THE SCARS OF VERDUN run through the veins of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen very deeply indeed.
The first public display of reconciliation came in 1984 when France’s President Francois Mitterand and West Germany’s Chancellor held hands at Verdun. Remembering this moment on 29 May this year, at the commemoration service for the centenary of the battle which she attended with Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel said simply, “We have become friends”.
A striking phrase, and a pleasing thought — but it glosses over a cruel truth: the enmity was only ever forged at the command of Kings and Presidents, even though its consequences can be measured in the spilt blood of ordinary men and women.
One is compelled to reflect upon this when considering the battle as it was fought during the week. Fortunes oscillated expensively: the Germans were repulsed at Mort Homme and west and south of Vaux Fort on 21 June. The next day they attacked strongly on both sides of the Meuse, but to little effect. Meanwhile the French regained most of the ground they had lost the previous day at Firmin Wood. Two days later, their counter-attack was gathering momentum, even though the Germans now occupied part of Fleury, marking their furthest point of advance.
This continual seesaw may provoke glazed eyes from the layman. But, if it is measured less in terms of square feet and more in those of the human experience, it means a great deal more. In this context, the diary of Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux of the French 2nd Infantry Regiment is especially instructive, not least because he reminds us that, in the midst of carnage, human appetites and sensibilities did not conveniently lie down and die:
Tuesday 20 June: The food supplies only arrive with great difficulty at 2 this morning. Still no water. When one has exhausted one’s ration of coffee and wine, you have to go thirsty. By day, the heat is overpowering, we are surrounded by flies and corpses which give off a nauseating smell.
Friday, 23 June: 7am. Alert. Commotion. The Boches attack. They are driven back by our return of fire. In the direction of Hill 321 huge attack which lasts three hours with wave upon wave of them … The heat is oppressive. Around us the stench of the corpses is nauseating. We have to live, eat, and wait in it. Do or die! It’s six days now since we had a moment’s rest or sleep.
Saturday, 24 June: My men who have been suffering all sorts of hardships for the last seven days, are becoming demoralised. The word ‘prisoner’ is being whispered … At 11am artillery is heard. Our batteries have taken up new positions and are opening fire, the Boches reply. Impossible to eat, our nerves can’t stand it. If we have a call of nature to satisfy, we have to do it in a tin or on a shovel and throw it over the top of our shell-hole. It’s like this every day.
There was also the under-reported but ever-present risk of friendly fire:
Sunday, 25 June: At 3 a.m. without warning, our own troops attack us from behind in order to recapture the terrain lost the day before on our right. These troops, without precise orders, without maps, without even knowing where our lines are, ventured off. They fell upon us, believing they had found the Boches … We thus have another heap of corpses and wounded crying out, but whom we are powerless to help
While details were being kept as secret as possible, it was common knowledge that the British were on the edge of launching their own great offensive in the west — the so-called “Big Push”. The future Labour leader and coalition minister Arthur Henderson had recently been asked why the holidays for munitions workers had been postponed until the end of June. His reply — ”The fact should speak volumes” — suggests a blithe indifference to secrecy, and it would certainly have cost him his job, if not his liberty, at a later stage in the war. In the last fortnight of June, the British offensive was openly discussed in the foreign press, and attested to by British soldiers taken prisoner.
Operational details were sketchier: by 23 June, Crown Prince Rupprecht had received intelligence that the British and French would launch attacks around the Somme, but the German commander-in-chief Falkenhayn was sceptical.
Haig may have been irritated by the consistent leaking of sensitive intelligence, but this was not his greatest problem. The grievous condition in which the French found themselves after so many months of fighting at Verdun forced his hand and he now planned the attack for 29 June — preceded by a massive bombardment, which began on 24 June along the entire Somme front and was scheduled to last several days.
The plan was to destroy the wire barriers of the Germans and then their trenches, dugouts and batteries, and to this end, impressive quantities of military hardware were amassed: 1,000 field guns, 233 howitzers and 180 counter-battery guns inter alia. The Royal Flying Corps also carried out a general attack on the enemy’s observation balloons, destroying nine of them.
Brigadier-General Trevor Ternan recalled:
The preliminary bombardment began with a roar which seemed to shake the earth. The air was split with the combined detonations of hundreds of guns of all calibres. From the trench outside one heard with the utmost satisfaction the rushing through the air of vast numbers of projectiles flying over our heads on their way to the Boche lines…It was impossible to realise that any human being in any of these places could survive.
From the perspective of the British Tommy, this rain of fire and destruction was deeply reassuring. Private Robert Cude, the bicycle battalion runner, noted in his diary for 24 June:
Today at 3.30 a.m. the guns start the preliminary bombardment. As day succeeds day we notice more and more artillery getting into action. Jerry is getting it now. Plenty of rain the first two or three days. We are getting a good number of casualties, for a good many of our shells are falling short, also pieces of shell flying back. Day and night the German trenches and villages behind are wreathed in smoke. Occasionally we put gas across.
