Are you being served?

Australian troops, 1917

POINT WAS — THINGS could always get worse.

Lloyd George summoned Haig and Nivelle to see him this week. They arrived on 15th January and discreet markers were laid down that the traumas of Verdun and the Somme might yet be repeated. It was a thought so terrifying that those involved in the discussions (only the very top top brass) talked about it behind doors that remained firmly shut. But they also knew the inescapable truth: without further gargantuan efforts, and legion loss and suffering, they would lose the war.

There was a wonderful contrast between the two commanders. Haig  –  dour, almost laughably inarticulate, but an utterly independent and dogged thinker; Nivelle  – fluent in English (thanks to a British mother), oozing charm and self-belief. Nivelle’s presentation certainly succeeded in making the War Cabinet sit up straight. He wanted a new offensive  –  one which, he promised, could achieve the kind of break-through over which he had recently presided in the latter stage of the campaign at Verdun. He appeared untroubled by the need for modesty, feigned or otherwise.

The idea of a sudden sharp attack carried out by three French armies over a wide front on the Aisne, with meticulous artillery support, seemed highly attractive to many of his listeners. He even promised one army would be kept in reserve to exploit the hoped-for breakthrough, and urged the British to mount an ancillary attack on the Arras Front. If the attacks failed, he promised, they would be called off early. There would be no repetition of the attritional nightmare of the Somme. It was enticing stuff, alright, but by now the War Cabinet had been weaned off rapid decisions. Nivelle was persuaded to prolong his stay in London while they deliberated.

Meanwhile, war in the West must continue, bad weather notwithstanding. The British launched a series of small attacks in the Somme area  –  they had no great strategic relevance, but Haig knew that the Germans feared the resumption of the previous year’s big offensives and he intended to keep them guessing as to what he would do next. On 9th January the British took trenches east of Beaumont-Hamel and repeated this success on 11th January, taking another trench north-east of the village.

The war getting worse in the East involved several possibilities. For the Russians, the fear of an imminent military collapse was probably chief among them.  In fact they succeeded in slowing down the enemy advance during the week: fighting continued near Focsani and Lake Babit, but German attacks near Kalutsem were thrown back on 12th January and again the following day. Yet, for all its undoubted valour, Russian resistance seemed by now unlikely to reverse the logic of recent events. So thought her allies at least.

The Tsar’s gentle manners had long elicited the appreciation of visiting foreign officials. His refusal, however, to countenance the scale and range of dangers which now opened up before him, his family and the whole Russian people was a source of great disquiet. The British Military Adviser, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, had been on particularly close terms with the Imperial Family and was one of the few supporters of the Tsarina, not least because of her sensitivity to him after his son had been killed in action on the Western Front.

Tsar Nicholas II — beautiful manners and painfully closed-minded

But Sir John was ultimately an official with a duty to deal in truth. With Rasputin now dead, he feared for the Romanovs:

The crowned heads of this country are so far from their people, and the Empress through shyness and a nervous nature is but rarely seen, though she has worked splendidly for the sick and wounded, and has a really kind and sympathetic nature, which unfortunately no one experiences except those who are near her, or who happen to have seen a good deal of her as I have done…  At present, she stands alone, and when one looks at those pretty daughters one wonders what will happen to them all…

Rasputin himself had warned the Tsar, “You will lose both your son and your crown within six months of my death” – a better aperçu than many of his others. But the Tsar was in his usual somnambulist trance and paid no heed.
It is not hard to see why the Tsar was unflustered by Rasputin’s millenarian rants. On 12th January, however, came a plea from a more orthodox source (Britain’s Ambassador Sir George Buchanan) for the Tsar to effect some political compromise with his critics in the Duma:

I went on to say that there was now a barrier between him and his people, and that if Russia was still united as a nation it was in opposing his present policy. The people, who have rallied so splendidly round their Sovereign on the outbreak of war, have seen how hundreds of thousands of lives had been sacrificed on account of the lack of rifles and munitions; how, owing to the incompetence of the administration, there had been a severe food crisis… The Duma, I have reason to know, would be satisfied if His Majesty would but appoint as President of the Council a man whom both he and the nation could have confidence, and would allow him to choose his own colleagues.

He also warned against the influence of fifth columnists:

I next called His Majesty’s attention to attempts being made by the Germans, not only to create dissension between the Allies, but to estrange him from his people. Their agents were everywhere at work. They were pulling the strings, and were using as their unconscious tools those who were in the habit of advising Her Majesty as to the choice of his Ministers. They indirectly influenced the Empress through those in her entourage, with the result that, instead of being loved, as she ought to be, Her Majesty was discredited and accused of working in German interest.

It seems to have become rather emotional, on Buchanan’s part at least:

Sir George Buchanan

I can but plead as my excuse the fact that I have throughout been inspired by my feelings of devotion for Your Majesty and the Empress. If I were to see a friend walking through a wood on a dark night which I knew ended in a precipice, would it not be my duty, sir, to warn him of his danger? And is it not equally my duty to warn Your Majesty of the abyss that lies ahead of you? You have, sir, come to the parting of the ways, and you have now to choose between two paths. The one will lead you to victory and a glorious peace – the other to revolution and disaster. Let me implore Your Majesty to choose the former.

