For Whose Glory?

Burial Party, 31st August 1918

WINNING CAME AT a cost.

Undeniably, August had been good for the British army: the Germans were losing ground, 57,000 prisoners had been bagged, and 650 guns taken. 34,000 of the former and 270 of the latter were purloined in the ten days between 21st August and 1st September.

To whom the spoils? There had been much capable Staff work on the ground, but Haig went out of his way to commend the skill of General Byng, the Third Army Commander. Maréchal Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, also considered that some of the credit belonged to Haig himself:

Your affairs are going very well; I can only applaud the resolute manner in which you follow them up, without giving the enemy a respite and always extending the breadth of your operations. It is this increasing breadth of the offensive — an offensive fed from behind and strongly pushed forward onto carefully selected objectives, without bothering about the alignment nor about keeping too closely in touch — which will produce the greatest results with the smallest casualties, as you have perfectly understood. No need to tell you that General Petain’s Armies will carry on ceaselessly in the same style.

That was Foch — always in favour of attacking everywhere. His great refrain was Tout à la bataille!

Le Grand Maréchal

However, these successes were not bloodless: during the week of 27th August to 2nd September, 12,444 British and Commonwealth soldiers died — over 9,000 more than during the previous week.

The bloodletting reflects a truth often glossed over. Dislodging the Germans from France and forcing them back to the Hindenburg Line was not the inevitable conclusion following the Battle of Amiens. Capitalising on that immense victory required a series of further supreme exertions.

One of these was the battle to clear them from Mont St Quentin, sometimes dubbed ‘Gibraltar’ on account of its strategic value. Situated on a bend in the river, it commanded extensive views of all the country around the Somme, and offered access to Péronne. The Germans had entrusted its defence to the crack 2nd Prussian Guard Division — testimony to the premium they placed upon its retention. The Australian 2nd Division was now given the task of attacking the heights and claiming them for the Allies.

It was a doubtful honour. The official Australian war historian, Charles Bean, considered the job “in some ways the most formidable ever faced by Australian infantry” and observed that “few officers or men …believed they had any chance of success”.

Charles Bean

For once, the forebodings were not borne out by the reality. On 31st August, at 5 a.m., a preliminary barrage from five brigades of artillery began the attack and the Australians swept forward from the north-west. The four Australian battalions were all under strength after two months of almost continual action so, in true Heath Robinson fashion, the men had been instructed to yell as loudly as possible, in an effort to give the impression of being more numerous than they in fact were.

They did it — far more rapidly and comprehensively than anyone had dared to believe. The Germans appeared at once to have been terrified: hundreds surrendered immediately without offering any resistance. Prisoners were directed to the rear and guarded by a handful of wounded Aussies as the attack continued. A further bombardment inflicted more damage and, by the time the men reached the main German trench-line, dozens of Germans were fleeing over both shoulders of the Mount ahead. Once the Australians got over the summit, resistance from an obdurate few was dealt with summarily by Lewis gunners. Captain Denny, recalling the day, remarked simply that the Germans had never imagined

[that this] great natural fortress… would in a few hours not only fall, but that the whole garrison would be killed or captured.

It was, however, never a good idea to write off the Germans. A powerful counter-attack was launched which succeeded, briefly, in re-taking the summit. But the Australians, however depleted in strength, tenaciously held onto trenches on the side of the hill and, the following day, re-took the whole of Mont St Quentin.

The whole German front was now in jeopardy, and a withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line inevitable. Bean recorded that:

without tanks or creeping barrage, the Australians at a cost of 3,000 casualties dealt a stunning blow to five German divisions.

How to salute this latest, dazzling display of Australian audacity and courage? General Rawlinson, to whose Fourth Army the Australian Corps was attached, considered the capture of Mont St Quentin the greatest achievement of the war. Eight Australian soldiers were awarded Victoria Crosses for their actions, two of them posthumously and one recipient would be killed in action less than a month later.

Memorial at Mont St Quentin to the Australian soldiers who fought there

On 2nd September, supported by tanks, Canadians broke through the heavily defended Drocourt-Queant “switch” line, known as Wotan to the Germans, propelling them further into a rapid retreat.

