WHAT IS IT about men? And what was it about the British?

It had taken two and a half years of the convulsions of war to effect even a compromise. But this was the week in which women, at least if they were thirty or more, were given the vote.

On 29th March, the journalist Michael MacDonagh wrote:

The House of Commons yesterday [28/3] recognized the services of women to the State by approving, by 341 votes to 62, woman suffrage.

The Bill would only become law when the war was ended, but general elections were the stuff of peacetime. The fact that the motion was proposed by Asquith, the former PM and for so long one of the most intransigent opponents of female suffrage, added to the momentousness. MacDonagh continued:

Asquith… in a fine speech recanted the stout opposition which he gave to votes for women before the War. Women, he said, had worked out their own salvation in the War. The War could not have been carried on without them; and he felt it impossible to withhold from them the right of making their voice heard on the problems of the country’s reconstruction when the war was over.

Reconstruction! When the war was over! Here were two leaps of the imagination. The first seemed almost unimaginable so long as HMG haemorrhaged wealth on the second. Bonar Law had announced that the cost of the war to the end of March 1917 had been £6 million a day but that, over the last six weeks, that had risen to £7 million. The National Debt now stood at £3.9 billion. Such sums, in 1917, defied understanding. The latest War Loan had brought in £1.3 billion which, had anyone been able to predict a date by which the war would end, might have given encouragement.

Andrew Bonar Law

Those in possession of the full facts wondered furiously what on earth would happen when that too was used up. The only sure conclusion to be drawn was that we had to win the war. In a speech on 29th March, concerning the Military Service (Review of Exemptions) Bill, Bonar Law stressed the need to find 100,000 more men. Many who had believed themselves off the hook now had to face the unpalatable prospect of call-up papers landing on the doormat, including those earlier deemed unfit for service, or who had recovered from wounds.

The ensuing debate allowed MPs to ride their own favoured hobbyhorses. Some MPs targeted civil servants, urging that there were too many men in the ministries who could easily be replaced by women. Another deplored the “250,000 hung up at Salonika… achieving no military result” and asked why these troops could not be diverted to France. Amateur military strategists, especially busybodying MPs, can be annoying.

The Bill was passed. Thanks to the National Service Ministry formed on 20th March, nearly 115,000 women registered to serve and, on 28th March, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps came into existence. The immediate significance was to demonstrate how wholeheartedly most elements of British society continued to identify with the war, long after it had ceased to be exciting.

There is no evidence that those at the apex of the military hierarchy were bothered about votes for women, one way or the other. Just now, the big concern was Russia. Specifically –  would she continue to fight as a bona fide ally? And could she be counted upon to relieve pressure on the French and the British in the forthcoming offensive in France? According to Hankey, reports were reaching the West:

of war-weariness, disillusionment, pacifism and even mutiny in the Russian forces. Towards the end of March Alexeiev [Russian Commander-in-Chief] warned the British and French High Commands that, owing to political commotions, his army was in such a state that he could not undertake an offensive on a large scale, at any rate before June-July, and hinted at the advisability of a readjustment of their plans. Information was also coming in on the transfer of German divisions from east to west.

Hankey considered that the French commander, Nivelle, might need to think again about any big battles in the spring. Get this one wrong, and the losses could be irreversible. But here was the conundrum: do nothing, and the Germans might strike. More than ever, it was clear that the war had to be brought to an end.

So far as Russia was concerned, the British government’s attention seems to have been caught up in the fate of the Tsar. The Provisional Government in Petrograd had asked Britain to provide asylum for their former Majesties for the duration of the war and, like many a middle-aged Englishman, the prospect of housing guests was viewed by George V with modified rapture. He instructed his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, to write to the Foreign Secretary on 30th March:

The King has been thinking much about the Government’s proposal that the Emperor Nicholas and his family should come to England. As you are doubtless aware, the King has a strong personal friendship for the Emperor and therefore would be glad to help him in this crisis.

One can sense a “but” coming:

His Majesty cannot help doubting not only on account of the dangers of the voyage, but on general grounds of expediency, whether it is advisable that the Imperial Family should take up residence in this country. The King would be glad if you would consult the Prime Minister, as His Majesty understands that no definite decision has yet been come to on the subject by the Russian Government.

The King was not wrong. When word got out that asylum in England was being considered for the Imperial Family, he received a string of abusive letters. The autocracy of the Romanovs had long alienated a country so proud of its parliamentary tradition and, in left-wing circles, Nicholas II was a bogey figure.

There was “a strong personal friendship” between the two royal cousins, but “grounds of expediency” also weighed

The Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, may have had a better appreciation than the King of the precariousness of the position in which the Russian royal family now found itself. He replied to Stamfordham on 2nd April.