Nicholas reacted as he always did, with courtesy and evasion, merely responding, “I choose my Ministers myself and do not allow anyone to influence my choice.”

Germany, on the edge of defeating the Russians or otherwise, had an equally clear vision of what matters getting worse might mean for her. In truth, they already were. Much of the population of Germany was facing a level of privation and misery which challenged the whole legitimacy of its government and the willingness of the people to continue to tolerate it.

Cold was one problem: temperatures plummeted, sometimes to minus 30 degrees in many parts of Germany. Fuel was another: coal shortages had already forced stores, restaurants and theatres to close early. Worst of all were the shortages of almost every kind of food. The failed harvest of 1915 had left a long-term depletion of reserves, and to these were now added the effect of heavy rains, an early frost and a shortage of workers. The potato harvest had fallen by almost two-thirds. Salvation for many German civilians depended now upon the ubiquitous turnip which, very much faute de mieux, had become their staple.

Berlin  –  a mobile soup kitchen of the time

It was difficult, even in extremis, to get dewy-eyed about the turnip: a stringy coarse vegetable, baked, boiled, fried or raw, it inclined to be tasteless and lacked nutritional value.

It certainly did little for morale. Ernst Glaeser later remembered:

The Turnip Winter really brought the War home. Hunger destroyed our solidarity; the children stole each other’s rations… Soon the women who stood in pallid queues before shops spoke more about their children’s hunger than they did about the death of their husbands at the Front.

Heinrich Beutow, a schoolboy at the period, also recognised the challenge hunger posed to “patriotism”:

Food was getting scarce, queues were getting longer and soon going to a soup kitchen became one of the features of everyday life… There was a strong sense of people saying, “This war is lasting too long.” Some became quite outspoken. The feeling was that the war was lasting too long and that Germany didn’t have much chance of winning it, because the conditions within the country were getting so very difficult.

The diary of Englishwoman Princess Blucher made it very clear his was not a lone voice:

We are all growing thinner every day, and the rounded contours of the German nation have become a legend of the past. We are all gaunt and bony now, and have dark shadows round our eyes, and our thoughts are chiefly taken up with wondering what our next meal will be, and dreaming of the good things that once existed…

Princess Blucher in ampler times

The truth is, the soul of the people is sick unto death of the useless carnage and hateful sinfulness of it all. In the Reichstag the same old bombastic phrases still bring down a volley of applause, so that the quiet observer is astonished at the childishness of these representatives of the nation; but the man who would bring peace and not war would be hailed as a real leader and king. One intrepid Socialist, goaded to despair at the artificiality of the speeches, shouted out the truth in the face of the whole assembly: ‘The people don’t want war; what they want is peace and bread and work’  –  but he was only snubbed by contemptuous derision in reply.

It is in this context –  a risk of serious public unrest –  that the decision to revert to “unrestricted” submarine warfare should be understood. The Kaiser had resisted the demand for it over many months, considering the killing of innocent civilians “a dreadful thought”. Such scrupulousness contrasts strongly with the bombast of earlier days, but it did not matter much either way. Since Hindenburg and Ludendorff (the latter was the real power behind the throne) were both emphatic advocates, the die was cast. At a meeting on 9th January at Schloss Pless in Silesia, the Crown Council sanctioned attacks against any and all shipping within the war zone previously defined.

Hindenburg (l) and Ludendorff (r)

By now, Germany had a fleet of 46 large submarines capable of operating in deep waters, and an additional 23 U-boats fit for operations at coastal level. Her leaders bleakly understood that one consequence would be that the United States would almost certainly come into the war but German intelligence was also adamant that Britain could be starved into submission before American men and material could arrive to the rescue.

Realpolitik once more. The policy was to be announced later in the Reichstag and would take effect from 1st February. The Kaiser, while “pale and distraught”, had given way. He had no choice, in reality – political power was seeping away from him like blood from an unstaunched wound.

Besides, the Germans were good at U-boat warfare, and warfare of this intensity surely demanded seizing every advantage. The pre-Dreadnought battleship, HMS Cornwallis, became yet another victim of her U-boats patrolling the Mediterranean when she was torpedoed and sunk 60 miles east of the coast of Malta on 9th January. Kapitanleutnant Kurt Hartwig, on U-32, spotted the old ship and fired two torpedoes at lengthy intervals. The ship took over half an hour to sink which enabled most to escape, though 15 men were killed in the initial explosion. The Ellerman Liner, the challengingly-named SS Lesbian, was also sunk near Malta on the same day by the most successful U-boat commander of all time, Kapitänleutnant Lothar von Arnauld de le Periere and his U-35. In two patrols during 1916, de la Perière had sunk a total of 77 ships of 159,150 tons.

Renewed great offensives apart, what might “worse” have meant for the British Tommy?