Private Fred Campling of the 8th Norfolk Regiment, who could observe the shelling of Montauban from a dugout near Carnoy, later recalled:
Having left billets and taken up quarters in specially constructed dugouts in rear of our lines, we settled down to an enjoyment of the persistent and deadly fusillade of metal and high explosive hurled by our guns into the enemy’s lines and occupied villages day and night for close upon a week.
The effect, from a spectacular point of view was magnificent, and made a great impression upon us as to the important part taken by our artillery, incidentally giving us confidence that no effort would be spared to minimise the difficulties of the task before us.
At no time did the response to this onslaught give us cause for anxiety, although occasionally well-timed shrapnel shells caused loss in our front trenches. During this period of suspense, an atmosphere of quiet confidence and determination prevailed amongst all ranks, giving evidence that we possessed that greatest of all assets — sound morale.
Morale seemed, in this instance, to have depended upon preparations which impressed by noise, rather than by any empirical proof of their efficacy. The French, having been enduring their own version of Hades for five months, had at this point a more authoritative grasp of what an offensive might entail. The idea of hell (sometimes explicitly, and often inferentially) was prominent in Desagneux’s diary for the week:
Wednesday, 21 June: Impossible to sleep, even an hour, the deluge of shells continues and the whole night frantic orders follow each other: you may be attacked, be ready! We have been ready for three days. The night passes in an inferno of fire. Near Mort-Homme, calm has returned, the Boches are concentrating on Hill 321 and Vaux — it’s hell out there — you wonder how anyone will come out alive….
Artillery at night
Thursday, 22 June: Every ten steps one has to fall flat on the ground so as not to be seen. The terrain is littered with corpses! What an advance! It’s dark, one feels something soft beneath one’s feet, it’s a stomach. One falls flat and it’s a corpse. It’s awful; we start again with only one desire — to get there…In nightmare advance, we stumble forwards falling in shell-craters, walking on corpses, flinging ourselves repeatedly to the ground. Ground where there lie forever men of the 106th, of the 359th, still others of the regiments who preceded us. It’s a graveyard, a glimpse of hell.
Sunday, 25 June: At 6am the guns fire furiously and to add to our plight, our 75s fire at us. Terrible panic; six wounded at one go from a shell-burst, everyone wants to run for it. Agnel and I have to force these poor devils back by drawing our revolvers … Two men of the 24th Company commit suicide.
The British had been, of course, at war (rather than at Butlin’s) for the previous two years and had suffered a good deal themselves. Raymond Asquith, in a letter to his wife Katharine on 22 June, also invoked the idea of ultimate desolation:
I never saw anything like the foulness and desolation of this bit of the Salient. There were 2 woods near to us on which we roamed about picking up gruesome relics in the dusk — Maple Copse and Sanctuary Wood — not a leaf or a blade of grass in either of them, nothing but twisted and blackened stumps and a mess of shell holes, dimpling into one another, full of mud and blood, and dead men and over-fed rats which blundered into one in the twilight like fat moths.
Officers enjoyed the privilege of having their letters uncensored, but many soft-pedalled on the horrors when it came to writing home. Asquith seems to have been untroubled by such bourgeois inhibitions. He was even more explicit in another letter, written at the same time, to the society beauty Lady Diana Manners:
I was in a much worse place … the most accursed unholy and abominable place I have ever seen, the ugliest filthiest most putrid and most desolate — a wood where all the trees had been cut off by the shells the week before, and nothing remained but black stumps of really the most obscene heights and thickness, craters swimming in blood and dirt, rotting and smelling bodies and rats like shadows, fattened for the market moving cunningly and liquorishly among them, limbs and bowels nesting in the hedges, and over all the most supernaturally shocking scent of death and corruption that ever breathed o’er Eden.
The place simply stank of sin and all Floris could not have made it sweet … The only dug-out turned out to be a ‘dirt trap’ if not a death trap, awash with sewage, stale eyeballs, and other debris … There is a great deal after all to be said for the existence of evil; it might almost be held to prove the existence of God. Who else could have thought of it?
He had a point, perhaps. His allusion to Floris holds some irony in view of the coincidence that the youngest son of the family which owned the famous Floris fragrance shop in Jermyn Street, Jack Bodenham, was with the Queen’s Westminster Rifles just a short way down the line. His men were busy digging a new front line at Hebuterne, 150 yards from the German position at Gommecourt, at the northern end of the 18-mile Somme front.