The Kaiser, on receipt of the news, succumbed to one of his bouts of depression and took to his bed where he remained for three days. Haig, not unreasonably, felt differently:

…the end cannot now be far off, I think. Today’s battle has been a great and glorious success…

His satisfaction may have been all the keener, coming as it did just one day after he had received a telegram marked “Personal” from Sir Henry Wilson, CIGS:

Cautionary words from CIGS

Just a word of warning in regard to incurring heavy losses in attacks on Hindenburg Line as opposed to losses when driving the enemy back to that line. I do not mean to say that you have incurred such losses, but I know the War Cabinet would become anxious if we receive heavy punishment in attacking Hindenburg Line, without success.

Schooled as Haig had been never to drop his guard in public, the only real glimpse of his hurt and dismay comes from his diary:

It is impossible for a C.I.G.S. to send a telegram of this nature to a C.in C. in the field as a ‘personal’ one. The Cabinet are ready to meddle and interfere in my plans in an underhand way, but do not dare openly to say that they mean to take responsibility for any failure though ready to take credit for every success! The object of this telegram, is, no doubt, to save the Prime Minister… in case of any failure.

So I read it to mean that I can attack the Hindenburg Line if I think it right to do so. The C.I.G.S. and the Cabinet already know that my arrangements are being made to that end. If my attack is successful, I will remain on as C. in C. If we fail or our losses are excessive, I can hope for no mercy!

To Wilson, Haig wrote with bitter irony:

With reference to your wire re casualties in attacking the Hindenburg Line — what a wretched lot! And how well they mean to support me! What confidence!

Haig, back in 1912, by Sir William Orpen

Sniping was not a characteristic in which the British alone indulged. General Pershing was busily planning an American attack against the St Mihiel Salient. It promised to be an all-American affair which, from the perspective of Allied commanders, was bad news. Haig reluctantly returned three American divisions to Pershing to participate in the assault.

What really rankled was that he didn’t believe the proposed attack made sense militarily. Nor was he the only one. Foch turned up, unannounced, at American HQ to make clear his views on the subject.

Pershing’s diary for 30th August takes up the story:

[Marshal Foch and General Weygand arrived]… with an entirely new proposal — dropping out of a clear blue sky without the slightest warning; after all preparations have gone very far for the attack… He now proposed reducing this attack very materially and pushing two others immediately with forces which don’t exist… We had a very heated discussion, because he proposed to take part of my divisions and mix them with the French.

…I objected to the breaking up of the American Army, and we had a very long, outspoken and unsatisfactory conversation which lasted until about 8.30, when the Marshal left utterly exhausted… he attempted to put me somewhat in the light of one who was not playing the game unless I played it exactly as he said.

I tried in vain to get him to understand that I have to think of the attitude of the American government and the American people who are not going to stand for having the American troops scattered here and there as reinforcements for the Allies…

Pétain, an altogether more conciliatory type, was brought in to smooth ruffled feathers. Following a further meeting with Foch on 2nd September, Pershing claimed:

My firm stand of a few days before apparently had its effect, and the Marshal, though assuming a very bluff air, came around finally to the proposition which General Pétain and I had worked out two days before…

There were big egos at work here, but — when push came to shove — they shared a common enemy. Nothing was so clear in Russia.

Rumours about the fate of the Russian Imperial Family again surfaced in the British press this week. At the end of the month, George V noted:

I hear from Russia that there is every probability that Alicky and four daughters and little boy were murdered at the same time as Nicky. It is too horrible and shows what fiends those Bolshevists are. For poor Alicky, perhaps it was best so. But those poor innocent children!

Once Upon A Time: George V and the Prince of Wales; Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarevich Alexei, 1909

Quite right. It was way, way too horrible. But, by now, so was almost everything that was happening in that tragic land.