It might have meant, for one thing, your luck running out. Luck was an idea to which most combatants were passionately attached. Still near Wytschaete Ridge facing Messines, Lieutenant Colonel Rowland Feilding clearly believed his Connaught Rangers had been lucky, according to a letter sent home on 12th January:

Our casualties for the eight days we have been up have been thirty-two, of whom fourteen have been killed. But for a Divine Providence that has shielded us, we should have fared far worse.

Good luck meant fewer deaths and injuries. Some of both, and much discomfort and danger, were inevitable. Two days later, after the battalion had been relieved, Feilding described to his wife the soldiers’ frontline experiences of recent days in more detail:

January 14 The most imaginative mind could not conceive an adequate picture of the frail and battered wall of shredded sandbags without actually seeing it, nor the heroic manner in which the men who hold it face its dangers and discomforts; –  the mud and the slush and the snow; often knee-deep, and deeper still, in water; the foulest of weather; four days and nights (sometimes five) without moving from one spot; pounded incessantly with what soldiers call ‘rum-jars’ –  great canisters of high-explosive, fired from wooden mortars, making monstrous explosions; and often in addition going through an hour or two during the day or night  –  sometimes two or three times during the twenty-four hours  –  of intense bombardment by these things as well as by every other sort of atrocity the enemy knows how to use.

Pretty bad, in other words. What appeared to have redeemed it from utter awfulness was the quality of the men, a shining pride in whom shines out in everything Feilding ever wrote.

Connaught Rangers

Here, of course, one comes to the heart of the great dilemma facing leaders at the opening of this third year of the war. Too many men had died already or had been invalided out for the war. Too many were dying and being injured still. The losses were not merely regrettable – they were unsustainable. The problem was worse for the Central Powers, but it was acute everywhere, especially if one relied on “men of quality”.

Quality did not necessarily mean battle-fitness. There were huge moral resources waiting to be tapped, and not only among those (to lapse into a Blackadderism) with biceps the size of Bournemouth. The British Army Labour Corps had been created late in 1916, consisting of men unfit for combat. The obvious practical relief they could bring was, by carrying out “garrison duties”, to enable others to be released for frontline service.

The recollections of Captain Roger Pocock of the 178th Labour Company, who arrived now in France with such a group, suggest that it came to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts.

For young and able-bodied men it was their right to serve in the fighting line, but for us in the Labour Corps, the aged, the disabled, the wreckage of the army and of the nation, it was a privilege to be allowed within the danger areas…  Almost every man in my five hundred had been disabled, or claimed some mortal disease and gloried in it. We were an amazing mixture of volunteers up to seventy years of age, of conscripts drawn from sedentary life, of Jews from the slums, and gipsies from the highways, roughs, tramps, company directors, public entertainers, pavement artists, navvies, rich, poor, destitute, but all of us alike rated unfit.

Once disembarked, they had a poor reception:

We did not like the Base Wallahs at Boulogne, with plenty of decorations and no manners, but all went well in the night-train to Hazebrouck, and in the morning we marched about three miles to a couple of farms assigned to us as a billet. I think it would have been still nicer if the Base Wallahs had mentioned to the Second Army that we might need food, fuel, blankets, while the snow drove through our barns before a yelling gale. In the morning we found two men dead.

Roger Pocock: oil by Gerald Hudson

A thoroughly British welcome, in fact. Not that Captain Pocock appears to have been too discouraged:

On each highway I posted an officer, with orders to stop all army vehicles, plunder them, and turn them loose to report the robbery with all possible speed. Meanwhile, I tramped through the drifts to Hazebrouck, found a telephone, and made its ears burn with the whole vocabulary of the Wild West. Would the Authorities send rations, or should I slaughter cows to feed my men? What with my perfect frankness and one or two highway robberies, we got fuel that morning, rations in the afternoon, indignant Staff Officers in the evening, and the next day a medical inspection which invalided a core of men to Blighty. The transport arrived in force, and we were carried to the finest camp in Flanders. It was a prisoner-of-war camp evacuated in haste, because the German Government objected to its nationals being under shell-fire, and threatened reprisals upon British captives. We did not mind the shells which screamed overhead, addresses to Poperinghe, but we did like the hot baths, the comfortable stoves, the luxurious rations, and most of all the kindness of Captain Wallace, the Staff Officer in charge of our affairs. We had left behind us the areas of harsh discourtesy.

Our work was unloading trains, building light railways, or mending roads which shells had made untidy; and steadily our invalids gained strength from outdoor living, good food, and moderate labour… The spell improved their work; but of much greater value was their interest in the drum-fire, in the movements of troops, in the aerial dog-fights overhead, in the burning of kite balloons and parachute descents, but most especially in the processions of German prisoners, to whom they would give the whole of their cigarettes. Interest in the army led to pride in the Service, eagerness to help, a sporting rivalry between platoons, and the discovery that the 178th Labour Company was not to be beaten by any sort of unit in the field.

Plenty there, one might say, on which to ponder. A century later, it is impossible not to be bowled over by the tough magnificence of Captain Pocock.