THERE ARE NO words which can tell the story of First Ypres. In truth it was only the fulcrum of a series of offensives which had just begun in Belgium with the capture of the Channel ports as its grand design. The stakes could not have been higher.
In the battle for Diksmuide, the Germans made slow and costly progress. The Belgians defended doggedly and bravely, but their resistance was esteemed far more highly by the Germans, who were forced to confront it, than by the British. Somehow, all armies tended to be censorious of their allies, and no one more so than the BEF. Wilfred Abel-Smith, an untypically reflective Grenadier, spoke for many when he wrote: “The Belgians have never done any good, I am told. They will not stand the shelling,” before adding, not inaccurately, “no more will any but highly trained and disciplined troops.” On 26th October, the Belgian Field Commander proposed a retreat, which King Albert refused to sanction. Instead, the next day, the sluice gates at Nieuport were opened, in a desperate attempt to suborn nature to the allied cause. The Germans now sustained huge casualties, especially when the shallow-draft monitors cruising offshore turned their firepower upon them. On 27th October, one German commander sadly acknowledged that “the attacking spirit of the battalion is completely broken”. But it did not affect the outcome: the next day they took Diksmuide.
The 7th Division of the BEF had marched out of Ypres mid-month to form a line a few miles to the east of the city. Having been assured by Sir John French that the enemy was scarce on the ground, it anticipated pushing rapidly forward once the rest of the BEF had joined up with it. That fond illusion was shattered on 19th October when, as they advanced towards Main, RFC pilots reported vast columns of Germans about to fall upon them – in far greater number than anything the British could bring to bear. They fell back in haste, and spent the night on a low ridge – overlooking Ypres. Some reports suggest that night felt like a pleasant bivouack in unspoiled countryside. The next day assuredly did not.
Most of the 7th had never seen massed infantry, and the sight of the Duke of Wurttemberg’s Pickelhaubed soldiers threw many off balance. Much gunfire was exchanged, although the importance of conserving ammunition was too well drilled into them to escape their attention, even in the heat of battle. By the end of the day, Passchendaele had been taken by the Germans (under whose auspices it would stay for the next three years). Desperate fighting continued over the next days. In the battle for Langemarck, one of those inexplicably costly battles within a battle that makes little sense after the event, one German regiment totally lost its nerve on 21st October, its soldiers cutting and running after all its officers had been wounded. After the war, German ultra-nationalists claimed it as the cradle of true Teutonic fervour. The reality was an essay in futility which had run out of men, as well as momentum, by 23rd October.
The BEF was simultaneously engaged further south in front of Armentières and behind La Bassée. Here too soldiers in the line found themselves forced to confront the yawning gap between the GHQ’s sanguine assessment that the enemy lay thin on the ground – and reality. Abel-Smith noted irritably: “It is all rot saying we have nothing in front of us. There are heaps of Germans… no doubt we will kill many, but there are always heaps more…” The unboundaried fury of man, machine-gun and shellfire brought men to the very limits of endurance. Commanders railed against the fact that many men found intense bombardment intolerable. Their only sanction was to promise certain death for those who sought to evade it. Private Edward Tanner of the Wiltshires faced a firing squad having been found behind the lines in civilian clothes. Lionel Tennyson threatened he would himself shoot any more of his men whose return from a listening patrol in no-man’s land felt previous.
A large plantation of Scots pine just north of the Menin Road, known as Polygon Wood, became the site of a particular horror for the British that week. A series of local actions, often involving as few as ten or 20 men, were fought with the savagery of utter desperation as the Germans tried to overrun the British position. A posse of British soldiers who had raised their arms in surrender were immediately bayoneted, as the pathology of unlimited savagery reached its dénouement. It was an episode that entered the martyrology of the war, but it did not win the Germans Polygon Wood which was retaken the following day, 25th October, by the Worcesters in a desperate series of bayonet charges. One German unit lost 70 per cent of its fighting strength amongst those pines.
But none of the protagonists could claim a monopoly of any of the desperate spoils of this war – suffering, courage or collapse. German artillery wrought havoc on the British Guards’ Battalions at Kruisecke near Ypres that same day. In their terror, it was reported that some soldiers had thrown away their weapons even before the German infantrymen had launched their assault, while others held on to the end. By nightfall, the 2nd Irish Rifles had only four officers left alive. All sides were left to rue their losses. On 27th October Captain Rudolf Binding, a cavalry officer serving with a German infantry division wrote:
These young fellows we have, only just trained, are too helpless, especially when their officers have been killed. Our light infantry battalion, almost all Marburg students… have suffered terribly from enemy shellfire. In the next division, just such young souls, the intellectual flower of Germany, went singing into an attack on Langemarck, just as vain and just as costly.
