Absolutely friendless

SOMETIMES, THERE WERE too many narratives. It is better to think of men and women, rather than whole nations. Even at this distance of time, we can lose our way.

Take for instance, the fate of Catherine Harley, an English woman of 61. A nurse and a suffragette, she had been moved by the plight of the Serbs – like many Englishwomen of her generation. Having already earned a Croix de Guerre for her nursing in France in the opening year of the war, she then moved to Greece with her unit, where they attached themselves to the Serbian Army. Since 1916, she had been living in Monastir, part of what is now Macedonia. The plight of civilians there was dreadful, caught between Ottoman, Italian and Austrian armies.

Now take the diary of Mary L. Matthews, Head of the American Girls’ School, in the town:

Wednesday 7 March, 1917:

A fine warm day. Mrs Harley, sister of Field-Marshall [sic] Sir John French of the British forces in France, and her daughter Edith have been here for some weeks, giving proper food to little children. In the afternoon I went to invite the ladies to tea tomorrow…  It was about half past three. Shelling often began about that time. I should have remembered and suggested that we go downstairs.

Miss Edith was serving tea and had just gone to get another cup when a shell burst in the street and shattered the windows of the room where we were sitting. I looked across at Mrs Harley whose body had stiffened and her face was very white. Then I saw blood trickle down her face. We laid her on the floor and I had to run to the Governor to ask for an ambulance to take Mrs Harley to the Hospital.

The Governor and his staff were down in a sub-cellar, waiting for the firing to cease. After half or quarter of an hour, it was considered safe to come up. Mrs Harley was taken to hospital, but as they laid her on the operating table she died. A bit of glass had ended her useful life. Miss Edith said they knew the danger when they came, but they wanted to feed babies and small children.

A magnificent funeral was held in the presence of Prince George of Serbia. Catherine Harley was laid to rest in the military cemetery at Zejtinlik, Salonika and remains the only woman buried there.

The funeral of Catherine Harley

Biggest of all big stories this week, however, was the fall of the Romanovs. Sometimes it seems that Nicholas and Alexandra were the only ones left to be surprised by it all.

Virtually everyone who had met the Tsar in the first couple of months in 1917 had noticed how withdrawn he had become. Britain’s Ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, commented:

With the fatality that dogged his footsteps, the Emperor, who had spent the month of January and February at Tsarskoe, feeling that he could no longer absent himself from Headquarters, had returned to Mohileff — more than twenty hours distant by train, on Thursday, March 8. Had he remained at Tsarskoe a few days longer, within reach of those who could have kept him accurately informed of the development of events in the capital he would have been better able to appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Vain regrets, alas. International Women’s Day fell on 8th March, a day gloriously warmer than it had been for ages. Thousands of women demanding bread were joined by striking female textile workers. The French Ambassador, Maurice Paleologue, recorded that there had been:

Great agitation in Petrograd all day… At several points the mob shouted for ‘Bread and Peace!’

International Women’s Day,1917

The Cossacks, for once, seemed equivocal in their attempts to disperse the crowd. Less so, the tsarist mounted police, known as faraony, who attacked the crowds with sabres drawn. It was no calmer the following day:

Many bakeries were looted… At several points the Cossacks charged the crowds and killed a number of workmen.

In an effort to deter protestors, General Khabalov mounted machine-guns on rooftops as thousands flocked to the centre of Petrograd, many crossing the ice of the frozen river Neva. As the day wore on, Cossacks refused to attack people who “were only asking for bread”.

Two Cossacks of the Russian Imperial Army

The Tsar’s grip on reality was even more tenuous than usual -  no mean feat. His present preoccupations were overwhelmingly domestic. He wrote that day to the Empress:

My heart suffers from our separation. I hate to be separated, particularly now, at this time! I shall not be away for long. I shall do all I can to sort out matters here, and then I shall have done my duty.

What informed his idea of “duty” remains mysterious: he wrote and talked like someone from the pages of a penny dreadful or a Channel Five pot-boiler. On 10th March, he issued an instruction:

I command that the disorders in the capital to be ended tomorrow; they are wholly impossible at this grave moment of war with Germany and Austria.

Nor, to judge from the Tsarina’s letter to him sent the same day, was she a corrective influence:

My precious, darling treasure! The strikes and disturbances in the city are beyond provocative. It is a campaign of hooliganism — little boys and girls running about shouting they have no bread, simply in order to create excitement…

The Tsar and Tsarina dressed for an Imperial Ball

In fact, shops were boarded up and the streets “thick with police”. At one point, the faraony charged the crowd, “slashing at every side with their sabres”, at which the Cossacks appeared to turn on them and drove them away. The crowd erupted with joy.

On 11th March, the President of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent Nicholas a telegram:

Position serious. Anarchy in the capital. Government paralysed. Arrangements for transport, supply and fuel in complete disorder. General discontent increasing. Disorderly street firing. Part of troops firing on each other. Essential to trust someone who holds confidence of the nation with formation of new government. There must be no delay. I pray God that in this hour responsibility will not fall on the wearer of the Crown.

