Bad call by the bean counters

WE HAVE TO be careful. History can become all-too-easily whatever it is the victorious party decides.

In fact, we should be very careful. This was the week that Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg gave the news in the Reichstag on 31st January, having first secured deputies’ approval. There was a certain amount of small print, but the overall point admitted of no ambiguity: from the following day, German submarines would sink both combatant and neutral shipping on sight.


The Memorandum from Germany blamed it on “the Entente Allies’ brutal methods of war” and “their determination to destroy the Central Powers”. There wasn’t much one could argue with in that, but where on earth would it leave the United States? Without a German Ambassador, for one thing. On 3rd February, Wilson severed all diplomatic relations with Germany, sending Count von Bernsdorff packing (with safe passage guaranteed none the less).

The USA’s swift response, albeit a diplomatic one, amounted to a massive yellow card. Decoded, it read: watch it, Germany, or else.

Wilson evidently hoped that Berlin would take note. He told Congress:

I cannot bring myself to believe that they [the Germans] will indeed pay no regard to the ancient friendship between their people and our own or to the solemn obligations which have been exchanged between them, and destroy American ships, and take the lives of American citizens… Only actual overt acts on their part can make me believe it even now.

Hubris, of course, but it was undeniably true that Wilson hoped to avoid hostilities. Even at this tense moment, his address to Congress was packed with ingratiating guff:

We do not desire any hostile conflict with the Imperial German Government. We are the sincere friends of the German people and earnestly desire to remain at peace with the Government that speaks for them… We wish to serve no selfish ends…

Wiser heads in Berlin were less sanguine than Zimmerman. Wilson’s speech may have regretted the danger in which the US now found itself, but it confronted it nonetheless. The President emphasised the nation’s readiness “to use any means that may be necessary, for the protection of our seamen and our people…” A test of that resolve arrived quickly. That same day, the US grain ship, SS Housatonic, was torpedoed off the Scilly Isles on 3rd February. Fortunately for the Germans, perhaps, its crew were all rescued by a British ship.

The State Department warned other neutral powers it did not look for them to adopt an ostrich-like attitude but to follow America’s lead in severing diplomatic relations. This was bad news for Switzerland, challengingly close to the German frontier and whose élites inclined never to do anything which stood in the way of business. In Geneva, 24 hours of handwringing followed, at the end of which the Swiss government decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that Washington was a lot further away than Berlin. In other words, no action was taken.

Switzerland in World War One: a self-styled “oasis of peace”

Other countries were less nakedly self-interested: Norway forbade submarines to enter its territorial waters; most other countries suspended all sailings in the war zone  –  a prudent move in the circumstances. But it would be fiendishly hard and expensive to maintain it unless they had access to alternative markets and revenues.

For the Entente and for neutrals, Germany’s move was an outrage  –  a violation of all the conventions of war in which the safety of neutrals and non-combatants was an article of faith. Their outrage was compounded when, at the same time, Berlin made it clear that the traffic of British hospital ships between Great Britain, France and Belgium would no longer be tolerated. Their pretext  –  almost certainly untrue  –  was that the British had been daubing the Red Cross on ships which were actually men of war.

But the Germans saw all this differently and  –  having lost the war  –  their take has never had much oxygen. The official justification for unrestricted submarine warfare was that “The struggle is for our existence. For us there can be no retreat.” They believed they were entitled to punish the enemy; they were the victims of a crippling blockade, by which civilians as well as combatants were being felled.

Undeniably this was true. By 1917, German citizens were enduring the biggest food crisis the country had known for a century. For many of the Kaiser’s subjects, turnips had become the staple diet  –  turnip mash, turnip soup, turnip salad, turnip jam, turnip pudding. Meanwhile, it was widely and inaccurately believed, the British feasted. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare was fighting fire with fire, and also sweet revenge.

Ethel Cooper, an Australian living in Leipzig, painted a grim picture in her diary on 4th February:

Coal has run out. The electric light is cut off in most houses (I have gas, thanks Heaven!), the trams are not running, or only in the very early morning, all theatres, schools, the opera house, and cinemas are closed — neither potatoes nor turnips are to be had — they were our last resource — there is no fish — and Germany has at last ceased to trumpet the fact that it can’t be starved out. Added to that the thermometer outside my kitchen windows says 24 deg. Fahr. below zero. I have never seen that before.

Germans feeling the effects of the blockade

Great Britain, it was widely believed, was responsible. Most Germans lost about 20 per cent of their body weight that winter. When the “Sink on sight” orders were received by the crew of the Helgoland, they were greeted with joy. These were the same men who, eight months earlier had fought at Jutland and who now, hungry and disconsolate, were kicking their heels while the vessel was being refitted at Wilhelmshaven. In their eyes, the new orders spelled “a sentence of death for England”. Seaman Stumf wrote: “I hope they suffer the same hunger as our people in Saxony or Westphalia.”