The BEF was convinced, almost to a man, that their suffering in Flanders grossly exceeded anything to which their allies were exposed. Although true that Falkenhayn was hitting them hard, the French too were desperately exposed. On 23rd October, they launched a desperate bid to recapture Passchendaele, in the course of which their Commander, General Moussy, earned immortality for his repeated exhortation to his men – “Allons, mes enfants. En avant!” Moussy was in the middle of the mêlée throughout the battle – a fact which rather scandalised his British counterparts.
The remoteness of commanders above battalion level was increasingly a matter for controversy for those below it. The complexity of the logistics of modern war rendered this, however, more or less inevitable: rapid and adroit decision-making demanded a constant flow of up-to-date intelligence, and this was only possible if all the modern infrastructure of war could be compressed into an effective communications hub. That meant senior commanders staying well behind the lines. The cost of this was one of profound psychological dislocation – between those who gave orders, which seemed often inexplicable as well as heartless, and those who carried them out. Lord Kitchener’s sister also seemed a little remote from reality. According to the Daily Mirror, she chose this moment to ask soldiers to promise total abstinence from alcohol for the duration of the war.
Notwithstanding the horrors of life in Ypres, controversy was stirred by the fact that two Indian divisions joined the right of the BEF’s line on 22nd October. Their commander, General Rimington, disloyally and offensively considered his men “were fit only to feed pigs” but his contempt was shared widely among officers and men. In fact, the BEF learned patrolling from Indian soldiers, to their great advantage, but their deployment continued to astound the Germans. The Hamburger Nachtrichten claimed, not very accurately, that “the evening dress and dinner jacket-clad Indian is getting more and more determined to be treated by the lordly Briton as his absolute equal”.
Although the narrative on the Eastern Front seemed anti-climactic in comparison, there was plenty within it to worry the Germans. On 21st October, they began their retreat from Warsaw and two days later the Germans were forced to abandon the siege of Ivangorod, as the Russians retook Jaroslau and generally harrassed the retreating army. By 25th October, the Germans were in full retreat in Poland. Meanwhile, the siege of Przemysl continued. A Polish nurse, Helena Jablonska, wrote in her diary the next day:
Vast numbers of wounded are being brought in. Many of them die from severe blood loss, but the death toll would not be half as great were it not for cholera. It is spreading so fast that the cases outnumber those killed and wounded in battle. Everything has been infected: carts, stretchers, rooms, wardens, streets, manure, mud, everything. Soldiers fall in battle, where it is impossible to remove the bodies and disinfect them. They don’t even bother.
For the navy, the sole good news of the week came on 25th October when the destruction of a German submarine by HMS Badger was announced. Two days later, HMS Audacious was sunk – a major disaster. Fear of U-boats had led to the relocation of the Grand Fleet from Scapa Flow to Lough Swilly in Northern Ireland. Audacious, a super-dreadnought, in service for a year but yet to engage the enemy, was preparing for a firing exercise off the coast of Donegal when it struck a mine and sank by the end of the day.
Crew members were rescued by the luxurious liner RMS Olympic nearing the end of her crossing from New York. The Admiralty kept the passengers confined to ship for a week and imposed a news blackout on the incident. The name of the ship remained on the official list of ships serving in the Royal Navy and it was only in November 1918 that her destruction was acknowledged. It wasn’t the end of the bad news, either: that same week, the French liner Admiral Ganteaume was also sunk, and the impossibly successful SS Emden captured a Japanese ship Kamasaka Maru. In a further drama, rebellion broke out that week in South Africa. Given the recent history of Britain’s conflict with the Boers, it was unsurprising that some in the new nation did not share Smuts’ enthusiasm for the old adversary.
The appetite of Britain’s civilian population for “war news” had by now coalesced into something which, although it purported to carry that name, was in reality a carefully calibrated blend of righteous indignation and wishful thinking. On 23rd October, the Daily Mirror reported rumours that General Moltke was dying of a liver complaint (untrue) while from the Daily Express came reports that Mme de Thèbes, a famous prophetess, had a mould of the Kaiser’s hand enabling her to read his palm. She reported that he suffered from a ‘”tendency to madness” (that was hardly news) and that he would die a violent death (which he would not).