The final sentence was an entreaty to good sense rather than a gratuitous insult. The Tsar told Alexiev, his Chief of Staff, that, “Fat Rodzianko has sent me some nonsense which I shall not even bother to answer.”

There was no answer. By now, 30,000 soldiers were on the streets - too few, it transpired, to deter the dense crowds and, with these numbers, confrontation was virtually unavoidable. It duly erupted when police opened fire near the Anichkov Bridge and a company of Pavlovsky guards fired on a crowd. In the early evening, a machine-gun attack in Znamensky Square accounted for40 or more deaths.

There was grave disquiet among some soldiers who had been forced to fire on the crowd. American war photographer, Donald Thompson, wrote to his wife late on the night of 11th–12th March about rumours of mutiny: “If this spreads to other regiments, Russia will be a republic in a few more hours.” He was right, too. The following day, troops from the Pavlovsky and Volynsky Regiments moved squarely on to the side of the protestors, where they were rapidly joined by the Preobrazhenskys from their barracks near the Winter Palace. Each of these regiments had been considered bulwarks of what was rapidly becoming identified as an ancien régime.

The Winter Palace, 1917

Professor L.-H. Grandijs, a correspondent for L’Illustration, left a remarkable eyewitness account of events in Petrograd:

Some dead and wounded were carried past, as well as two machine-guns and a great quantity of ammunition found at the home of two policemen who had just been killed. The private as well as the Red Cross automobiles, which in the soldiers’ opinion were not needed as ambulances, have automatically been seized whenever they happened to enter this street… No one knew at one end of the street what was going on at the other end. There was no organization as yet, no liaison between the various rebel groups, no overall command. Nevertheless, these men, whom everybody had believed to be incapable of initiative and self-control, displayed amazing determination and moderation…

I followed the Neva quay, where few passers-by were walking hurriedly towards their homes… On the Parade Ground, another regiment was joining the revolutionary movement. Its soldiers, like those of other regiments, had been abandoned by their officers. All men were armed, and busily carrying cartridge boxes out of their barracks …

Major-General Alfred Knox, a British liaison officer to the Imperial Army, had his own take on what was happening:

The prisons were opened, the workers were armed, the soldiers were without officers, a sovyet [Soviet, a workers’ council] was being set up in opposition to the Temporary Committee chosen from the elected representatives of the people…[Petrograd] was on the high road to anarchy.

This rather plays down the violence, which saw many officers killed, the Old Arsenal looted, and the District Court and Palace of Justice set alight. Nor was the opening of the prisons, and the wholesale release of their occupants, political and criminal, calculated to restore calm. Mob violence, in all its awfulness, was visited upon a range of unfortunates, police especially. Cars seized from the Military Garage hurtled all over the city –  with red flags and firearms central motifs.

In these circumstances, formal politics seemed rather superfluous. At the Tauride Palace, the Duma set up a Twelve-man Provisional Executive Committee out of which would metamorphose a Provisional Government.

Leaders of the Imperial Duma

In retrospect it is clear such a body would never be unchallenged; a group of soldiers declared simultaneously that they wanted a socialist republic and Russia’s withdrawal from the war. They aimed to elect the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. By late evening, 66,700 men of the Imperial Army in Petrograd had mutinied. Loyal troops still guarded the Winter Palace, the Admiralty and the General Staff.

American aviator Bert Hall, recently decorated by the Tsar, remembered the “tired far-away look in the Tsar’s eyes. He must have known that the dry rot had eaten the heart out of things.”

Quite apart from the lurid human tragedy being played out on the streets of Petrograd and Moscow, these events threatened, if unchecked, to knock Russia out of the war. If that were to happen, the implications for her allies were awesome. The Imperial Armies, however erratically they may have performed, had tied down vast numbers of enemy forces in the East.

While, in recent days, the British and French had been doing rather better on land than the enemy, they were in no position to face suddenly hundreds of thousands more. The French had been especially successful in Champagne where, on 8th March, they regained most of the salient lost three weeks earlier. The British had also captured Irles in the Ancre region on 10th March. Between them, they took 400 prisoners and the British line, now extending south of the Somme to Reims, was twice the length of the line of a year before.

In fact, the real British success of the week was in the Middle East where, by the end of the week, they had bridged the River Tigris and taken Baghdad. Poor General Maude had his critics, many of whom considered his trek through the challenging terrain and baking summer heat to have been ponderous. But this was his moment of triumph, and it had been earned only after blood had been shed, as well as toil and tears. Two Victoria Crosses were awarded for acts of gallantry as soldiers attempted to cross the Diyala river whilst being raked by Turkish machine-gunfire. Turkish losses were augmented by Russian advances in Persia, forcing her columns into a general retreat. Not just a loss, some might have said, but (given Russia’s implosion) a humiliation.

Turks in Baghdad preparing to fight the British, 1917

Even so, the ruthlessness of the Germans made the final outcome of the war harder than ever to predict. What if the Russians abandoned the fight? What if the Americans arrived? At sea, losses mounted almost hourly. On 10th March, SM UC-43 was torpedoed off the Shetland Islands with the loss of all 26 crew. On 12th March, a British submarine hit a mine in the same area and sank. All 30 of the crew perished.

