the occupants of Tsarskoe Selo. Elizaveta Naryshkina, the Mistress of the Robes, considered that any socialist agitation which resulted in a separate peace
would be a disgrace and a betrayal of our allies. The agitation is demoralising the soldiers. All discipline has disappeared; the army has irreversibly degenerated into a medieval horde.
Of course, like many a superior servant, she appears to have been a fan only of those named Romanov. At the same time, Miliukov, seems to have shared her fears – at least to the extent of needing to reassure Russia’s allies and doubters:
The Government will combat German militarism with redoubled force, for our ideal is to destroy the possibility of all war in the future.
To which we can now confidently say – what force? Or indeed, what Government? British and French socialists also took on a quasi-ambassadorial role at this time, visiting the Soviet in Petrograd, but their welcome was no more than cool. It was the first exposure of many to the undeviating hardness of the so-called hard left, and to their intense ideological factionalism.
Orthodox diplomats were frequently bamboozled as they tried to understand what was happening in Russia. The French socialists still hoped to galvanize the Russian people by “boldly democratic policy in the direction of internationalism”. Once again, Paleologue was one of the very few sharp enough to see what was happening. On 20th April, he cautioned them:
The Russian revolution is essentially anarchic and destructive. Left to itself, it can only end in terrible mob-rule by the lowest classes and the soldiery, in the rupture of all national ties and the total collapse of Russia. In view of the propensity to excess which is innate in the Russian character, it will soon go to extremes; it is doomed to sink into mere destruction and barbarism, horror and absurdity.
While Russia’s Home Front was the only one, as yet, in freefall, there were strains elsewhere. German food shortages were an open secret, and a series of recent strikes in protest ended only on 18th April. Food supplies were also deeply vexing the Allies: by mid-April wheat supplies were reported as being down to nine weeks. A Food Order in Britain placed restrictions on pastry and cake-making – not exactly the mark of a siege mentality, perhaps. On 19th April, pastry restrictions were also introduced in France, spiritual home of the patisserie.
All was not gloom – not if you were Cynthia Asquith at least. Despite having a husband at the Front, and a son with desperate mental challenges, her interest in life, and public and private affairs seemed unquenchable. Her diary entry for 23rd April records a lunch with the much-decorated and much-wounded Brigadier Bernard Freyberg:
Found a note from Freyberg saying he was back for one day, and could I lunch with him at the Berkeley. He was looking wonderfully well, and literally glowing with joy and exhilarating self-confidence. He had just got his Brigade. It was really delicious to see a man so happy. He kept on exclaiming. ‘You can’t understand what this means to me. I am only twenty-seven, therefore eight years younger than any other Brigadier. I’ve been put in over thousands of heads — my command is now five miles long, and what’s more, I feel fully competent for the job.’ He enumerated all the counts under him with the tenderness of a child for its toys.
Or, if you prefer, with the egoism of the insufferable.
…He explained how ruthlessly he eliminates any officer falling short of his standard. He said he had backed himself to have a brigade within the year eleven months ago, and thinks he will have a division in a year if the war is still on. When it is over he has got himself the eighteen-month job of superintending the evacuation of France — after that, he intends to go to Mesopotamia or wherever he hopes there might be fighting. He ate Homerically, laying down his fork to exclaim: ‘How I love fighting!’