Gentle Rain From Heaven

Mother and child in the French countryside

EXHAUSTION IS TOO poor a word. Soldiers, statesmen, and whole nations were tired out of mind.

Nature abhors a vacuum. As the sense that the war was in its last weeks became more generally absorbed, fractiousness — for some, anyway — became the new order of the day.

In Lloyd George’s case, it took the form of a petulant refusal to give credit to Haig for recent victories — not a syllable more than frigid professional courtesy demanded. A message sent by the Prime Minister on 10th October, after the last remaining defensive positions behind the St Quentin Canal had been cleared two days earlier, was a masterpiece of grudging formality:

I have just heard from Marshal Foch of the brilliant victory won by the First, Third and Fourth Armies, and I wish to express to yourself, Generals Horne, Byng and Rawlinson, and all the officers and men under your command my sincerest congratulations on the great and significant success which the British armies, with their American brothers-in-arms, have gained during the past two days…

There was a lot of barely concealed bitchiness in this text: he might just as well have said:

Hurrah for the British and American armies, for Marshal Foch, and hurrah for any General other than yourself.

Haig commented to his wife that, by contrast with other congratulations received,

The Prime Minister’s shows the least understanding of the great efforts made by the whole of the British Army.

But Haig was a hard man to bait, and his impassivity riled Lloyd George. One suspects that he valued Foch’s good opinion far more, and — just now — he was wallowing in it. On 6th October, he found the Marshal studying the text of a German Note which had just been despatched to President Wilson. The Germans were asking for an armistice.

“Here,” said Foch, “you have the immediate result of the British piercing the Hindenburg Line.”

Haig – hard to bait

The week’s fighting along the west was momentous for the Allies, and costly for both sides. On 8th October, a great Allied advance of three miles took place on a 20-mile St Quentin-Cambrai front and, on the following day, Cambrai was taken.

The Germans had no intention of making life for those they left behind any less ghastly than they could help. The town was deserted and pillaged, with parts of it on fire. Desolation notwithstanding, the whole Hindenburg system had now been broken through, and 110,000 prisoners and 1,200 guns had come into Allied hands in the weeks since the multiple offensives had begun. That same day, 9th October, witnessed a rare use of cavalry in support of the attack on Le Cateau. One wonders whether its use was an indulgence on the part of Haig, a cavalryman himself. The casualty rate was appalling. The next day, the Cavalry Corps was withdrawn and the tanks returned.

Tanks still promised more than they often delivered. Thanks to increasingly efficient anti-tank weapons, they were all-too-easily blown up, and they also very often broke down. Between 8th August and 10th October, official figures recorded that 819 of them had been handed over to salvage. They were also suicidally dangerous: in that same period, the Tank Battalions had lost 550 officers and 2,557 Other Ranks, out of a fighting state of some 9,500.

Allied Tank, 1918

Other ways to die still, of course, presented themselves. On 11th October, Lance-Corporal A.J. Abraham of the 8th Queens, 24th Division, took part in an attack near Rieux in the Cambrai area, during which he was bombarded with gas shells:

We were very tired by now and dimly I heard someone say ‘Gas?’ …and then I may have fallen asleep… I woke up just as the sky was beginning to lighten, feeling pretty rough… Cornell looked at me and said, ‘Christ, you look a mess’. I looked at him and replied, ‘Well, you’re no bloody oil painting’. Our eyes looked like oysters in buckets of blood and it was obvious that we had been gassed.

Gradually they got worse and were marched back to Rieux:

We could hardly see at all by this time and the march was sheer agony, never had ten kilometres seemed so long.

On arrival, however, things looked up:

I shall never forget the gentle kindness of our Quartermaster Sergeant when at last we reached our destination. He was like a mother to us, guiding us to a place to lie down, and generally doing everything in his power to make us more comfortable.

Next morning,

Our blistered eyelids had stuck together and we could only whisper. The doctor hung a label on each of us, and equipped with nothing but our tin hats and gas masks, ha ha, we groped our way outside with the QMS leading and each of us hanging on to the tail of the jacket of the man in front of him. We set off in a long crocodile for the Casualty Clearing Station.