Such sentiments would have recommended themselves strongly to the future Deputy, Fuhrer Rudolf Hess. His letter to his parents on 30th January is a rather disconcerting medley of filial piety and humourless teutonic severity:

My warmest congratulations on your silver wedding anniversary! May you enjoy many more years of health and happiness together. I know your celebrations will be quieter than usual as your eldest children are not with you. However, you should take comfort in the thought that they are serving a great cause, doing their duty as Germans. Our school days were over all too soon. But these years of war have not been a waste. They have made me stronger and more independent, they have toughened my character. I hope that this shall be proven in years to come.

Nothing was tougher than the Western Front, along which raids and counter-attacks continued all week. On 30th January, French soldiers penetrated the German second line south of Leintrey in Lorraine, destroying the garrison and taking prisoners. That same day, German assaults at Soissons and Reims were repulsed. On 3rd February north of the Ancre, the British line advanced 500 yards east of Beaucourt along a front of 1,200 yards. A thousand prisoners were taken.

One officer involved in the attacks near Grandcourt was the former Prime Minister’s son, Oc Asquith, who was with the Royal Naval Division. In the confusion of the night attack, German gunners exacting a heavy toll among defenders until Asquith appeared “out of nowhere” and took charge. Under his command, the Hood battalion had repelled the German counter-attack by the next morning, during which he led further attacks on the German trenches. This all happened despite his having been shot in the arm early on. Only when “victory was assured” did he hobble into brigade headquarters, “looking as white as a winding sheet from loss of blood…” His wound was classified as “severe”.

The furious tussle persisted all week. One novelty was the German donning of white overalls  –  a crude camouflage in the snow. The diary entry for 1st February of Lieutenant-Colonel Rowland Feilding, now facing Spanbroekmolen, suggests that the new garb failed to effect a turnaround in military fortune:

The enemy tried again to raid the battalion this morning. At 5.15 he opened a sudden and fierce bombardment with artillery and trench-mortars on the front line and wire, and twenty minutes later the raiders came over… now camouflaged in white overalls and head-covers. The Lewis gun protecting the point where they made for had been put out of action during the bombardment, but the team manned the parapet with their rifles, and two more Lewis guns were brought up, with the result that the Germans were put to flight, leading seven or eight white figures dead in Noman’s [sic] Land.

Feilding was sensitive to the sight of unburied bodies. A dead soldier was to be honoured, never mind from whence he sprang:

4th February.  We got in another German body after the moon had dropped early yesterday morning. It was dressed only in a thin cellular vest and drawers, besides the tunic and trousers, and was without a shirt. Imagine the cruelty of it this bitter weather, with the thermometer, as it is, registering thirty degrees of frost!

We are burying this man together with one of his comrades in a corner of our own cemetery in Kemmel, and I have given orders for a notice-board to be shown on the parapet, telling the enemy that we have done so; though I am not sure that such a departure from present-day methods will be approved of if it becomes known. The two dead men are Saxons, and therefore probably R.C., so I have also arranged for our Chaplain to read the burial service over them.

Cadavers were also on Wilfred Owen’s mind this week. There is no reason to believe he was ever less than a brave officer, but his letters home do not exactly ring out with soldierly ardour. 4th February found him near Beaumont-Hamel, and, apparently, in particularly poor form:

I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death as well as any other; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language, and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil-ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night… and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the ‘soldierly spirit’…

Despite the run of catastrophic reversals suffered by the Russians in recent months, the Tsar’s forces succeeded in slowing down their advance during the week. They even took over 1,000 prisoners east of Jakobeny, where they captured a key fortified hill in the process. The trouble, as their allies guessed, was that this was too little too late. On 30th January Allied officials held preliminary meetings at Petrograd to discuss military and financial questions. By the end of the week it was announced that a Russian conference would be held on the future of Poland which had been annexed by the Russians 150 years earlier.

The Tsar, of course, was not present. He was not disposed to mortgage one iota of his patrimony –  let alone his sovereignty. On 31st January Queen Marie of Romania, living with her household in cramped conditions in Jassy, received her sister, Victoria Melita, who had arrived hotfoot from Petrograd. Melita  – gloriously nicknamed “Ducky” –  brought no good news whatsoever about Russia and more especially none about the royal family. The situation, she said, was “very dangerous because of the prevailing hatred of the Empress, so that even the Emperor is looked on askance… The Imperial couple keep sending people into banishment; no one is safe anymore, and they make foolish and unjustified nominations.”

Princess Victoria Melita

Perhaps Ducky was a less than perfect witness, having herself earlier been banished by the Tsar when, divorced, she had married his cousin, Grand Duke Cyril. It is hard to assess how welcome she would have been as a guest. Certainly she came bearing presents for the royal family and “thousands and thousands” of provisions for her sister’s soldiers and hospitals, which would have been lovely. One suspects Marie might really have preferred food  –  monarch or not, the country was at war and she never knew from where her next meal was coming.

