HOW BIG A deal was the Battle of Cambrai? It isn’t hard to see why the British and their allies latched on to the idea that it was massive.
Among military commanders, Cambrai may have served as an expiation of sorts after recent horrors at Passchendaele. Shortly after the Canadians had finally captured the village of Passchendaele, Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, one of Haig’s right-hand men, had made his first visit to the fighting zone: appalled by the crater-strewn, muddy ground his car struggled to cross, he finally burst into tears muttering, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
One motive behind Cambrai was a need to rescue the credibility of the tank, in which extravagant hopes had been invested. Tank crews had been upset at its apparent failure during Third Ypres. In truth, tanks had been shown incapable of performing in the oceans of deep mud which had prevailed there, and had anyway been deployed in insufficient numbers. Lieutenant-Colonel John Fuller of the Tank Corps now pushed the idea that the dry land around Cambrai would be ideal for launching the first massed tank attack in history, pushing for an assault on a wide front between the Canal du Nord and the St Quentin Canal.
Haig was hesitant. Perhaps he was brought round to the idea of having something, anything, to show at the end of these months of desperate exertions. It was another risk, of course, but he allowed himself to be persuaded. Tanks were secretly brought to the area by rail and, by dawn on 20th November, 376 tanks were ready. In another break with recent precedent, no preliminary bombardment was used. Surprise had been too often the missing element. General Julian Byng with the Third Army, commanded the battle. Only when the tanks moved forward did the artillery open fire, as the infantry closely followed the tanks.
The result, especially in its opening stages, was a spectacular success. So far as the Tank Corps was concerned, the battle was done and dusted by 4pm that day. Tank Lieutenant Mitchell recalled:
On a front of 13,000 yards the infantry had been enabled to advance 10,000 yards in ten hours. Eight thousand prisoners and 100 guns were captured, in addition to numerous stores, canteens, field post offices, hospitals and even cinemas.
The British casualties had not been more than 1,500… The Tank Corps, numbering a little over 4,000 men, had that day changed the face of warfare.
That makes it sound a bit too easy perhaps. Those unfortunates who had been inside a tank during earlier conflicts were full of dark forebodings. One recalled:
As we lurched along, we expected the most frightful crash to come at any minute. It seemed almost too good to be true, this steady rumbling forward over marvellous going, no craters in the ground, no shelling from the enemy, and our infantry following steadily behind.
Emerging out of the gloom, a dark mass came steadily towards us — the German wire. It appeared absolutely impenetrable. It was certainly the thickest and deepest I had ever seen, stretching in front of us in three belts, each about fifty yards deep. It neither stopped our tank nor broke up and wound round the tracks as we feared, but squashed flat as we moved forward and remained flat. A broad carpet of wire was left behind us, as wide as our tank, over which the infantry were able to pick their way without difficulty.
There were two huge pluses here: the enemy front line had been evidently taken by surprise, and the tanks simply chewed up the barbed wire. Captain D.G. Browne of “F” Battalion later reflected that:
The German outposts, dazed or annihilated by the sudden deluge of shells, were overrun in an instant. The triple belts of wire were crossed as if they had been beds of nettles, and 350 pathways were sheared through them for the infantry. The defenders of the front trench, scrambling out of the dug-outs and shelters to meet the crash and flame of the barrage, saw the leading tanks almost upon them, their appearance made all the more grotesque and terrifying by the huge black bundles [of fascines] they carried on their cabs.
The fascines were the very latest technology — or rather, the very latest adaptation of something very ancient. Bundles of chestnut fence paling, about ten foot long and four foot wide, they were released from the roof of the tank as it approached a trench, and then used as a bridge over which the tank would roll.
To Browne’s evident fascination “the defenders of the line were running panic-stricken, casting away arms and equipment”.
Compare this with the Somme or Passchendaele! By the end of the first day, numerous villages had fallen and 8,000 prisoners had been taken. Most importantly, the Hindenburg Line — supposedly an impenetrable bulwark — was broken at last. Byng, who had commanded the battle, was promoted to a full General on 23rd November.
