As If It Mattered

NEWS OF KITCHENER’S DEATH stunned the British. It sparked off the kind of incredulity and shock associated by later generations with the deaths of JFK or Diana, Princess of Wales.

When we told the troops about Kitchener’s death, they said: “Oh my God! What’s going to happen to us now Kitchener’s gone?” He was the driving force in this country — we thought we’d probably lose the war as a result.

Thus wrote a Drill Sergeant in Kent — one of the early volunteers. It soon transpired that Kitchener, after a farewell lunch with Jellicoe on HMS Iron Duke at Scapa Flow, had transferred to the Devonshire-class cruiser HMS Hampshire for the voyage to the Russian port of Archangel. In a force-nine gale, at 19.30 on Monday 5 June, Hampshire struck a mine off Marwick Head. Massive explosions sank the ship in fifteen minutes and of the 655 on board only twelve would survive.

Also, just as in the aftermath of the deaths of Kennedy and Diana, conspiracy theorists had a field day. The very idea of the old imperial colossus, its greatest soldier, being felled by a mine, seemed inconceivable to some.

Suspicions were further inflamed by stringent official secrecy: despite repeated pleas, the Stromness lifeboat was not permitted to search for survivors; communications between Orkney and the mainland were suspended and a strict censorship applied to private letters. National security was invoked for such sanctions and, since Kitchener had been carrying top-secret papers, there was a fear these would be washed ashore. The Admiralty even ordered that the position of the ship when it sank should not be revealed and that any wreckage should be scrupulously examined. Rumours spread that Kitchener had been safely whisked to Russia by another means and that the sinking of the Hampshire was a smokescreen to fool the Germans.

Alas, this was cock-up, not conspiracy. The Admiralty had known that the waters around Orkney had been mined by the Germans, but this information had not been passed to Captain Savill on the Hampshire. Jellicoe also admitted that he should not have allowed the cruiser to continue its journey through a known minefield and without destroyer escort.

Even in 1916, Kitchener was a popular hero. Hankey, Cabinet Secretary, said of him:

Kitchener … never lost that of the people whose confidence he valued most, and who knew him best — the King, and the Prime Minister, and even more important the soldiers and peoples of the British Empire. To the rank and file of the British and Dominion forces his death was a staggering blow: as an Australian soldier put it to me, ‘it was as though a great light had gone out’.

Among those in power, grief was rather more muted than their public effusions suggested. Kitchener had acquired the reputation of being a difficult colleague in Cabinet, distrustful of and distrusted by other politicians. His administrative limitations were an open secret in Whitehall and he had, in particular, been widely blamed for the shell crisis of 1915. CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, unsentimentally observed that “the old man … could not have done better than to have gone down, as he was a great impediment lately”.

Margot Asquith, always hypersensitive to any political fallout which might engulf her husband, was primarily concerned to ensure the reputation of the Government should not suffer. “Tell everyone it was a mine, not a torpedo that sunk the Hampshire“, she wrote, frightened that if the rumour were allowed to circulate that the Hampshire had been torpedoed, and had gone without an escort the Admiralty windows would be stoned.

Her husband drew consolation from the fact that K. had died at the height of his fame, and at the happiest moment of his life. He had said goodbye to him Friday evening (after K. had seen the King to say goodbye) and he was pleased as a schoolboy. He had also now to choose a new Secretary of State for War. “The poor man’s body hasn’t yet been found and they all come boring me over his successor. I call it quite indecent.”

These were civilian responses. The PM’s son, Raymond, probably spoke for the rank and file when he observed tetchily to his wife on 9 June: “As if it mattered, these old men being killed.”

He had other matters on his mind. Like many very brave men, he was fierce in the defence of his comforts and self-interest. In a letter to his wife two days earlier, he had lamented:

An intolerable thing has happened in the Expeditionary Force — much more deeply felt by troops than Kitchener’s death — leave has been reduced to 6 days or some say to 5; it is not quite clear which. It doesn’t make so much difference to the line regiments, who, poor devils, never got more than 7 but it is perfectly bloody for us who have grown used to 10.

Perhaps he had a point. The younger generation were, after all, doing a disproportionate amount of the dying, and this week marked the time of the greatest danger so far for the French at Verdun. There seemed no end possible, as one German writer thought, until the last German and the last French hobbled out of the trenches on crutches to exterminate each other with pocket knives or teeth and finger nails.