The unsympathetic nature of senior officers was a byword among some soldiers. Sometimes, however, they came up trumps:

We had gone a long way like this when we heard a horseman approaching… ‘Who the hell is responsible for sending these men like this, QM? …Fall out the men at once, QM, and I will see that they have transport’. As the owner of the voice galloped away QM said, ‘Well boys that was the General.’ I never knew which General this was, but I am eternally grateful to him. It was not long before a fleet of motor ambulances rattled up and we were loaded into them…

Artillery was as deadly as ever. On 9th October, Burgon Bickersteth had just inspected the Bellenglise Tunnel, part of the Hindenburg Line:

At about 4 p.m. a large number of enemy aeroplanes appeared, and of course spotted our horses. The consequence was that about a quarter of an hour later shrapnel began bursting over our horses and we had casualties. My servant was wounded. Our ridge was pounded with a large number of tear-gas shells and a certain amount of heavy stuff. Ellis, who had brought his two Vickers guns up to consolidate the position, was in the next shell-hole to mine, with a corporal, a private and a gun. The Boche got a direct hit on them and killed all three. I did not realise this for about a quarter of an hour and began calling out for Ellis. No answer — and then I caught sight of his body thrown half out of the shell-hole. I crawled across to the hole and found him, one half of his head blown away. The corporal had his left arm and side entirely blown off — there was no sign of his arm at all — and Pte Harris lay there just breathing, a thick red slime welling out of his throat. He died while I was crouching in the hole with them.

While the French continued their success in Champagne, and drove the Germans out of part of the Chemin des Dames, the Battle of Courtrai in Flanders began on 14th October. There was a medieval romance to the spectacle of troops being led by a king — Albert of Belgium. Their five-mile advance contrasted with the much slower progress made by the Americans in the Meuse-Argonne. Pershing, in his diary, kept noting the “stiff” and “stubborn” resistance his troops were encountering, and fretted that Marshal Foch was becoming impatient.

A mildly misleading photograph: Pershing and Foch were presently grating upon one another.

The Americans, it is not hard to see, elicited some mixed feelings from their allies. To begin with, their troops were fresh, numerous and lion-hearted, a source of both admiration and envy. No responsible analysis of the last year of the war can underrate the huge psychological impact of their arrival. On the other hand, as Pershing was discovering, he and his men lacked experience and, sometimes, it showed.

American wounded, Neuvilly, 1918

But the real row was off the battlefield. Having brought America into the war, and having therefore changed its outcome decisively, Wilson was determined to impose his vision of a new World Order upon any peace settlement. So long as the fighting hung in the balance, British and French statesmen did not have to square up to the fact that they no longer ruled the world. But the better the war went, the more the moment of truth dawned.

Foch’s views on any armistice were set out in a note he gave Clemenceau: the Germans had to clear out of Belgium, France and Alsace-Lorraine, without trashing the infrastructure, and do so within 15 days of anything being signed. The problem was that it needed more than one statesman to agree. Wilson’s voice was going to be the loudest — that was the reality. In his Fourteen Points publicised the previous year, he had already made clear that his vision for peace involved not just the chastisement of Germany, but the creation of new nations according to the principle of national self-determination. For the imperial powers, this was deeply disconcerting.

When Pershing met Foch on 13th October, it was to find the Marshal concerned that President Wilson “would allow himself to become involved in a long conversation with the Germans and allow himself to be duped by them” concerning their peace overtures. He need not have worried: Wilson had received the German request to negotiate peace terms with deep scepticism. On 8th October, he sent his reply through Robert Lansing, US Secretary of State, and the Swiss Chargé d’Affaires, demanding that the Germans should evacuate all occupied territory before any talks could begin.

That did not please the Germans one little bit. The new German Minister of War, Scheuch, insisted:

…the evacuation, apart from the danger of a disorderly return of the troops to the Homeland, is the signing and sealing of our inability to defend ourselves; it is ‘unconditional surrender’.

The real outrage of this document, however, was that Wilson had not consulted any of his European Allies before sending it. They were livid when they found out, but also felt powerless. Britain and France in 1918 were in hock to the United States, if not in thrall to her.

It might have been better for everyone had it been realised that Wilson’s ideas on the future shape of the world were very often not shared by the American people. But the multilateral diplomacy which was now opening up was new to everyone and diplomats failed to pick up on the growing gulf between the President and the American electorate.

Wilson: would his skills in diplomacy match those as a pitcher?

On 12th October, however, Germany bowed to the inevitable and accepted the American terms. Significantly, it stressed that the new German Government referred its authority to the Reichstag and the people, and not the Kaiser.

Princess Evelyn Blucher looked on this new enthusiasm for parliamentarianism in Germany with sceptical eyes:

Is the Kaiser in such fear of losing his throne that with one swoop he leaves his high place in the sun of the divine right of kings, and agrees to all these new demands which practically deprive him of the most precious jewel in his crown, and leave him an ordinary mortal like other people? There are many persons who admire him more for this one act than for any previous one during his reign. He, as well as King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, has probably made a virtue of necessity, and seeing the Bolshevism approach every day nearer, has crowned the long years of his reign with an act of abnegation.