However, after the initial big push, the going got much harder. A disturbing number of tanks were knocked out next day: with the element of surprise lost, the Germans could rush up men and armoury to start the fightback. Although the British had reached Fontaine Notre Dame, about two miles from Cambrai, it was retaken by the Germans in a counter-attack the following day, 22nd November. This set the pattern for the rest of the week: the British held on to their initial gains, but thereafter it was back to attack, counter-attack, and the usual attrition. Plans for a major counter-offensive which the German High Command had already scheduled for 30th November remained unaltered.
British media only dealt with the initial success, however, and buried news of the slowdown. Readers at home latched on the good news hungrily. Church bells were pealed in anticipation of further victory — perhaps, some speculated wildly, it might even herald an end of the war? Cynthia Asquith was not convinced. She noted in her diary on 21st November:
Evening papers full of a great ‘victory’. Tanks and cavalry are said to have penetrated the Hindenburg line. I wonder how much it means.
She, like so many, had known too much loss and sorrow to dare to hope. Fear of hubris made her anxious, as next day’s entry revealed: “I hear joy bells pealed for the Flanders victory. All my superstition revolts at this…”
After the war, Field Marshal Hindenburg asked himself how substantive the Allied victory had been:
The physical effects of fire from machine-guns and light ordnance with which the steel Colossus was provided were far less destructive than the moral effect of its comparative invulnerability. The infantryman felt that he could do practically nothing against its armoured sides. As soon as the machine broke through our trench lines, the defender felt himself threatened in the rear and left his post.
Initial terror notwithstanding, he claimed to have been unworried:
I had no doubt, however, that our men would soon get on level terms even with this hostile weapon.
From his perspective, Germany had had a pretty decent few months: Russia was on her knees, and Passchendaele had taken a huge toll on the British. And, while the newspapers at home latched on to the good news enthusiastically, it was, of course, the backdrop for tragedy. One of the many British casualties was Edward Horner, a member of that elite coterie of mainly upper class and intellectual Englishmen known as “The Coterie”. He was shot dead by a sniper on 21st November, while leading his troop of cavalry holding the village of Noyelles.
Horner was an undoubted patriot who had served since the beginning of the war. He had been badly wounded in 1915, leading to the loss of a kidney. Despite having been deemed unfit for further service, he had talked his way back to the front. Tall, handsome and adventurous, at 29 he was the last heir to the Horners, descendants of “Little Jack Horner” of nursery rhyme fame. His family had suffered too: his sister, Katharine, had married Raymond Asquith, the eldest son of then Prime Minister, who been killed the previous year. At the time of his death he had only just returned from compassionate leave granted to support his parents when their house, Mells Park, in Somerset, had burned to the ground.
After the war, his disconsolate mother Lady Horner would write that, “With him perished the last hope of direct male succession in an ancient and honourable English house.” Although she could not bring his body back for burial, she did erect a sublime memorial to her son in the church beside his manor home: an equestrian statue by Munnings on a base by Lutyens.
Another death this week was of that of the celebrated suffragist, Elsie Inglis. A distinguished doctor, she had first volunteered to be sent overseas to support Allied troops, with the support of an all-female medical unit, at the outbreak of war. The response of the War Office — “ My good lady, go home and sit still” — contrasted strongly with the greater receptivity of equivalent organisations overseas, by whom her Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service had been welcomed with open arms. By November 1917, fourteen units, staffed entirely by women of many different nationalities, had worked in France, Serbia, Corsica, Malta, Salonika, Romania and Russia.
Inglis led by example. Her work in Serbia, which coincided with the worst typhus epidemic in history, led to her receiving the country’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle, in 1916. Having survived capture and repatriation after the Allied defeats in Serbia, she and her all-female team had attached itself to the Russian army and re-located near Odessa. Given the rise of the Bolsheviks and the implosion of the Russian army, this had become an inauspicious billet for a foreigner, and the British navy arrived to evacuate her.
The rescue already contained enough danger to make it dramatic. It threatened also to be tragic since Inglis herself was by now gravely ill, in the last stages of cancer. Even so, she would not leave. Only when it was agreed that she might be accompanied by the remains of the Serbian division which had stayed with her would she step on board.