After ten days fighting for the defence of Hill 321 at Verdun, René Arnaud’s battalion were informed they would be withdrawn, but only after burying their dead before a new company relieved them. The dead were buried by the light of signal rockets and exploding shells and the stink of putrefaction was appalling. The soldiers were fascinated to read the press communique of their action which masked their own losses:

9 June, 15.00 — On the right bank the Germans continued to mount fierce attacks along an almost two kilometre front east and west of the Thiaumont farm. All of the assaults to the west failed and the enemy suffered severe losses

Arnaud and his troops were at last relieved on 10 June. As he wound his way to the railway at Bar-le-Duc, he took stock:

I had climbed down from the scaffold of suffering and returned to the world of peace and life. I thought I was the same person I had been before spending ten days face to face with death. I was wrong. I had lost my youth.

As German assaults continued to target Fort Vaux and the fortification at Thiaumont, General Joffre was faced by decisions of unbelievable logistical and ethical complexity.

On the one hand, the loss of Verdun would, as Pétain reminded him, shatter national morale. On the other, France’s salvation might rest ultimately on the big push the British were planning on the Somme. In order to help strengthen the British defences, he now transferred to them artillery from Verdun and denied Pétain the reinforcements he so urgently needed.

Unsurprisingly, tensions flared. On 11 June, Pétain wrote to Joffre:

Verdun is menaced and Verdun must not fall. The capture of the city would constitute for the Germans an inestimable success which would greatly raise their morale and correspondingly lower our own. A tactical success by the English, however great it might be, would not compensate in the eyes of public sentiment for the loss of this city, and at this moment sentiment possesses an importance that it would be inexpedient to disregard.

Pétain was particularly incensed and distressed that Nivelle, his successor at Verdun, was persisting in a series of fruitless and costly counter-attacks. But he also shared the widespread and implacable French bitterness at the apparent British inaction during the four months during which they had sought thus far to defend Verdun. Among many poilus, the BEF (ces Khakis) were decried as sales gens.

Suspicion of one’s ally was endemic but it was, in this instance, unfair. Following their attack last week, the Germans had pressed home their advantage near Mount Sorrel by exploding four mines under the Canadian position on 6 June and capturing the village of Hooge. A heavy artillery bombardment began early on 13 June and then two divisions of the Canadian Corps, supported by the British 20th (Light Division), attacked the Germans and, in a major set-piece battle, drove them back and recaptured the position. It cost the Canadians over 8,000 casualties and transformed the surrounding woods into an eerie landscape.

And, whatever the poilus believed, preparation for the British-led summer offensive were deadly serious. Private Robert Cude wrote in his diary:

11th June Have difficulty in finding unit, as place is full of troops, both English and French. Cannot but help notice the change in this place. Almost every civilian has left. Something will happen soon.

12th June Plenty of work today. All roads in and out of town are full of traffic both day and night. The quantity and calibre of guns and shells is appalling and troops pouring in in 1,000s. Never did I think that we could make such an imposing spectacle … Time goes on smoothly and we know that our days are numbered.

Edward Brittain, briefly on leave, saw his sister, Vera, who wrote in her diary:

Edward came back on leave for 5 days — so bitter-sweet & all too brief. Got leave from hospital for two days & stayed at the Grafton Hotel with him & Mother. He spoke in veiled but significant language of a great battle –another Big Push — soon to take place, & knew that he was to be in it. He said it would be somewhere in the region of Albert, where he is now.

It is customary to talk about war as madness, but there was cold-hearted brilliance in the massive plans being laid in almost all theatres of war just now. Along other fronts as well, the war had gathered momentum.

In the east, the Brusilov offensive was yielding the Russians copious quantities of prisoners, German and Austrian. Such was the Austrian plight that on 8 June, after entreaties by their commander, Conrad, three divisions earmarked to fight in France were reluctantly released by Falkenhayn for despatch eastwards. In consequence, the Crown Prince was ordered temporarily to halt the German offensive at Verdun — which allowed for a relative but still blessed respite for the French.

The margins between victory and defeat were appallingly tight — a perspective often lost on subsequent generations accustomed only to film footage of thousands of figures in khaki.

The ingenuity was geopolitical as well as military. Ottoman suzerainty in the Balkans and in Asia had been a source of resentment for the indigenous populations there for many decades — indeed, among some, for centuries. Tribesmen under the leadership of Grand Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the guardian of the holy city of Mecca, now attacked the 12,000-strong Turkish garrison in Medina on 5 June, hoping to seize control of the holy city and its railway. The attempt failed and, three days later, they withdrew — with the Turkish commander, General Fkhri Pasha, in pursuit.

Realpolitik now took a hand. The incident had been watched with the keenest interest by the British, who were particularly keen to avenge themselves after recent losses at the hands of the Turks. On 8 June, the British High Commissioner, Henry McMahon, promised Hussein that after the war the Arabs would have their own nation stretching from Persia to Egypt. By this means, according to an historian of the time, passions were aroused, fluctuating zeal was maintained by the distribution of gold, and inter-tribal jealousies were suppressed if not eliminated by fostering and keeping alive a vision of national independence. On 10 June, Sharif Hussein formally announced the revolt in Mecca which had been seized from the Turks after heavy fighting.