In other words, auf wiedersehen Willi.

The Kaiser himself appears not to have grasped the fact that, politically, he was dead in the water. The effrontery on the part of the Americans astonished him. He considered that:

…It aims directly at the fall of my house, and above all at the abolition of the monarch!

That was about right. Nobody had yet plucked up the courage to let him know the prospect was now viewed by most Germans as one which was both inevitable and to be welcomed.

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918 by Kralj Aleksandar

Wilson’s toughened stance reflected the continued military success of the Allies and also that he was under pressure from many Republicans in Washington to go for Unconditional Surrender. Evidently, the Germans were not remotely prepared to go that far, as the extent to which retreating troops in the west were making the Allies sweat for every yard of ground testified. Lieutenant Colonel Feilding was at Le Maisnil, waiting to go into action, and his weekly round-up of life to his wife testifies to his usual calm interest in others, and his realism:

October 8  …There is no continuous front line nowadays… This afternoon I visited the outpost line with my orderly, Corporal Douglas. On the way we passed a little group of five dead machine-gunners. An unlucky ‘whizz-bang’ had hit their emplacement, killing the five and wounding a sixth, so badly that he is not likely to recover.

October 10  I write in a wooden hut, built by the enemy… I sent for the piano today, and after dinner we had music. Small, the Intelligence Officer, who is a wonderful pianist, played, while the doctor sang. It seems funny to think of first-class music in a wooden hut, 3,000 yards behind the firing line. That would not have been prudent six months ago.

October 12  The shells began to arrive again, this evening, just as we were sitting down to ‘bridge,’ some mustard gas being mixed with the high-explosive, which is the latest development. I got a good mouthful of the gas, which made me sneeze and cough for half an hour. It is a silly game. We continued our ‘bridge’ with respirators in the ‘alert’ position. How these things make you slobber when you have to put them on!

On 14th October, Private H.T. Pope was in the attack that became part of the Battle of Courtrai. There seems to have been nothing terribly formidable about the enemy he picked up on that occasion:

Occasionally we stopped at a pill-box to collect prisoners but there was no resistance… The prisoners were quite meek and mild. In one dug-out Palmer found a Jerry parcel containing a very nice cake so we devoured this going forward… We came across numbers of stranded Germans who gave themselves up after being threatened…

As the end of the war loomed, hatred of the Germans became more and more a feature of people’s thoughts and words. The diary of Nurse Edith Appleton at Le Tréport this week offers some context for this:

October 11  Another man in — with a knee so bad that he will most likely lose the leg — told me that he was a prisoner with the Germans for a few days and he was never given so much as a drink of water the whole time, and his wound was not dressed. Hence how bad it is. That I forgive them — they probably do as we do and dress their own first — and God help them, do they ever get to the end of their own? Whether they left their worst for us or not I don’t know, but they are blown to bits and torn to ribbons, inside and out…

October 14  Great excitement yesterday over the newspaper headline: ‘Kaiser’s Cabinet Gives In’ and we are all wondering just what it means. The Hun is no more sorry for what he has done now than he was four years ago, of that all are certain — and as for saying he agrees to vacate Belgium! The fool! He agrees! There’s not much ‘agrees’ about it. He is being made to do it, and at top speed. They want an armistice and time to prepare some foul new device of Satan to launch at us. Yesterday an arrogant Prussian officer here was saying, boastingly, ‘It has taken the whole world to move us.’ Prussians are dirty dogs, every one of them.

Christopher Stone, on the staff of the 99th Infantry Brigade, was enraged by the destruction he encountered as he went round the newly captured Cambrai:

11 October …most houses of the town have been touched by shellfire or bombs or just wanton Boche destruction; but the square is a most damning witness of vandalism. The shell of the very fine Hotel de Ville stands with gaping windows, and outside it is a piano with a chair — just a black cottage piano. No-one dared to touch it yet because of course it’s a booby trap and contains a bomb. We wanted to find a prisoner and make him play it.

Cambrai, 1918

I have never been more impressed today than I have ever been by the conviction that real vengeance must be wreaked on Germany, and that her towns must actually and methodically be destroyed in retaliation for these utterly useless and wanton outrages on the property of harmless French people. No military purpose whatever has been served by the damage that has been done.