The ship was due to dock at Newcastle a few days later, but was held back in a gale, and waited outside the dock. In a scene full of poignance, Inglis came on deck to take leave of the Serbian officers:
It was a wonderful example of her courage and fortitude. She stood unsupported — a splendid figure of quiet dignity, her face ashen and drawn like a mask, dressed in her worn uniform coat, with the faded ribbons, that had seen such good service. As the officers kissed her hand, she said to each of them a few words accompanied by her wonderful smile.
She was brought ashore on 25th November, only to die the following day.
Her funeral, attended by thousands, would be held in Edinburgh on 29th November, “the occasion of an impressive public tribute”, according to The Scotsman. One clergyman commented that,
we are wholly justified in doing honour to the memory of a woman whose personality won the heart of an entire brave nation, and of whom one of the gallant Serb officers who bore her body to the grave, said, with simple earnestness: ‘We would almost rather have lost a battle than lost her’.
Around 200,000 Allied soldiers were treated by members of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and their pioneering work confirmed women’s capability in frontline medicine. At least 21 women died on active service in Serbia, where they are still honoured and commemorated.
Serbia’s ally, Russia, seemed mired in the grip of revolutionary madness. The immediate threat, although not the worst, was that she would withdraw unilaterally from the war. On 22nd November, Trotsky issued a formal Note to all Allied ambassadors:
Turn your attention to the text of the armistice and democratic peace proposal approved by the All-Russian Congress… on the basis of the self-determination of peoples. I… ask you to view this document as a formal proposal for an immediate armistice on all fronts and the immediate opening of negotiations.
For those inclined to favour Lenin’s millenarian message, these were heady times. That same day, John Reed, in Moscow, had watched massive pits being dug in Red Square for the graves of the “500 proletarians who died for the Revolution”.
Overhead the night was thick with stars, and the ancient Kremlin wall towered up immeasurably. ‘Here in this holy place’ said the student, ‘holiest of all Russia, we shall bury our most holy. Here where are the tombs of the Tsars, our Tsar — the People — shall sleep…’ His arm was in a sling, from the bullet-wound gained in the fighting. He looked at it. ‘You foreigners look down on us Russians because so long we tolerated a medieval monarch… But we saw that the Tsar was not the only tyrant in the world; capitalism was worse… Russian revolutionary tactics are best…’
The following day, Reed noted:
…The Holy Orthodox Church had withdrawn the light of its countenance from Moscow… Dark and silent and cold were the churches; the priests had disappeared. There were no popes to officiate at the Red Burial, there had been no sacrament for the dead, nor were any prayers to be said…
There were, however, hints of future trouble in paradise. Meetings proliferated, exasperating Western observers:
Meetings with an endless number of splinter groups or plenary sessions, interminable voting on points of order… debates that go on without a break, all day, all night… speakers whose hands are bound by the chains of party dogma, and who can only see things through their dead, doctrinaire eyes.
Lenin had already issued his Decree on Land, abolishing private ownership and confiscating such lands for distribution amongst the peasantry. Now, he also issued a “Decree on the Abolition of Social Estates and Civil Ranks”. Property was transferred into communal ownership and all titles were abolished: “one common designation is established for all the people of Russia — citizen of the Russian Republic”.
The Allies’ rage owed less, by now, to the military and strategic implications for a Russian withdrawal. It had been clear for some time that the war would be won or lost in the west. What terrified them was that the new Russian government seemed intent on going over the heads of every government. The legitimacy of any nation’s statecraft, it seemed to suggest, depended exclusively on the consent of its working classes. This was incendiary stuff, and the extent to which the Russian rulers intended to act according to it was illustrated when, on 24th November, Trotsky began to publish secret treaties established between Russia and the other Allies at the start of the war.
In fact, the detail of these were unsurprising to anyone familiar with military strategy or the dark arts of realpolitik. Allied military representatives made an awkward situation far worse by issuing all kinds of dark threats to the new government.
