God or mammon?

SOMETIMES, IT WAS hard to tell.

On the afternoon of 25th January, the SS Laurentic struck two German mines off Lough Swilly in County Donegal. In the words of her captain, R.A.Norton, “a violent explosion occurred abreast the foremast on the port side, followed twenty minutes later by a similar explosion abreast the engine room…”

This was a well-regulated ship and crew. Evacuation took place in an orderly manner and distress rockets were fired since the wireless installation equipment had been destroyed by the explosions. Mine-sweepers were sent to the rescue. Laurentic had pioneered White Star Line’s service to Canada in 1908 and was one of the largest vessels in the Canada trade. The 14,892-ton liner had been converted into an armed auxiliary cruiser at the start of the war. At the time of the explosion, she was en route from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Getting out was not the end of it, alas. It was a viciously cold night and Captain Norton, having been the last to leave his stricken ship, recorded later:

The deaths were all due to exposure… My own boat was almost full of water when we were picked up by a trawler the next morning, but all the men in the boat survived. Another boat, picked up at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, contained five survivors and fifteen frozen bodies. They had been exposed to the bitter cold for over twenty hours.

If only the carnage had ended there. Three hundred and fifty-four passengers and crew  died –  most in the freezing conditions on the lifeboats. Twelve officers and 109 men were saved.

A great tragedy  – not a doubt about it. Dare one say, in the context of war  –  just another in an unending litany? The government’s response was brisk, but not confined to the usual expressions of sympathy and defiance. Officials from a British purchasing mission had been on board at the time, charged with buying stocks of arms and munitions from the Canadian and American governments, as well as food, steel and other commodities. To this end, when Laurentic had sunk, she had taken with her a precious cargo of 3,211 separate gold ingots  – 43 tons of gold  –  then valued at more than five million pounds (about £2.2 billion today). This was very big money indeed and, unsurprisingly, HMG wanted it back.

Enter the Royal Navy’s specialist diving unit, nicknamed “The Tin Openers” (a soubriquet which, in those days, might have provoked a chuckle). It was led by Commander Guybon Chesney Castell Damant, CBE, an illustrious navy diver who had been brought out of retirement when the war began. They went on to do a good job, but not quite as good as everyone had hoped. By September 1917, over £800,000 worth of gold would be recovered but other ingots had slipped through holes and remain at the wreck site.

Damant’s exploits remembered (not wholly accurately)

The smart money (what was left of it, anyway) still believed the war would be won or lost in the West  –  a thought which vexed the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Haig coped resolutely with his scepticism, while trying to ensure Britain’s military profile remained credible in the eyes of both her allies and foes. German assaults between Armentières and Ploegsteert were successfully foiled on 23rd January while raids against Neuville and Le Transloy continued. The brunt of German firepower was borne by the French, however. Poilus were attacked at Verdun on 25th January and, the next day, the Germans took a mile of French trenches at Hill 304. The following day, nearly all of it was recovered. This was exactly what the Prime Minister deplored  –  a bloody seesawing which seemed to him without rhyme or reason.

Haig, following his recent instructions to the London Conference, also now determined to prepare his forces to support the Nivelle Plan. He had no enthusiasm for the task, nor faith in its commander, but he was a professional soldier and a martyr to his orders. He rapidly found himself confronted, however, by a range of logistical problems, in particular by those concerning the railways.

The French chemin de fer was inevitably sorely overstretched by the demands of war in the north-east of the country and its rolling stock frequently failed to cope with the quantities of freight and personnel it was supposed to ferry. Worse still, the recent winter had been exceptionally severe  –  damaging tracks, locomotives and rolling stock.

Haig’s diary noted:

26 January. The railway situation has suddenly become worse. This morning… a telegram was handed to me stating that from noon today only food supplies, ammunition and material for the railways could be carried — all other traffic must be stopped.

27 January. The critical state of the Nord system had been foreseen by me in September last… I tremble to think what our position now would have been, had I not grappled then with the whole question and brought in the best railway men from England and created a new Department, viz. ‘Transportation’, under a ‘Director-General’ to deal with it.

That last entry is notable as a rare instance of self-congratulation by the Commander-in-Chief. And he had a point too, having been responsible for recruiting the exceptionally gifted Eric Geddes who had begun a transformation of the railway services for troops and supplies in France. Evidently, however, much still remained undone.