As a good Catholic, Bodenham dutifully recorded the celebrant at each Mass he attended, but, as apprehension grew over the “Big Push”, his other entries diminished. His own letters home were radically more restrained than Asquith’s:
We have been pretty busy the last month & are likely to continue so… the ground is in a bad state, and the trenches are a mass of water & liquid mud.
In truth, the horrors of the war were never confined to a single arena. Nurse Edith Appleton diary for June 21 recalled:
Kerr [one of her patients]… was telling me about his work in mining. They often find themselves making saps so close to the German ones that they have to be totally silent. They wear rubber boots and their trolleys have rubber tyres and run on wooden rails. Sometimes they can hear the Germans under them, and when they do, they make a cross sap and let down a shaft into the mine under them. It’s all up to who happens to fire first. We have mined an entire village somewhere up the line where he was, and when the right moment comes will blow it up, Germans and all!
Here, surely, was another face of hell. Those who mined deep in the earth near, and under, enemy defences were exposed to constant danger. The day after this entry was written, Sapper William Hackett of the 254th Company, Royal Engineers, was digging under Shaftesbury Avenue (a trench near Givenchy rather than anywhere in the West End) when an explosion trapped him and four others in a gallery. After twenty hours of digging, a hole was made and he was able to pass three of the men through to a rescue party. He refused to leave, staying with the fourth wounded man who was seriously injured, saying, “I am a tunneller and must look after others first”. Not long afterwards, the gallery collapsed and both he and the wounded man were killed. He was awarded the VC posthumously.
For many, attrition along the front had become predictable and, apparently, inevitable. The same point might be made about the intractable enmities in Ireland. In the wake of the Easter Rising, Lloyd George had been appointed as Asquith’s chief negotiator in endeavouring to reconcile Unionists and Nationalists. As usual, the sticking point was the exclusion of Ulster (the six north-eastern counties) from any Home Rule settlement.
Pressure continued to pile on the British government to be more generous to the Nationalists, much of it coming from the United States, where the pro-Irish lobby was vociferous and influential. Former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote:
I wish your people had not shot the leaders of the Irish rebels after they had surrendered … It would have been the better part of wisdom not to exact the death penalty.
That was the language of surrender, so far as the Unionists were concerned, and it inflamed General Maxwell, the military governor. He complained to Asquith of
… a growing disposition to demonstrate on every possible occasion in favour of Sinn Feinism or Republicanism. At masses for the repose of the souls of executed rebels, at the arrival or departure of released or deported suspects, on their return to their native towns, [these] are seized upon to demonstrate.
Maxwell was right that public opinion in Ireland was turning sharply against the British. Police reported that public sympathy for the rebels had been “stimulated by the sale of photographs of rebel leaders, and letters written by them on the eve of execution, together with mourning badges of green and black ribbon”. Now the common view was that “these men, poets, teachers, labour leaders, men respected in every walk of life, could not be, as they were told, irresponsible hare-brained adventurers, rainbow-chasers and hooligans”.
His Report on the State of Ireland since the Rebellion, published on 24 June, eloquently illustrated his impatience and bafflement with the public’s lack of “sympathy for the civilians, police or soldiers who were murdered or killed in the Rebellion”. Curiously, he appears also to have been hurt by the extent to which he was personally loathed and to which martial law had been resented. “The fact remains”, he insisted, “that no one in Ireland has been hurt by martial law because it has not been enforced”.
The Royal Commission’s review of the administrative system, also published during the week, on 26 June, should have afforded him some comfort. This sharply criticised the Irish government’s supine tolerance of armed militias, asserting that the “main cause of the rebellion’ lay in the fact that Ireland ‘had been administered on the principle that it was safer and more expedient to leave the law in abeyance if collision with any faction of the Irish people could thereby be avoided”. The British authorities in Dublin had been guilty, in other words, of being pusillanimous.
At another time in his premiership, perhaps, Asquith might have contemplated some structural reform, but not now. The war precluded such luxuries, and his political authority was only just holding. The lawyer and Unionist, Henry Duke, was appointed to be the new Chief Secretary.
Even in these dark days, however, the British newspapers could always count on an enthusiastic readership when a hanging threatened. On 26 June, Sir Roger Casement’s trial — on a charge of High Treason — opened before three judges and a jury in the Lord Chief Justice’s Court in the Royal Court of Justice.
That ought to have been sensational enough. The government, however, were anxious that public sympathy for the erstwhile diplomat should not gather momentum. They therefore ensured that his diaries (the so-called “Black Diaries”) were widely leaked. Although contested, these were probably authentic. In not especially sophisticated code, they minutely itemised a great deal of gay sex — and, in Britain and Ireland in 1916, that fact alone was more than enough to turn the court of public opinion sharply against you. In this strange, unforgiving and brutal world, Casement was thrown easily to the wolves.