That exasperated the British Ambassador, Sir George Buchanan:
The veiled threat… has been interpreted to mean that we are about to call on Japan to attack Russia. It was an ill-advised step that has done us any amount of harm.
Trotsky has in consequence issued a fiery appeal to the soldiers, peasants and workmen against our influence in Russian affairs. He told them that our imperialistic Governments were trying to whip them back to the trenches and to make cannon fodder of them. He urged the soldiers to elect their representatives and to open negotiations at once with the Germans.
It is easy, from this distance of time, to deplore their obtuseness. But even their political masters were not about to make it easy for a gang of reds to turn the world upside down. On 21st November, the New York Times reported that:
No shipment of supplies will be permitted to go from the United States to Russia until the situation in that country clears. The cessation of shipments is temporary only if a stable Government is formed which the United State can recognise. If the Bolsheviki gain control and pursue their program calling for peace with Germany, the embargo will be permanent.
It was no different in Westminster and Whitehall. To date, the British working class had not demonstrated much in the way of enthusiasm for what some newspapers were now calling the Bolsheviki. On 23rd November, Lord Robert Cecil, an under-secretary at the Foreign Office, declared in the Commons that the Soviet Government would not be recognised.
But the British social compact was not impervious to criticism and dissent. Suspicions that the burdens of war were not distributed fairly were becoming strident. Against a backdrop of long queues by the poor for basic foodstuffs, the Daily Herald gave front-page coverage to this report by Francis Meynell:
A Herald representative dined at the Ritz on 20 November. His job was to see for himself, and for the readers of this paper, how the patriotic rich had ‘tightened their belts’, how thin the fare had become, how the grim tragedy of war had affected the proudest heritage of our race…
The first course was hors d’euvres — little dishes of sardines, shelled shrimps, eggs mayonnaise, olives etc. — a sufficient meal by itself. The second, a rich soup, for which he ordered — and obtained — a bowl of cream — almost a meal by itself. The third course was a generous helping of exquisitely cooked sole, lobster and white wine joining with the cream for its dressing — an ample meal in itself. The fourth course was chicken, cooked to a turn. Half a fowl (less its leg, which is, as everyone knows, quite impossible to eat) is served for two persons — a substantial meal in itself. To test whether another course of meat would be served and whether one might go outside the narrow limits of the menu, bacon with tomatoes was then ordered…
The Herald representative had three rashers and three tomatoes to his share — again, a meal itself. Then the macedoine de fruits. One did not need sugar, for the Muscat grapes and the Maraschino cream flowed. Coffee, cream and liqueur rounded off a dinner which, with the cheaper champagne (only 14s. a bottle, against the average £1 1s.), fed two people quite respectably for £3 — and paid the tip into the bargain.
These notes will, we hope, put an end to the miserable suspicions entertained by the lower orders that the rich are better off than themselves in wartime. The war, we know, has levelled everyone. If prices are high and food is short down your way, why not ‘pig it’ in the Ritz?
As we were bowed out of the door we saw, under the arches at the front of the hotel, three old women huddled up in their rags for the night.
Protestations of national solidarity quickly became, in these circumstances, a source of mockery. A more edifying example of the well-to-do doing their bit comes this week from the Princess Evelyn Blucher at her estate in Krieblowitz:
As coffee and tea have entirely run out, all sorts of berries and leaves are being used as a surrogate. Chestnuts are used for feeding the deer, and it is interesting to see the children, who are not old enough to work otherwise, busy plucking and collecting the different things.
Nothing seems to be left unused —salad-oil being extracted from every kind of fruit-stone, and an excellent oil for greasing machinery is being pressed from the seeds of sunflowers. It is marvellous how much has been produced in this way, and it is only a pity we cannot use the latter for cooking and eating purposes.
Luxury in London was, apparently, not confined to comestibles. Cynthia Asquith’s diary for 21st November gives a hint of that:
Visited Freyberg who was back in bed, relapsed after a luncheon at Cavendish Square… Someone had sent him a £200 platinum watch — for which he expressed the most unreasonable regret.
The following day, she decided to tease him a little:
Went to Selfridges and sent a joke toy watch to Freyberg as a rival to his £200 one.