Blinker and the boys and girls of Room 40

‘Room 40’ — codebreakers at work

EVEN BY THE Tsar’s own exalted standards, this was a spectacular own goal.

On 18th January, his government postponed the next meeting of the Duma from 25th January to 27th February. It was an astonishingly imprudent decision, as well as a weak one, and obviously defensive.

That day, the president of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, had an audience with the Tsar and urged upon him a spirit of realism:

Your Majesty, I consider the state of the country to have become more critical and menacing than ever. The spirit of all the people is such that the gravest upheavals may be expected… All Russia is unanimous in claiming a change of government and the appointment of a responsible premier invested with the confidence of the nation…

A lesser man might have found that the presence of anointed royalty sapped the critical instinct, but not this one.

Rodzianko (described by the Tsar as a “fat rat”)

Sire, there is not a single honest or reliable man left in your entourage; all the best have either been eliminated or have resigned… It is an open secret that the Empress issues orders without your knowledge, that Ministers report to her on matters of state… Indignation against and hatred of the Empress are growing throughout the country. She is looked upon as Germany’s champion. Even the common people are speaking of it… To save your family, Your Majesty ought to find some way of preventing the Empress from exercising any influence on politics… Your Majesty, do not compel the people to choose between you and the good of the country.

The Tsar was not unmoved. He allegedly sat with his head in his hands and wondered,

Is it possible, that for twenty-two years I tried to act for the best and that for twenty-two years it was all a mistake?

Rodzianko took no prisoners:

Yes, Your Majesty, for twenty-two years you followed the wrong course.

Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich

It is a nice vignette, but it made no difference. Nicholas had sworn to maintain autocracy at his coronation and now justified his obstinacy by his insistence that God himself had demanded he preserve it intact  – in order that, one day, it might be handed hand over to his son and heir, Alexei.

There was a world, however, beyond whatever La La Land was inhabited by the Tsar and his family  –  one in which Russian blood and guts were being spilled. On 17th January General Mackensen’s dramatic successes in Romania were briefly halted on the Sereth as the Romanians had captured the heights between the Casin and Oitoz valleys, taking four guns and many prisoners, but it was a tiny respite. Two days later, the towns of Nanesti and Fundeni fell to the Germans.

Fighting in the West was characterised by a large number of minor engagements  – frightening, bloody and fought against the backdrop of deteriorating weather. Haig was determined the Germans would not be able to rest easy in their secure bunkers and dug-outs and so it was that Lens, Neuve-Chapelle and St Eloi were successfully targeted and enemy posts along a 600-yard stretch of the Front north of Beaucourt-sur-Ancre were captured on 17th January. The Germans counter-attacked north of Bois des Caurières near Verdun, but their heart did not seem to be in it, and they were successfully repulsed on 21st January.

Haig was not on hand to see it, having sped off to London  to await the outcome of the War Cabinet’s deliberations on the proposed offensive outlined to them by General Nivelle.

This was a massively sensitive matter: shorn of official niceties, Lloyd George wanted to find an alternative route to victory to the foul slaughter in the West. At heart he suspected that the British had not the stomach to endure it much longer (perhaps not the soldiers, and almost certainly not the civilians). He did not dislike Haig, nor (up to a point) distrust him, but he resented the grand strategy over which he now presided. What, he wondered, about moving against Austria on the Italian Front?

Haig had seen Lloyd George on 15th January and recorded that:

the P.M. proceeded to compare the successes obtained by the French during the past summer with what the British had achieved. His general conclusions were that the French Army was better all round, and was able to gain success at less cost of life. That much of our loss on the Somme was wasted, and that the country would not stand any more of that sort of thing. That to win, we must attack a soft front, and we could not find that on the Western Front…

This was hardly a ringing endorsement of Haig’s command. To be fair to Lloyd George, he knew that there was no Front in which British soldiers could romp home to an easy victory (that particular myth had been exploded devastatingly at Gallipoli).

At this same moment, the new French commander, Nivelle, was chafing for a new offensive in the West  – spearheaded by the French but with the British in support. The following day, 16th January, he received the War Cabinet’s endorsement of his plans. The Memorandum detailing the agreement was signed by Haig, Robertson and Nivelle, the military chiefs, and not by their political masters. His scheme required the British army to take over a considerable length of the Front to release French divisions for the assault on the Chemin-des-Dames. A heavy British attack would also have to be launched on the Arras Front while the French attacked on the Aisne.

French postcard of the Western Front in 1917

Duff Cooper, a future Cabinet minister, later remarked:

The fact was that Nivelle had proved the first and last person capable of persuading Lloyd George that Victory could be won on the western front. Lloyd George believing for the nonce that the thing could be done, demanded that it should be done quickly.

Haig was full of foreboding about the combined efforts of the rookie Prime Minister and the rookie French commander. Lloyd George sent him a message that same day stressing that the War Cabinet attached great importance to Nivelle’s plan being carried out “both in the letter and in the spirit”. The only concession Haig gained was that reinforcements would be sent and that he could complete the relief of the French with them by 1st March and not at the earlier date of 15th February.