Then, suddenly, it all got much worse. On the evening of 30th August, Lenin went to the Mikhelson factory in the Moscow suburbs, for what seems to have been the kind of occasion he enjoyed — denouncing the Allies and concluding that the battle-lines were now drawn between the parasitic banditry of the bourgeoisie with their British and French Allies, (“masquerading under the slogans of freedom and equality”) and the proletariat. (The answer? “There is only one of two ways out for us: either victory or death!”)

As he left with crowds pressing around him, twenty-eight-year-old Fanya Kaplan shot him, bullets hitting his shoulder and neck. She was captured as Lenin was whisked back to the Kremlin, having refused to go to hospital. Kaplan had served twelve years hard labour under the Tsar, but wanted to kill Lenin as his very existence “discredited socialism” and he was “a traitor to the Revolution”.

Not true, in fact. Note the misspelling of Lenin’s name.

Perhaps one should try to feel sorry for Lenin. Bullets in the shoulder have the reputation of being very sore. But his injuries were the harbinger, rather than the essence, of the new tragedy which now unfolded. Rather like the Reichstag Fire in February 1933, this event was rapidly exploited by those in power. Enraged resolutions demanded death to the counter-revolutionaries:

To your white terror, we will reply by a blood red terror. Blood for blood.

“White Terror” was one of those emotive terms, the elasticity of which allowed hundreds to be rounded up, over 500 of whom were rapidly despatched.

Newspapers exulted in the carnage:

Each drop of Lenin’s blood must be paid by the bourgeoisie and the Whites in hundreds of deaths.

The bourgeoisie, so the zealots claimed, needed to be physically exterminated to protect the revolution:

They have no pity: it is time for us to be pitiless.

And pitiless they were. As Lenin slowly recovered from his wounds, the Red Terror began in earnest, fuelled by papers like the mass circulation Krasnia gazeta:

Without mercy, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky let there be floods of bourgeois blood — more blood, as much as possible.

The Cheka’s proclamation of 2nd September effectively turned Russia into an armed camp with the Revolutionary Council of the Army, headed by Trotsky, in charge of the country’s defence. Cheka reprisals were widespread throughout the country and the number of those executed, including whole families, dramatically increased. Moscow papers blamed a “Lockhart Conspiracy” which had been “led by Anglo-French diplomats”.

“Lockhart” was Bruce Lockhart, no less a personage than the Chief of the British Mission. On 31st August, an armed mob led by Cheka agents stormed the British Embassy in Petrograd, killing Captain Francis Cromie who tried to bar their way. All the staff, plus stray civilians in the building, were arrested, to be later imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. In Moscow, Lockhart was arrested on the following night, and taken to Cheka headquarters for interrogation.

This, to put it mildly, was a diplomatic outrage. During the interrogation, Lockhart found himself face-to-face with Kaplan, the assassin, the reasons for which were not clear. Presumably, his interrogators hoped, she might identify him as a co-conspirator.

Kaplan

This she failed to do. Lockhart had time to notice her black hair and staring eyes, with dark circles under them:

Her composure was unnatural. She went to the window and, leaning her chin upon her hands, looked out into the daylight. And there she remained, motionless, speechless, apparently resigned to her fate, until presently the sentries came and took her away.

Kaplan was interrogated, probably under torture, but she continued to insist that the plan to kill Lenin had been entirely her own, and steadfastly refused to name any other conspirators. On 3rd September, she was shot. Lockhart was luckier and released. He walked back to his flat noticing:

…the emptiness of the streets. Such people as went about their business did so with quick steps and furtive glances. The street corners were guarded by little groups of soldiers. A new fear was abroad. In forty-eight hours the whole atmosphere of the city had changed.

The attempt on Lenin’s life released a surge of emotion among many in Russia. The Kremlin was swamped with enquiries and good wishes for the wounded leader; eulogistic pamphlets about him were circulated and poster-portraits began to appear on the streets of “the chosen one of millions… the leader by the grace of God”.

These were surprising epithets for a man never voted into power, as well as whose rigid atheism was well-known. The ironies proliferated. Until now, his face had been virtually unknown to the Russian people, as his wife described: “Nobody even knew Lenin’s face… since there were still no portraits of him then.” Even his name was not well known throughout the country. No longer.