Prophecy was enjoyed by both sides. The Kölnische Zeitung also reported on the same day that Great Britain would soon be “Little Britain” (they were getting ahead of themselves here) – a strip of land peopled by footballers, abandoned by India and Canada, and begging for the crumbs which fell from Germany’s table. That was certainly more accurate than Mme de Thèbes. The Deutsche Tageszeitung overreached itself, however, claiming that the British Army’s recruitment situation was so desperate that young women “lassoo young men and drag them off to enlist”. The true situation was that armies everywhere were worrying about replacing the yawning gaps which had opened up. The Daily Mirror, in a story entitled “Recruitment Standard Lowered” on 24th October, reported that “The standard of recruits for the second 500,000 of Lord Kitchener’s army has been lowered to 5’4”. The age limit is 19 to 38.” There were reports in the same edition that the Germans were by now using younger and older troops than they had originally sanctioned.
In fact, war spawned a whole industry of the fantastic – not necessarily fantasy, but teetering on the edge of reality. What is one to make of the Daily Express report of the German Ambassador, Bernstorff, in Washington DC apologising for giving the impression that Germany would invade Canada? He also took the opportunity to announce that Germany would not colonise either North or South America after the European war. Did his audience sigh with relief or seek to get the wretched man committed?
Germanophobia ran rife, in all kinds of guises. Four days earlier, the Daily Mirror claimed that PoWs in Highland regiments had refused offers by their German captors of trousers, preferring instead to sport their kilts. So far, so plausible. But what is one to make of the claim, contained within the same story, that the German camp commandant had expected money from the British government for the prisoners’ upkeep, and was disappointed to have received none? People were frightened, edgy – and susceptible to nonsense. The Daily Mirror, in a story entitled “Great Missenden Hoax”, conceded that the Buckinghamshire village was not, after all, a refuelling base for Zeppelins. You would have had to have been a little on edge already, surely, to take that seriously. This was the same paper which had announced that “Jackboot Rules In Brussels”. Belgian courts, it said, “never inflict less than one month’s imprisonment for such terrible offences as laughing in front of a German officer or refusing to alight from a tramcar to make room for German soldiers”.
At a time of horror, people clung both to continuity and, whenever they could, to edifying example. The Royal Family’s response to the death of one of their own during the week was an eloquent study in stoicism. This week came news that Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria who had already lost her husband, Henry of Battenberg, during the Ashanti campaign in 1896 was devastated by the death of her favourite son. All three sons were in the forces and her favourite, the dashing and handsome Maurice, was killed on 27th October leading a charge at Zonnebeke near Ypres. He was hit by a shell and died instantly. His mother wrote:
It is so terribly hard to sit quietly and resignedly realizing that one’s dear child, who was like a ray of sunshine in this house, will never be amongst us again in this world. In the midst of all I have much to be thankful for, in that he died a noble soldier’s death and without, as I am assured, suffering, and I have two dear sons still spared to me, when so many poor mothers have lost their one and only one.
The death of his cousin added to the sense of frustration felt by the Prince of Wales confined to a desk job in London. He had pleaded with the Minister of War, Lord Kitchener, to be allowed to serve at the Front, insisting that it didn’t matter if he were killed as he had four brothers. Kitchener’s cool reply became famous: “If I were sure you would be killed, I do not know that I should be right to restrain you. But I cannot take the chance, which always exists until we have a settled line, of the enemy taking you prisoner.”
The tail-end of October enshrined in perpetuity a totality of war. For those who took part there was no absolute recovery. It became part of the conspiracy of silence and suffering which was to mark out combatants as long as they lived. A little vignette in the Daily Mirror on 24th October contains a poignant reminder of what war might mean. “Heroic Rabbi Killed while Holding Crucifix to Eyes of Dying Catholic Soldier” it reported, prompting a thought that brings solace even a century later.The young nurse Mairi Chisholm would never forget what she saw in Furnes near Ypres:
No one can understand… unless one has seen the rows of dead men laid out on a stretcher, the majority wrapped in a winding sheet but here and there one is uncovered who has been left as he died… one sees the most hideous sights imaginable, men with their jaws blown off, arms and legs mutilated and when one goes into the room one is horrified at the suffering… which is ghastly. I could not believe that I could have stood these sights.
Some regiments enjoyed a better reputation than others for their ability to remain in the trenches surrounding Ypres while under a storm of shelling. In a peppery letter home on 21st October, Alexander Johnston wrote contemptuously of the 2nd South Lincs, and his bile eight days later embraced also the 1st Wilts and the 2nd South Lancs. Rather like the denigration of allies, the blame game afforded comfort in desperate times.