Other theatres of war increasingly replicated the implosion that was happening in the West. Despite the Bulgarian armistice of the previous week, fighting continued, not least because the Serbs were determined that vengeance was theirs. On 12th October, they captured the town of Nish after a three-week-long march of 170 miles over mountainous terrain made ever more slippery by a week of virtually of non-stop rain.

Flora Sandes had been part of that, and had seen villagers flocking to the advancing troops, desperate for news of missing loved ones, some of whom had starved to death in Albania. Equally, soldiers approaching their old homes found them burnt to the ground and their relatives interned in camps in Bulgaria. She recorded in her diary on 12th October:

They have lost everything, stock driven off and everything in the houses, even their clothes, ‘requisitioned’ by the Bulgars and Germans… They say the Germans pay for everything, whatever is asked so I gather some of them have not done so badly, but the Bulgars just take everything.

As far as I can gather some villages seem to have suffered more from their own ‘smret’ i.e. head man than anyone, he being in with the Bulgars and requisitioning his neighbours’ stock while keeping his own.

To her acute disappointment, Nish was already in Serbian hands by the time she reached the town. Nothing pepped her up like a fight.

A propaganda postcard fashioned by the Bulgarians following their capture of the town in 1915. Now the tables had been turned.

More seriously, the loss of Nish severed the railway link from Berlin to Constantinople, although by now Turkey had so many reasons to worry, it is difficult to know how much difference this made. It was now reported that 26 Turkish divisions had been wiped out during the Syrian and Mesopotamian campaigns and that its army was now at something like 15% of the strength it had enjoyed two years earlier. On 13th October, the day the British entered Tripoli in Syria, the Ottoman Grand Vizier approached the Allies with a request for an armistice.

The exception to this general implosion can be seen in the war at sea — a curiously alternative universe. It is not hard to see why: U-boats could still fire torpedoes, whatever catastrophes were unfurling in France. On 10th October, the Royal Mail Ship, RMS Leinster left Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) en route to Holyhead carrying besides the mail, with 22 postal sorters, 77 crew members and 694 passengers of whom 500 were soldiers. Alarmed by U-boat operations in the Irish Sea, and having survived earlier torpedo attacks, the Admiralty had been asked to provide a naval escort. This was refused on the presumption that Leinster’s speed would be sufficient protection.

That was a bad decision on somebody’s part. At around 10 a.m. when UB-123 attacked the vessel, the first torpedo missed, but a second blew a huge hole in the port side and the ship began to list. The Captain tried to make it back to Dublin, but a third torpedo from the submarine struck the ship on the starboard side and virtually blew it to pieces.

Leinster sank. For those in the water, whether in lifeboats or clinging to rafts and floating debris, the freezing conditions and rough seas made survival unlikely. Despite the best efforts of British destroyers like HMS Lively and HMS Mallard who rescued survivors, 501 men, women and children were killed, the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea.

Princess Blucher was in no doubt as to what this would mean:

What a deplorable deed, to say the least of it; just at the eleventh hour, when Germany is trying to prove to the world that she desires peace simply from humane reasons.

…Of course, Germany excuses herself with the old tale that it was a mistake, and that she had no time to call in her submarines. At the moment when Germany’s destiny is hanging on a hair, such an awful responsibility is left to the discretion of the lieutenant in charge… who by his error plunges hundreds of families in sorrow, and again summons up the burning indignation of all England.

The thinking of those who perpetrated the attack was destined to remain a mystery. The crew of UB-123, and its 27-year-old commander Robert Ramm, were lost in action on 19th October. Their demise was insufficient, however, to prevent an international howl of protest and rage at yet another example of German schrecklichkeit. After four and a half years, the deaths of soldiers and sailors on active service were regretted in the abstract, but also seen as part and parcel of war. It took a special outrage of war to rouse people to popular indignation. But the targeting of civilians, in the case of the Leinster, achieved that.

A century later, every death feels reason enough to grieve. The pathos of those destined to die in its last days and weeks of war feels especially acute. For Wilfred Owen, though he could not have known it, the dark shadows of war were lengthening. He wrote to his mother a disarmingly modest letter this week concerning the previous week’s action for which he was awarded the MC:

You will understand I could not write — when you think of us for days all but surrounded by the enemy. All one day (after the battle) we could not move from a small trench, though hour by hour the wounded were groaning just outside. Three stretcher-bearers who got up were hit, one after one.

I had to order no one to show himself after that, but remembering my own duty, and remembering also my forefathers the agile Welshmen of the Mountains I scrambled out myself & felt an exhilaration in baffling the Machine Guns by quick bounds from cover to cover. After the shells we had been through, and the gas, bullets were like gentle rain from heaven.

Wilfred Owen, MC