Portraits were also on Cynthia Asquith’s mind just now, since she was a sitter for Augustus John — never a risk-free business, as she noted on 2nd September:

Bicycled to John at 4.30. For the first time, to my alarm, he made what I supposed was an advance — clutching me very roughly and disagreeably by the shoulders. I shook myself free and there was no recurrence. I think he had been drinking. I got very exhausted standing — almost fainted.

She seems to have recovered quickly, however:

Bones called for me and we dined at the Savoy. Went to Nothing but the Truth. He went every length — even kissing two girls to procure me some chocolates.

For all her snobberies and nonsense, history owes a big debt to the young Mrs Asquith — always brave, and always magnificently ready to turn any situation into a good story.

Cynthia Asquith

Her slightly tense marriage to Beb seems also to have entered calmer waters:

27th August  Beb [nearing end of his leave] and I dined at Queen’s — I was indulgent about Beb’s extravagance concerning a ten-shilling grouse…

28th August  Beb and I went round to Bruton Street to see Aubrey and Mary[Herbert]. Aubrey has just returned from his last job (he does have a patch-work rug of a war), and has had his bud-shaped head shaved and looked like German mouse. I never saw such a sight. If Beb had returned looking like that there would have been murder or suicide…  took Beb to Charing Cross and back he went. We have been extraordinarily happy these days. He has never been such a darling before.

It would be tempting to leave it there — another week of tremendous sadness, leavened by the tenderness and wit of this sharp-eyed young woman. But it feels untrue. Edith Appleton at Le Tréport surely offers a more authentic flavour of the times. Her diary for 27th August — the same day as Augustus John made his gross pass — reads:

The battles are raging, hot and strong, and up to yesterday there seemed to be no holding the Allies back… The ward is a shambles of men with broken skulls, legs off and spines broken — and it is also a shifting scene of ins and outs. Every day, two or three trainloads come in, and every day those who are at all fit to travel go out. Roll on the war and why, oh why — since you have to squeal for peace — don’t you wretched Boches start squealing now?

Another young soldier, twenty-two–year-old Second Lieutenant A.R. Armfield, was involved in a catastrophic attack on the village of Bouchavesnes on 1st September, where men were simply mown down as they advanced over open ground. He would write later of the extraordinary courage demanded of soldiers at this stage of the war:

Only those who have gone ‘over the top’ understand the full meaning of the term… an ordeal to test the morale of the strongest, and one that none who endured it and survived ever forgot. Each attack was an unspectacular ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. To repeat this ordeal once, twice or three times, at short intervals, was to test courage, self-sacrifice and human endurance to the uttermost.

This sense of a final frontier of suffering was one common to many in these final months and weeks. Julian Bickersteth, an impeccably brave and patriotic army chaplain, wrote home bitterly on 30th August:

When will this grim butchery of unfledged boys, German and English, end? For whose glory do we mangle the bodies of our splendid youth — God’s or our own? Or that the Northcliffe Press can sing of another triumph? God only knows.

God once more. He mattered deeply to many, however mysterious his ways.

On Sunday 1st September, Lance-Corporal Frank Earley sent a cheerful letter to his young sisters describing his little dugout and the earwigs and spiders in it. Later that afternoon, he wrote to his father:

…out here, in odd moments, the realisation comes to show me how very close death is. A week ago I was talking with a man… who had been out here for nearly four years, untouched. He was looking forward with certainty to going on leave soon. And now he is dead — killed in a moment during our last advance. Well it was God’s will.

I say this to you because I hope that you will realise, as I do, the possibility of the like happening to myself. I feel very glad that I can look the fact in the face without fear or misgiving. Much as I hope to live thro’ it all for your sakes and my little sisters, I am quite prepared to give my life, as so many have done before me. All I can do is to put myself in God’s hands for him to decide.

With my dear love. Pray for me.

Your son, Frank

The following day, as it waited to make an attack, Earley’s battalion was heavily shelled. He was hit in the chest and died a few hours later, aged nineteen.