Haig was always a realist. He wrote that

we must do our best to help the French to make their effort a success. If they succeed, we also benefit. If they fail, we will be helped in our turn, and we then have a right to expect their full support to enable us to launch our decisive attack, in the same way as we are now helping them.

Allied progress on other Fronts continued to be volatile. On 16th January Greece at last accepted all the demands made in the Allies’ ultimatum, including making reparations for the destructive demonstrations at the end of last year. That much was good.

Further to the East, in Mesopotamia, efforts to re-take Kut-el-Amara  –  the town so humiliatingly lost by the British after a disastrous siege ended in April 1916  –  moved desperately slowly. General Frederick Maude, charitably described as a cautious and careful commander, was also under orders from London to keep casualties in the campaign to a minimum. This was the problem. Politicians wanted spectacular results at low cost.

British troops near Kut-el-Amara

In the absence of good news, they also abetted disinformation  –  lies, in fact. A statement on 22nd January from the Secretary of the War Office read:

The enemy have now been driven from the small strip on the right bank of the Tigris in the bend north-east of Kut-el-Amara. The whole trench system on a front of 2,500 yards and to a depth of 1,000 yards is now in our hands, and the right bank of the Tigris from Kut-el-Amara downstream has been cleared of the enemy. Further progress has been made against the enemy’s trenches on the right bank south-west of Kut-el-Amara.

This was tosh: the previous ten days of fighting had been ferocious and British losses had been savage. But there was a growing anxiety on the part of British political leaders just now, grounded in the fear that popular support for the war was more tenuous than it ever had been.

If they were right, then they were not alone. In Germany, the determination to end the war rapidly had provoked the decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Berlin knew that America’s entry into the war was probably inevitable  – an outcome which, most understandably, she preferred to avoid. To this end, an eccentric diplomatic feint was devised by Arthur Zimmermann, Secretary for Foreign Affairs: if the US decided to fight against Germany, then Mexico would attack the US.

Artur Zimmerman

On 16th January the idea was forwarded in a telegram to the German ambassador in Washington to be passed to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt:

We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavour in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you.

You will inform the President [Mexican] of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and… call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.

It certainly reads very improbably today. After two and a half years of war, the explanation for the telegram’s existence owes more to Germany’s desperation than, as some have mooted, Zimmerman having lunched too well.

The next problem for Berlin was how to communicate this  –  what does one say…  notion… caprice? Policy seems altogether too thoughtful  –  to the Mexicans. As Germany had destroyed her own trans-Atlantic cables at the start of the war, she had to use those of other countries, including America’s, at this point. The coded telegram was sent on 19th January via the US cable which ran through a relay station at Porthcurno in Cornwall, from where all messages were copied to British intelligence.

Here everything became rather John Le Carré. Unknown to the Germans, the British had a superb decoding team, directed by Admiral “Blinker” Hall and based in Room 40 of the Admiralty. By 20th January they had decoded most of the telegram. The only problem  –  familiar to all cryptographers  –  was what to do next. Clearly its contents were explosive, but Hall stalled, deeply reluctant to do anything which might warn the Germans of the British penetration of their codes.

Admiral Reginald (“Blinker”) Hall

The sterling work by those in Room 40 had not, however, removed the U-boat menace. On 17th January the British Admiralty announced the losses in the Atlantic for the month from 12th December to 12th January: ten British and two French ships had been sunk; two other British ships had been captured and their crews taken prisoner. The following day, the Germans announced that the missing merchantman Yarrowdale, captured on 11th December by their phenomenally successful commercial raider, SS Moewe, had now arrived in Swinemuede on the Baltic. Nearly 500 prisoners, taken from different ships, including some American citizens, were now in enemy camps.

It got worse, unfortunately. British Intelligence had alerted the navy to the presence of a German flotilla of at least eleven ships apparently headed for Zeebrugge. The Harwich Force was despatched to intercept them and overnight on 22nd January an engagement took place which led to the sinking of HMS Simoom, which was torpedoed by the destroyer S.50. Of her complement of 90 there were few survivors from the original explosion.

In such circumstances, it is not remotely hard to understand why both politicians and the general public were forced to contend with two difficult truths: one was that the present rate of slaughter and loss could not be sustained indefinitely; the other was that whoever lost the war faced abject catastrophe.

Rudolf Hess during the Great War

Such an apocalypse was exactly what was anticipated by Klara, mother of Rudolf Hess. Despite having two sons fighting at the front, she wrote austerely to the future Nazi potentate on 22nd January:

Dear Rudi,

When I heard about the peace agreement, I felt dejected rather than relieved. I fear we are settling for too little, after all the blood our nation has spilt. Of course I know that an armistice would mean your safe return, my sons, but your future and that of the Fatherland would be built on shaky foundations. Thank God the German Michael [Germany’s patron saint] has finally had the guts to stand firm until our rights to water and land have been secured. We shall fight on, even if it means hard times ahead of us. Why give in at the time when we have been winning victories? Deceit and lies will not bring victory. It would be cowardly of us to worry about you. Instead we should be proud that through our sons we are fighting for the salvation of the Fatherland.