War in Asia Minor seemed the small change of the week — an irony in view of the tectonic shifts which it would now set in place.

In the past two terrible years, the British had been forced repeatedly to weigh their lofty opinion of themselves against harsh realities. The retreat from Mons and the humiliation of Gallipoli were merely two of several occasions in which any temptation to hubris had been swiftly punished.

At these moments, they had drawn consolation from the reflection that they were a great maritime power — that, first and last, they ruled the waves. Now, in the wake of Jutland, a new unease emerged. For all the bombast of official communiques, the long casualty lists and terrible tonnage of ships told a story far more equivocal than outright victory.

The blame game began at once. Stores of cordite in gun turrets, it was now learned, were situated above the shafts that led to the magazines below. To hasten firing times the doors to magazines had been propped open: thus a single hit on a gun turret triggered a massive explosion down in the magazine below. Many survivors arrived home with disfiguring burns — from cordite and from burst steel pipes. Such hideous injuries dismayed and angered civilians.

The mood of recrimination was partly offset by the award of three VCs for gallantry in the heat of battle.

The Hon. Edward Bingham, commander of HMS Nestor, had led his division of destroyers towards the enemy battlecruisers, sinking two German destroyers on the way. Closing to within 3,000 yards of the enemy to gain the best position for firing torpedoes he had come under constant fire. HMS Nestor subsequently sank and Bingham had been picked up by a German destroyer and taken prisoner.

Commander Jones on HMS Shark, despite being severely wounded, had continued giving orders and manning guns before he died. Major Harvey’s presence of mind had saved many lives on Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion: mortally wounded when a shell exploded in the gun-house, he had had the presence of mind nonetheless to order the flooding of the magazine, an action which had undoubtedly stopped the ship from sinking.

When it learned, however, of the heroism of the fifteen-year-old Boy First Class, Jack Cornwell, public sentiment moved into overdrive. Despite being badly wounded within the first few minutes of the battle, he had stayed in an exposed position by his gun on HMS Chester, with the gun crew lying dead and wounded around him, until the end of the action. He had been brought back to Grimsby but died on 2 June before his mother had time to reach him. Adding to the treacly sentiment, he had — until the press seized on the story — been buried a pauper’s grave.

Britain in 1916 was still a nation which accepted, mostly without complaint, the shibboleths of class and caste. Boy soldiers and sailors were expected to fight and, if necessary, to die. Patriotism was a sentiment which embraced all conditions of persons.

While the battle had not provided the longed-for outright defeat of the German navy, the ardent desire to engage the enemy again was reflected in the words of Walter Greenway, of HMS Vanguard, who had searched for the enemy in vain on the morning after the battle:

This patrolling was the most pathetic instance during the whole business for we were constantly passing wreckage and dead bodies in rafts and floating, comrades and foe. This is what goes home to you but one does not grumble if they possess the heart of a Briton and one feels proud that they have done their bit and took their chance. We are not a bit shaken but more determined than ever to avenge our comrades.

Yet it needs also to be remembered that Britain’s continued ability to prosecute the war testified to the ruthlessness of those in power. Emotion was indulged by newspapers, by sweethearts, and by carefully controlled displays of public fealty. When it threatened to undermine the war’s purpose, however, it hardly got a look-in. The country was led by men who were ultimately pragmatic.

Fr Thomas Bradley, the Roman Catholic Chaplain of the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron remembered:

A few days after the action [in Jutland] I called upon the Vice-Admiral — Beatty … Greatly to my surprise he refused to allow us to have a Requiem Mass in the Dockyard. This is contrary to his usual attitude for he does all to encourage services etc. However, he went on to explain that the sailors as I would probably know were a very sentimental lot and he did not think it good for their morale that they should be encouraged to dwell too much on the losses of the squadron which were so severe.

On the western front, another Catholic chaplain, Fr J. Bernard Marshall, also had issues with commanding officers, preoccupied with preparations for the Somme offensive. He excoriated the authorities’ decision to ignore the important feast of Whitsunday which fell on 11 June:

My greatest fear for us in the whole of this struggle is the neglect of God by officialdom. The Sunday previous to this the 10th Yorks were unable to come to Mass because the Brigadier was inspecting them. An inspection in place of a service of God! I protested to the Brigade Major — always most friendly, a perfect gentleman, a fine type of Englishman — and with just the ordinary Englishman’s dearth of religion.