The Entente could draw some comfort from better news in Mesopotamia  –  at least on a military reckoning. On 1st February the British captured all but the last line of Turkish trenches, east of the Tigris, near Kut, taking 166 prisoners and repulsing a strong counter-attack. The ethnic hatreds which were being blithely stirred up as they insinuated themselves further into Asia Minor would be a matter for another day.

The deep domestic travails of both Germany and Russia did not, as yet anyway, have much counterpart in Britain or France. Blessed by hindsight, we can all too easily overlook how fragile, at the time, the social compact appeared. And the more bitter and intense the war, of course, the more a nation’s rulers feared that the extraordinary exertions demanded of the people would become insupportable.

Treason, conspiracy and regicide were not notional concepts, but real and proximate anxieties. On 31st January news broke of the arrest in Derby of four persons suspected of conspiring to murder the Prime Minister and Arthur Henderson, the Labour member of his War Cabinet. Alice Wheeldon, who ran a second-hand clothes shop in Derby, was taken into custody with her daughters, Hettie, and Winnie, whose husband Albert Mason was also arrested.

Alice Wheeldon

When first arrested, Mrs Wheeldon had said (probably incautiously) that

I think it is such a trumped-up charge to punish me for my lad being a conscientious objector and you punished him through me while you had him in prison… you brought up an unfounded charge that he went to prison for and now he has gone out of the way you think you will punish him through me and you will do it.

She was referring to her son William, a conscientious objector who was currently in hiding from the authorities but who had served a month in prison the previous year. Indeed, all the accused were against the war. They were members of organisations like the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Women’s Peace Army, and well-known supporters of conscientious objectors, women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, Home Rule for Ireland. Membership of any one of these, let alone the whole kaboosh, was unlikely to endear the accused to any judge before whom they would appear. The trial was scheduled to take place in March at the Old Bailey.

For all its crustiness (and the odd reactionary old buffer on the bench), Britain prided itself on being a country governed by the rules of fair play. In many ways, it still was  –  even in 1917.

But it was not uniformly so. An ugly example of rough justice surfaced this week with the numbers of soldiers suffering from trench-feet. This was becoming a major headache, made far worse by the bad weather. To take an example: the 16th Highland Light Infantry were down by 200 men, one in five of their strength, purely as a result of it.

GHQ got very testy indeed. That wasn’t unfair in itself, nor especially surprising. Peremptory orders were fired off to all soldiers full of tetchy demands to carry spare dry socks at all times and remove boots at least once a day to rub their feet with whale-oil. It was an excellent prescription, but meaningless to men in the front line: they had no time in which to do so, and nowhere to go where it might be done. And the case of the 16th HLI was anyway exceptional  –  the poor devils had been holding a sector at Serre where the conditions were frightful:

Men stood knee-deep in the posts. They could not lie down to sleep or, in places, even sit. When fatigue became unbearable, two men, in at least one known case, stood and slept back to back while a third kept watch to prevent a collapse in the mud.

Any thaw turned the snow and frost into icy slush; soldiers could never get dry or warm. In consequence, they were among the hundreds of sick soldiers being sent down the line suffering from the effects of exposure: frostbite, trench-feet, pneumonia, bronchitis and rheumatism.

According to VAD Kathleen Yarwood, at a hospital in Rochdale:

Some of the trench-feet and frostbite cases were so bad that they had to be sent home. We had a tremendous number of frostbite cases at the beginning of 1917. In fact we had a whole ward of them, and another nurse and myself were in charge of that for quite a long time. We had to rub their feet every morning and every evening with warm olive oil for about a quarter of an hour or so, massage it well in and wrap their feet in cotton wool and oiled silk — all sorts of things just to keep them warm — and then we put big fisherman’s socks on them. Their feet were absolutely white, swollen up and dead. Some of their toes dropped off with it, and their feet looked dreadful…

And this is where the unfairness entered. An American medical volunteer, Dr Henry Potter, noted in his diary at the end of January:

There is a nice distinction made on the record cards between sick and wounded. Any man who is hurt by an act of the enemy is wounded whether it is by gunshot wound or gas pneumonia, while any man not hurt by an act of the enemy is sick.

Trench-feet and frostbite weren’t wounds, but sickness. So was PUO (Pyrexia of Uncertain Origin) or trench-fever, thought to be caused by lice passing bacteria into the bloodstream. It resulted in dangerously high temperatures and debility which could last for months. Victims, who had recently included J.R.R. Tolkien and A.A. Milne, had to be invalided home.

“The point, wrote Dr Potter, “is that a wounded man draws a pension in case of disability, the sick man does not.”

Anyone familiar with the historical parsimony of HM Treasury, or with the byzantine obstructionism of Whitehall, may not find that entirely surprising. But, at a time of appalling hardship borne overwhelmingly by the young man of the country, it stank.