TRUTH, THEY SAY, is the first casualty of war. But truth was what civilians craved, and all the soldiers gave them was silence.
Since Britain had adopted conscription, there were hardly any citizens without a constituency in the war. And the British government which had, in many senses, a mature and respectful attitude towards its citizens, had come increasingly to realise that the dissemination of a sanitised version of what was happening in France would amount to a betrayal.
Given this, truth in August 1916 was a big ask. At the end of the previous week, the film, The Battle of the Somme, had opened to the general public at thirty-four cinemas around London area and was now opened up to provincial audiences. The Times reported that “hundreds of thousands” of people had viewed it within days, with many more turned away at the doors.
Described as THE GREATEST MOVING PICTURE IN THE WORLD, it was an immediate a sensation. Cinematically, it was pioneering: the first ever war documentary; a mixture of actual and recreated events, which allowed audiences at home an unprecedented chance to see troops in action. Just like life, the film wasn’t always quite what it seemed. The famous scene of men going over the top and falling back shot dead had been staged for the cameras — a reasonable ploy for a propaganda film intended to raise national morale.
That particular artifice passed by most viewers. One provincial newspaper, whose local “Pals” battalion, the Grimsby Chums, had suffered nearly 500 casualties on 1 July, saw these scenes as proof of the authenticity of the whole film:
No picture of the war would be at all complete if we did not see the representation of ‘Over the top, boys’. And here we see what this sentence really means. There is the hurried scramble up the trench side, the rush over the top, the negotiations of the wire entanglements, and the disappearance of the troops into No Man’s Land, where the hand to hand fighting is obscured from the view of the camera. That the picture is real, taken in the face of German bullets, is proved by the fact that all the boys do not get ‘over the top’. One is hit just as his head appears over the parapet and he slides back with outstretched arms, his rifles lying in front. After the battle one sees the sad scenes on the field. There are killed and there are wounded.
Virtually all other scenes were authentic and audiences were both electrified and appalled. Perhaps there was a whiff of guilty voyeurism but, having watched it, most viewers were more than ever aligned to the war in general and to fighting men in particular. The overwhelming reluctance of men on the front to share thoughts and experiences had left many civilians uneasy and fearful; now, to some extent, questions were being answered. The film would go on being booked for months to come; twenty million people would ultimately attend a showing and it was shown overseas in eighteen countries.
Of course there were critics. Film-maker Malins himself thought that “some of the dead scenes would offend the British public”. One cinema refused to show it because “This is a place of amusement, not a chamber of horrors”, and some felt women should not see the “actual horrors of warfare”. The Dean of Durham, the Reverend Henley Henson protested against “an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement”. He could not bear the possibility that a viewer could recognise a relative alive and well in the film who was “now dead in the fields of Flanders”.
How much truth could be borne? That was the question. Even today, when details are well known, we recoil from those which serve to remind us that the passage from life to death was not instantaneous, and that soldiers were not only, or even mainly, cheery and acceptant, nor brave and resigned.
Lawrence Gameson, an Anzac medical officer, recorded his experience from Contalmaison:
We were told to turn left at the second bad smell. The directions proved to be as accurate as a precise map reference. We live in the remains of a chateau…The cellars are sound. Soon the wounded began to arrive; some walking, some carried, some just helped along; the usual bloody, patient battered crowd, without a grouse and with scarcely a groan …
The flow of work in our cellar was uncertain. Times of slackness alternating with times of great stress, when the place was filled with scores of reeking, bleeding men … Sometimes a man on a stretcher would vomit explosively, spewing over himself and his neighbours. I have seen mounted troops brought in with liquid faeces oozing from the unlaced legs of their breeches. Occasionally a man would gasp and die as he lay on his stretcher. All this was routine and the waiting crowd looked on unconcerned.
Perhaps that was a truth better apprehended than seen. And then there was the fact that, even in the midst of dangers, the ugliness of cruelty still surfaced. Max Plowman with the 10th Green Howards wrote home distressed by what he’d seen:
There is a boy from D Company doing Field Punishment No 1. His outstretched arms are tied to the wheels of a travelling field-kitchen. The Regimental Sergeant-Major has just told me that the boy is there for falling out on the march. He defended himself before the Commanding Officer by saying that he had splinters of glass in his feet; but the Medical Officer decided against him. Quite possibly the boy is a liar; but wouldn’t the army do well to avoid punishments which remind men of the Crucifixion?
And these two men being marched up and down in the blazing heat, under the raucous vice of the provost-sergeant, they disturb all peace of mind. I do not know from what offences they are doing ‘pack-drill’ but it is depressing to see them, loaded with rifles and packs, going to and fro over a piece of ground not more than 20 yards long, moving like automata under that awful voice.
Volunteers going into battle! I think with almost physical sickness of the legends that sustain our armchair patriots at home.