His Majesty’s Ministers quite realize the difficulties to which you refer in your letter, but they do not think, unless the position changes, that it is now possible to withdraw the invitation which has been sent, and they therefore trust that the King will consent to adhere to the original invitation…

The Tsar’s most implacable enemy, Lenin, was still in exile in Switzerland, but chafing to return to Russia where he could reassume practical command of his Bolshevik followers. On 20th March he told his associates in Zurich:

Our tactics: no trust in and no support of the new government; Kerensky is especially suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd City Council; no rapprochement with other parties. Telegraph this to Petrograd.

The vultures were circling. Stalin had arrived in Petrograd on 25th March, having been sprung from a Siberian jail under the general amnesty for political prisoners. Trotsky had also set out from New York and was now aboard the Christianiafjord. On 27th March he wrote that: “We had been sent off in a deluge of flowers and speeches.”

Trotsky with his daughter, Nina, in 1915

The celebrations were abruptly halted, however, when the ship was intercepted at Halifax. British authorities, after a perfunctory check of the papers of most passengers, subjected the Russians

to a downright cross examination, asking us about our convictions, our political plans, and so forth. I absolutely refused to enter into a discussion of such matters with them. They insisted that I was a dangerous socialist. The whole business was so offensive, so clearly a discrimination against the Russian revolutionaries… that some of the Russians sent a violent protest to the British authorities. I did not join with them because I saw little use in complaining to Beelzebub about Satan.

Even now, the situation in Peterograd was looking menacing. Kerenksy recorded on 27th March that:

The Yellow Press has launched an invective-filled campaign to discredit the former Tsar and his wife, attempting to fan the flames of hatred and vengeance among the workers and soldiers of the capital.

On 31st March, Victoria Melita –  the gloriously named “Ducky” –  offered her sister, Queen Marie of Romania, an astringent, bleak, analysis:

the people having taken the upper hand, and the new masters having to make concessions to the mob, we will probably be sacrificed for the sake of keeping momentary peace in the interior.

As ever, the Tsar and his wife turned inwards. Incarcerated in the Alexander palace, Tsarskoe Selo, they were chiefly preoccupied with the illness of their children - not as eccentric as that might appear, since measles was a very dangerous disease in 1917 –  and with burning their personal papers.

Nasty hints of what they now had to endure came from Count Benckendorff:

At the palace, the attitude of the soldiers on guard became more and more provocative. Quarrels with the servants were an everyday occurrence. They felt they had the right to criticise the mode of life of their Majesties. They wandered about the Palace, walked into all the rooms, and we were forced to lock all the doors.

The Tsarina and Count Benckendorff

This was not a good moment to be a Romanov but, in a world at war, there were other and greater preoccupations besides securing their safety. Biggest of them all, was getting the United States to make that final leap. On 2nd April President Wilson made an impassioned, highly sententious but closely reasoned speech to the joint houses of Congress, evidently aiming at just that.

Predictably he denounced unrestricted submarine warfare, treating it as proof that Germany “had put aside all restraints of law or of humanity”.

He was especially incensed that its victims included hospital ships and those carrying relief supplies to stricken Belgium.

It is a war against all nations.  American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the… challenge is to all mankind… Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples…

So — what next?

I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent.

This was not yet a done deal. Wilson outlined the material steps needed, including the immediate recruitment of 500,000 men into the army. Resolutions to debate the declaration of war would take place on 3rd April.

Public opinion seemed keen. Crowds were cheering outside the building as he made his speech. The same day, news arrived of another American cargo ship sacrificed. SS Aztec had left New York for Le Havre on 18th March and was torpedoed by U-46 on the night of 1st April off the coast of France. Although 19 men were rescued and taken to Brest, hope was abandoned for the 28 missing in heavy seas.

SS Aztec

Cold comfort indeed, but these unhappy souls were not alone. On 27th March, the 20-year-old First Lieutenant Robert Goldrich was in charge of the sloop, Poppy, when they were summoned to rescue the crew of SS Holgate which had been badly damaged by a U-boat which was still lurking.

Goldrich recorded:

Sighted the crew in two lifeboats under sail and picked them up. While I was aft, ‘Action’ was sounded and I dived to the bridge to find a submarine panic on. I sighted the Fritz U-Boat 8,000 yards off, high up out of water. I did not see him soon enough and only got as far as ‘Control’, but did not get a round off. I was very sick about it, ’cos she must have been watching us. We noted her course and steamed full speed for a point over her and dropped a DC [depth charge], but without sending up a Fritz as we hoped.

Zigzagged in the vicinity of SS Holgate waiting for assistance before trying to take her in tow. We towed her stern first until 9.15 when the tow parted… She appeared to me to break into three — the engine and boiler rooms sinking first and funnel going over the side.

We did our best for twenty-seven survivors amongst whom was a passenger whose 2nd ‘Submarining’ this was. The Fritz had taken the captain out of the lifeboat when it was a long way from the abandoned ship and then dived immediately.