It was no better in the air. Life expectancy for pilots on the Western Front in spring 1917 was only three weeks. This week, 26 Allied and enemy planes were reported lost. One of those was that of Captain Eric Lubbock, the son of Lady Avebury. In command of one of the three flights of 45 Squadron, the young Lubbock had spent January in England on leave. His mother had described him at the time as “so thin and white and tired looking. I dread his going back now more than ever. One’s whole life is a big dread these days…”

Just then, the odds seemed particularly hopeless as 45 Squadron’s Sopwiths were being decimated by the brilliant Albatros machines of the German flying circuses. Lubbock was in no doubt as to the terrible risks he ran but, as he told his mother, “I am too keen on my flight and too attached to the officers in it [to contemplate returning home, as she had implored him]…they are the finest collection that I ever saw together.”

Captain Eric Lubbock

On 11th March, the young man was killed. His Wing Commander, Colonel George Stopford, told his mother:

He met his death in an air fight between two German machines and two of ours. Both our machines were brought down, but I know that your son would have preferred that death to any other. He was known to all the Flying Corps near here for his pluck and gallantry…

Lubbock’s letter to his mother to be opened in the event of his death

Small crumbs of comfort, no doubt, to the distraught Lady Avebury. Meanwhile, Manfred von Richthofen, now honoured with the Blue Max, (Pour Le Mérite, Germany’s highest award), was wreaking havoc, and notched up his twenty-sixth victory on 11th March. Five days earlier, his red-painted Halberstadt had been shot in the fuel tank but Richthofen managed to land the plane without it catching fire. In a style which, to later generations at least, seems tacky, he ordered a silver commemorative cup following each kill, engraved with the date and type of enemy aircraft he had downed.

Britain, notwithstanding the gravity of the times, remained itself. A nation of grousers, some have said, but also one with an eye for fair play. On 6th March, the Minister of Pensions, George Barnes, outlined new pension arrangements. The eye-catching headline, in a speech generously peppered with statistics, was that there were 673,741 human beings in the UK in need of pension assistance because of war –  those wounded, those widowed, those dependent upon either. Volunteer organisations (St Dunstan’s and the Star and Garter Homes were singled out) were a testament to the generosity and imagination of the British civilian effort, but Barnes was preparing the nation to confront the fact that the scale and intensity of need presaged –  once again –  higher taxes.

Surgical Hospital, Star and Garter Home in Richmond

A nation of narrow prejudices as well, so others might have said, especially when it came to Ireland. During a stormy session in the House of Commons on 7th March, Lloyd George, presaging what in another five years would become the Republic of Eire, announced that Britain was ready to confer self-government on those parts of Ireland which wanted it. No such possibility existed, he explained, for the north-eastern part of the country whose Protestant population was determined to maintain the union. Irish nationalist MPs were predictably incensed, and walked out of the session in protest after hurling abuse at Sir Edward Carson.

A nation which could not resist the allure of a man-hunt –  perhaps especially not in wartime. The Commission of Inquiry on the Dardanelles published its interim report on 9th March -  an event awaited with baited breath, especially among those Churchill-haters who had eagerly anticipated the public pillorying of the erstwhile First Lord of the Admiralty. The Interim Report refused, however, to allow him to take the rap and confirmed that, despite the storm of criticism hinting to the contrary, decisions he had taken throughout the campaign occurred only after due consultation.

It is not hard to see why Winston should have been such a divisive figure. He was capable of being brash and attention-seeking, and he had made many enemies in Westminster by having been catapulted to early prominence. However, the odium associated with his name at the time also hinted at the wild and unrealistic hopes espoused by many, perhaps most, of the country at the time of the Dardanelles. Back in spring 1916, anxious to clear his name, he had pressed for the publication of the official Dardanelles papers. At the time, Asquith had vetoed it, on grounds of public interest. Churchill complained that he was “the best abused man in the country”, but now, finally, came a measure of vindication. For all his long life, he found the memory of the Dardanelles wounding – an episode about which he would not willingly talk.

The famous painting of Churchill at the time of the Dardanelles by William Orpen –  his despair is palpable

But he was alive and, back in Westminster, looked set to live out his days –  however doubtful his reputation or legacy. So many would not. On 9th March, the soldier-poet Edward Thomas, serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery near Arras, about a mile from the German lines, wrote to his old friend, Walter de la Mare.

The letter, a scrawl in purple pencil, was filled with prescience and pain, and deserves to be remembered:

I can’t feel that my chances of escape are very good. We might see the apple blossom but I doubt that. Nobody is very hopeful. I think myself that things may go on at this rate for more than a year. The rate may be changed, but not if the Hun can help it, and his retirement looks very inconvenient in every way. I wish you had said more about Frost. One is absolutely friendless here… You say it would be good if we could have a talk, but, you know, I fancy it would not do to have a real friend out here.

Edward Thomas -  poet, essayist and soldier