An army depended upon military discipline — even the VC-winner Noel Chavasse found himself in hot water with the authorities for disguising, in vain, the scorched marks occasioned by some hapless soldier who had tried to injure himself in an effort to earn himself a one-way ticket home. More typically, soldiers sought to alleviate their cares through comforts — the comforts of parcels and letters received from home, drink, cigarettes, the wry companionship of the trenches.
Very occasionally, that companionship went further than the laws of the land (and the manual of military law) permitted. Raymond Asquith admitted as much in a letter to his wife on 24 August, explaining that he was shortly to defend
… a brother officer who is to be tried by Court Martial for Homosexual offence at the base. I have drafted what seems to me an extremely moving petition to resign his commission instead of standing his trial and my only hope is that this may melt the heart of authority.
Now in its eighth week, the Somme offensive had ‘settled’ to a series of furious minor engagements — lethal for those involved, but baffling in the context of any overall strategy beyond that of attrition. Thiepval and Guillemont remained the focus of battle, although there was also hard fighting on the north-eastern edge of Delville Wood.
A serious row had also erupted among top-brass over the new secret weapon, the tank. Haig was desperate to employ tanks to facilitate a breakthrough for his infantry, being slaughtered in their hundreds on the Somme. Others wanted to wait until more tanks were ready and crews properly trained. Corporal A. E. Lee of ‘A’ Battalion Tank Corps recalled some of the circumstances:
A secret area for training was … found in a sparsely populated part of Norfolk… All roads passing through were closed, and notices stating ‘Explosives Area — No Admittance’ were put up. We received our tanks and spent the long summer days of June and July practising driving and maintenance … Local people very curious as to what was happening … The tanks, or ‘Willies’ as they were called at that time, remained one of the best kept secrets of the war.
We had no books of instructions to learn from and had to find out for ourselves how to operate the tanks. We learnt by a system of trial and error and somehow, by sharing our knowledge, we got results and soon every man in the crew became a competent driver, working on the principle that every man must be able to do the job of everyone else in an emergency … Training was finally completed except for actual practice in battle and we entrained for Southampton –and from there by ship to Le Havre.
The precariousness of life during these days was remarked upon by Tom Kettle, Irish patriot and professor, fighting for Britain with the Dublin Fusiliers:
In the trenches it is the day-to-dayness that tells and tries…A few casualties at every turn, another grating of the saw-teeth of death and disease, and before long a strong unit is weak. And, of course, the nerve-strain is not slight. Everybody going up to the trenches from the C.O to the last arrival in the last draft knows it will be a moral certainty that there are two or three that will not come back. Everybody knows that it may be anybody. In the trenches death is random, illogical, devoid of principle. One is shot not on sight, but on blindness, out of sight.
Second Lieutenant Edward Chapman wrote home from the Somme somewhat despairingly:
I hate all this business from the bottom of my soul. It has turned a beautiful country into a desolate waste. All this area is one vast cemetery. Dead bodies taint the air wherever you go. It has robbed thousands and thousands of men of life, and thousands more of the things that made life worth living. I have come to look on peace and quiet and home life as the summum bonum. I feel that all I want to do is to be able to live quietly, and tend a garden, and study a bit.
Censorship was erratically applied. The anger revealed in some letters must sometimes have unnerved their readers. Colour-Quartermaster-Sergeant Robert Scott Macfie, with the Liverpool Scottish at the Somme, wrote to his father:
Our attack, in the early hours of Aug.9, was directed against a certain village which had been attacked before and has been attacked several times since, always without success. Our performance was no exception to the rule: of my company 177 went up — 20 were killed, 42 wounded, and about eight are missing (i.e. in all probability dead). The want of preparation, the vague orders, the ignorance of the objective and geography, the absurd haste, and in general the horrid bungling were scandalous. After two years of war it seems that our higher commanders are still without common sense. In any well-regulated organization a divisional commander would be shot for incompetence — here another regiment is ordered to attempt the same task in the same muddling way..
The thought that there were terrible errors which arose from incompetence was not one upon which the public was encouraged to dwell.
Thousands of wounded now arrived daily at London train stations. These, and the daily lists of those killed, wounded and missing printed in The Times, must surely have been as much a dose of cold reality as any movie. From mid-August 1916, F. A. Robinson kept a record of casualty lists:
Aug. 9 In The Times today the list of casualties includes 5,000 names, and so it goes on day after day and yet no Official statement is issued as to what our total casualties have ben during the recent ‘push’.
Aug.10 The casualty list in The Times today contains 4,300 names.
Aug.11 The casualty list today numbers 4,220.
Aug. 12 The official casualty list today contains 4,000 names.
Aug. 14 The list of casualties today comprises 6,299 men and 195 officers.
Aug. 15 We are not having it all our own way it seems. Today’s casualty list comprises 5,661 names.
Robinson reacted angrily to news of Lloyd George’s speech on 19 August at the Welsh National Eisteddfod. The Minister had urged people to continue to sing despite the nation’s state of crisis. Robinson commented: “Today’s casualty list numbers 4,674 names — not much cause for “singing” with a list such as this appearing every day”.