The survivors saw she [the U-Boat] was beautifully clean and looked as if she had just come off the docks. The three or four Huns were clad in a kind of khaki and were big-limbed fellows, clean-looking and well-fed. I expect they have just arrived if they were clean-shaven, ’cos I don’t shave on this racket and I don’t suppose they do!

There is a subtext of rueful comradeship in this passage, perhaps –  of recognition that submariners, like sailors, were only men acting under orders. The toll taken of shipping continued all week: 36 lives were lost on 27th March when Thracia was sunk by U-69 near Belle Ile; on 29th March, the steamship Crispin, sailing from Norfolk, Virginia to Avonmouth, was torpedoed without warning off the Irish coast. Around eight men were killed, including Americans, and all 700 horses on board destined for military use in France also perished; on 30th March, another hospital ship, HMHS Gloucester was torpedoed in the Channel and three men were killed during the transfer to lifeboats. The sense of impotence for those attempting to evade the U-boats must have been devastating. As yet, no solution had presented itself.

Nor on land. Two years and eight months in the trenches had driven home the point that there were no cheap and easy victories. Still, it was a notably successful week for the Allies as separate British and French forces continued to recover ground. By Friday 30th March the British infantry was in touch with the whole German front line from Arras to six miles south-west of St Quentin. On 2nd April, the village of Francilly-Selency was seized by the 2nd Manchesters. Six German 77 mm guns close to the village exacted a terrible attrition on the occupiers. It was the climax to a week of ghastliness in which much of the fighting had been hand-to-hand, and troops had repeatedly received the dread instruction to attach bayonets.

The scenes which met Allied troops were often ones of medieval horror. The diary of Edwin Campion Vaughan, a 19-year-old subaltern in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, recalls it vividly.

March 27  At 10 a.m. I was detailed to take the Company across to the Aizecourt-Nurlu road and there fill up an enormous mine-crater. It was very unsatisfactory work, for although 90 men were hard at it for four hours throwing in hundreds of barrows of stones and earth, there was not the slightest sign of the crater being smaller.

In their retreat the Germans have been very thorough, and mines have been exploded at every crossroads, and at such strategical points as this, on hillsides and in cuttings, so that transport is quite impossible. The engineers are finding it quicker to make new roads than to fill up the craters. In addition to this trees have been felled across the roads in hundreds of places, and most of the wells have been blown in or poisoned — in some cases dead horses and mules have been thrown in…

March 28 [In Longavesnes] There was nothing to do during the day, so I had a good lounge about the village, being keenly interested in deducing the life and dispositions of the Boche, from the ruined houses and sign boards. The gardens had been well kept and were full of flowers and vegetables which were now overlaid with bricks and dust from the shattered houses. There are hundreds of fruit trees — but every one has been sawn through and felled.

Edwin Campion Vaughan

There is something plaintive about all that fruit and all those vegetables being destroyed. The U-boat war was making everyone more thoughtful about food.

Relative to the occupied countries of Europe, the material privations of those at home in Britain had been benign. The British had been, for the duration of the war, the grateful recipients of American grain. Much of this went on making bread — and American sailors, hazarding their lives on the Atlantic crossing, could draw comfort from the thought that the terrible risks which they ran helped to fill the stomachs of hungry Britons.

Now came an unexpected problem and the problem was not bread, but beer. Public opinion in the United States viewed alcohol a good deal less indulgently than the British, to whose working classes beer-drinking was an historic pastime, a criterion of solid masculinity and, perhaps most importantly, one of the few pleasures left to them. The brewing of beer involved a lot of imported grain and, under pressure from the United States Food Administrator, a revised cap was announced on 31st March: no more than ten million barrels of beer were to be produced per year.

Cynthia Asquith, still doing a version of nursing at the hospital of her friend Lady Lytton, was untroubled by the threat to beer. Her preoccupations just now focused upon her wardrobe:

March 28  I went in my uniform to lunch with Phyllis. I ‘bussed’ of course mud-spotting my white dress. Pamela’s insistence on pure white is very extravagant, it involves a clean dress practically every time, and one’s laundry bill will be inflated beyond all recognition… Even my paltry two hours’ service tires me…

March 29  I was caught in a very heavy hail storm on my way to Fortnum and Mason… and only just got back in time to change into my uniform and go out to lunch in Bruton Street. I have blossomed out into the outdoor uniform — dark blue crepe-de-Chine veil and the orthodox cloak. It is very becoming…

Ah, bless. But her diaries this week throw out another dimension –  one which invites no comment, but needs context. On 1st April she went to see her five-year-old son, John, in Brighton. The little boy was autistic, in those days a condition which was neither diagnosed nor understood, but those effects could not remain unobserved.

An Arctic April. No semblance of spring in the bitter-blasted first day of the month here in Brighton.