God be with you, dear son!

Cynthia Asquith, daughter of the erstwhile Prime Minister, seems to have sidestepped thoughts of a Gotterdamerung. She integrated the sober narratives of war seamlessly into a bustling social life.

Her diary on 18th January records that she:

Dined with Colonel Freyberg, V.C., at the Carlton Grill Room… Freyberg’s sleeve is covered in gold braid. He has a ghastly red trench in his neck, is very deaf in one ear, and cannot move his arm. In spite of this, he succeeded where others failed in winding up Irene’s little car for us… We went Harry Lauder’s musical play — the first time I have ever seen him. He certainly is extraordinarily lovable — marvellous geniality. His son has just been killed and it is terribly moving when he sings a sort of ‘when the boys come home’ patriotic song…

Lauder, a much sought-after variety theatre entertainer, had toured the country aiding recruitment and raising funds for war charities. He had been appearing in the popular Three Cheers revue in London when he had learned of the death of his only son, 25-year-old Captain John Lauder, of the 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who had been shot by a sniper at Pozieres on 28th December.

Lauder felt that “everything had come to an end” and that “the board of life was black and blank”. Like so many other bereaved parents, he felt his only job now was to “carry on”. Later in the year he persuaded the government to send him to France to entertain the troops.

Once there he took the chance to visit his son’s grave at Ovillers:

Five hundred British boys lie sleeping in that small acre of silence, and among them is my own laddie. There the finest hopes of my life, the hopes that sustained and cheered me through many years lie buried…

I wanted to reach my arms down into that dark grave, and clasp my boy tightly to my breast, and kiss him. And I wanted to thank him for what he had done for his country, and his mother, and for me.

Meanwhile, on 21st January, the tireless Cynthia attended a rare “real Saturday to Monday party again — really very much like a pre-war one” at Panshanger, the grand Hertfordshire home of Lord and Lady Desborough, both still in mourning for their sons, Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Instead of going to church, a party conducted by Lord Desborough went over to see the German prisoners. There are about a hundred of them in the park and they work in the woods. I wasn’t allowed to talk German to them. The specimens I saw were of the meek-and-mild type, not at all ‘blond beasts’. They had rather ignominious identification marks in the form of a blue disc patched somewhere onto their backs: it looked as though its purpose was to afford a bull’s eye to the marksman if they attempted to escape…

German prisoner of war

Such voyeurism leaves a bad taste in the mouth, at least today. In Sedan, the teenage schoolboy, Yves Congar, had recently witnessed the horrific treatment meted out to the thousands of Romanian prisoners who had passed through town following Romania’s collapse. The prisoners were starving, often wounded, beaten, kept in the railway station at one stage for 15 days without food. Some Germans threw food from windows and then laughed as starving prisoners fought for the scraps. Romanians, Russians and Italians were treated as the lowest in the ethnic hierarchy, whereas British and French prisoners received preferential treatment. Anyone seen sympathising with prisoners, or attempting to help them, was fined individually and the town itself was forced to pay 50,000 marks for its compassionate efforts.

The British were spared the horrors of occupation, but they could still have it hard at home. A catastrophic fire broke out on the evening of 19th January at the large factory complex at Silvertown, between the North Woolwich Railway and the river Thames. Just before 7 p.m. an explosion erupted. To this day, the exact cause is unknown, but 83 tons of TNT ignited, and there was no doubting what followed. All nine factories caught fire, ignited by the red-hot iron girders flung everywhere. Almost every building in London was shaken by the explosion, with half a million windows in nearby shops and houses shattered. It remains the largest explosion to be recorded in London.

According to the Stratford Express

The whole heavens were lit in awful splendour. A fiery glow seemed to have come over the dark and miserable January evening, and objects which a few minutes before had been blotted out in the intense darkness were silhouetted against the sky. That awful illumination lasted only a few seconds. Gradually it died away, but down by the river roared a huge column of flame which told thousands that the explosion had been followed by fire and havoc, the like of which has never been known in these parts.

Thousands of houses were destroyed; 73 people died with 98 seriously injured and more than 400 others suffered minor injuries. The damage amounted to £1,212, 661, around £60 million in today’s money. Subsequently, third party claims ran into further millions.

The lesson, however, was learned that no munition factories should be anywhere near civilian housing. In retrospect, it is easy to spot that all the ingredients were in place for a perfect storm: the Brunner Mold Chemical Factory was one of the many munitions plants set up in 1915 (in the wake of the “Shell Scandal”) and one of its tasks was to purify trinitrotoluene TNT. Flour mills, oil refineries, Lyle’s sugar factory and domestic properties all surrounded the plant with around 5,000 workers each doing their bit.

Put like that, it sounds so easy, so obvious, and so avoidable. But war was all about the ruthless prioritisation of effort and resources, and in early 1917 the struggle had become palpably more desperate. Lowly civilians  –  women and those unfit to serve  –  had to take their chances.

Silvertown, early 1917