Neither was the urge to break into song much assisted by another Zeppelin raid from midnight on 24 August. Thirteen Zeppelins set off but it was the talented Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy who steered L.31 up the Thames estuary in low cloud. Bombs were dropped on the Isle of Dogs, Deptford, Greenwich, and other places before being picked up by searchlights. Nine were killed, forty injured and damage amounting to £130,203 was caused. The Zeppelin escaped unscathed, though a heavy landing necessitated weeks of repair.
As ever with such affairs, there was a spectatorial quality. The young Cadet Archie Steavenson chronicled:
The Zepp raid … was a fine sight and we all much enjoyed it. It was rather cloudy and the search lights showed up magnificently on the masses of vapour — scores of great beams sailing about the sky among the flash of bursting shells, to the accompaniment of the sharp boom of the guns and shorter crash of exploding shells, varied occasionally by the tremendous report of the Zep. bombs, which even at this distance of a good many miles made the hut shake. It lasted about an hour, gradually receding.
Britain felt beleaguered. She was not much cheered when, on 24 August, the commercial submarine, the Deutschland, returned in triumph to Bremerhaven. She had been constructed without armaments, with space for around 700 tons of cargo, to travel specifically between Germany and the United States. Trade with the USA was essential to Germany’s survival, given the effectiveness of the Allied blockade elsewhere.
The Deutschland had set off on 23 June and slipped through the Channel undetected, arriving in Baltimore with its cargo, worth 1.5 million dollars, of chemical dyes, medical drugs, gemstones and mail and the German crewmen had been feted as celebrities. The submarine left again on 2 August and arrived back in Germany on 24 August with its precious cargo of tin, nickel and crude rubber, valued at 17.5 million dollars.
The Entente felt humiliated at America’s collusion with the enemy. They protested at the use of submarines as merchant ships for the very obvious reason that they could not be stopped and searched for munitions as happened with other vessels. But America still clung to neutrality: as they might have put it — no dice.
An ongoing anxiety for many civilians of all nations was the fate of men taken prisoner. For example, since the beginning of the Brusilov offensive in June, the Russians had captured 358,000 men. They were already hard pressed to feed and shelter their own, and attending to these numbers presented them with an inconceivable strain. Officers were usually more insulated from the extremities of hardship, being exempt from manual labour and able to enjoy the perks of relative space and leisure.
In June 1916, Captain Douglas Lyle Grant was returning to his job as an embarkation officer in Boulogne when the pilot of his plane got lost and crash-landed in enemy territory. Two months on, Lyall Grant now recorded:
In the morning our mess had two Russians to breakfast. The meal provided by the Germans consisted of one thin slice of black bread and some washy coffee. Our menu for our guests was fruit and cream, porridge, fish, sausages, bacon, tomatoes, various potted meats and game, toast, butter, jam and marmalade — all from parcels of course.
He could see the funny side of encounters too: Tennis today with two Russians, one of whom owns a place in Russia, about half the size of France, and wants me to go there after the war, for some bear hunting. He also says that he is coming to England to see me — I’ll be able to show him round the back garden!
This all feels safe and privileged. Pity the wretched Other Ranks who seem to have been served short commons in almost every respect.
The Red Cross and other agencies attempted to bring succour to POWs, but the stark differences between the fate of officers and men sometimes undermined claims of national togetherness. Undoubtedly, the patriotism and courage of the many young men who had died since 1914 deserve to be commemorated and honoured.
Lady Ettie Desborough had just published her book, Pages from a Family Journal, about her dead sons, Julian and Billy Grenfell. Cynthia Asquith received her copy on 25 August and found it “riveting … It appears to be admirably done and makes a delicious record of glorious, gilded youth”.
On 25 August, Lady Diana Manners reported that it had left her “sobbing as if her heart would break”.
Maurice Baring said of it”
[The book is] much more than a record of Billy & Julian. It is like an emblem, a banner and microcosm…of all we are fighting for. It is the reflection of the soul & spirit & the core of the heart of England. It sums up all that is best of England, & English things like a Constable landscape or a speech in Shakespeare. It is a wonderful pageant too of youth, courage & gaiety…I can’t read any of it without crying…I shall read it again & again. It is the Testament of the War & for the War.
That final claim seems a bit previous and, actually, overblown. Anyway, all this talk of gilded youth can set one’s teeth on edge. This was a people’s war. It occasioned the first tentative steps in learning to cherish and commemorate the unknown soldier quite as intensely as these sons of privilege.
By way of perfect illustration, and in a spirit of bleak realism, Edith Appleton recorded the death of her poor mutilated Lennox on August 22:
Never have I known such a slow, painful death. It was as if the boy was chained to Earth for punishment. Towards the end it was agony for him to draw his little gasping breaths and I felt I must clap my hand over his nose and mouth and quench the flickering flame. I am very glad for the boy to be away.