28 January. We are certainly passing through a very serious crisis.

Transport infrastructure was less in the minds of those fighting in the East. The Russians continued, increasingly forlornly (one suspects), to roll back the German advances of the past weeks. Following fierce fighting between Lake Babit and Tirul Marsh, west of Riga, they lost most of the recently recaptured ground and the attempted Russian counterattack on 25th January quickly sputtered into nothing. There was perhaps a smidgen of consolation in the Bukovina area, where they overwhelmed enemy positions between Kimpolung and Jacobeny and bagged 1,218 prisoners.

Further south, the Entente seemed in better shape than for some time. King Constantine’s germanophile tendencies in recent months had provoked a showdown with the British and French and, on 24th January, the Greek government in Athens formally apologised to the Allies. At the end of the week, a parade was held in Athens during which Greek troops formally saluted the flags of all Allied powers. There is a whiff of the spanked schoolboy to this tableau.

Sorry about that: Greek soldiers and sailors present Allied flags in Athens, 1917

Even so, it marked a serious strategic concern: the Allies needed Greece’s compliance more than her soldiers, because any grand strategy for the defeat of the Central Powers required access to Europe from the Mediterranean and Aegean. Indeed, politicians in the West were at that moment busily arguing over the wisdom of opening up a fresh offensive from Salonika.

One of the British troops waiting to be called into action was Second Lieutenant Owen Rutter, 7th Battalion, Witshire Regiment, who evidently enjoyed the exotic nature of the polyglot city:

Men of war, English, French and Italian and their destroyers were there and many transports, and the city clustered together on the hill with the old castle on the summit, its white tower and minarets rising like candles to the blue sky… There seemed to be every nationality under the sun, never even in Singapore or Yokohama have I seen such a mixture of East and West. English soldiers and French and Greeks, the Greek officers (the only ones not at war) with their swords, Jews, Armenians, beggars of every kind, Greek ladies in most wonderful costumes and a sprinkling of every Balkan nation…  Through the town we marched, crowds of people watching us (with interest but without enthusiasm)

The fact that the Allies were fighting the Ottoman Empire as much as the Germans can easily slip into the margins of one’s mind. There was better news this week from there too: after the dismal reverses of 1915 and 1916, the British were recovering ground in Mesopotamia. General Maude’s force captured enemy trenches on the Hai salient south-west of Kut-el-Amara on 25th January and, though the opposing Turkish troops managed to recover a little ground, the British were driving forwards on the right bank of the Tigris near Kut four days later. Much further south still, in East Africa, a force of 289 German officers and men surrendered at Likuju on 24th January.

The strategic implications of colonial warring often mystify later generations. At the time, however, Likuju was the first significant victory for months and was trumpeted vigorously in the press.

“Good news”  –  the kind which made headlines  – generally meant far more to civilians than to those on the Front itself. A good example of this came in the fulsome publicity briefing which followed the release on 22nd January of the “great new official film The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks”:

IT IS BOTH YOUR DUTY AND YOUR PRIVILEGE to see this wonderful film. It is even more enthralling in its illuminating detail than the great ‘Somme’ film. It gives a real insight into what life at the front means in all its excitement, its dangers, its realities. It is certain to attract great crowds. So take the first opportunity you can of seeing it. The profits from the renting of the film will be devoted to Military Charities.

On leave in London, Captain Francis Mack of the Australian Imperial Force, seems to have shunned this particular duty and sidestepped the privilege. His letter to his parents on 27th January suggests other preoccupations:

I had a roaring time… Mind you, we see London now at its worst for everything is in darkness at 5 p.m. in the afternoon so the days are terribly short… you can see London better from an omnibus than anything else and secondly but none the least important is that the conductor is a Girl. That’s a thing which struck us as peculiar, girls doing all sorts of jobs, walk down the street and you see a window cleaner. I had seen photos of them in papers but had I not seen them I wouldn’t have believed it. But never the less they were there dressed in men’s clothes of oilskin. Go a bit further and you see a girl page, a girl done up in livery to put it plainly, girls are doing everything…

For those doing the actual fighting, the immediacies of life were everything. The preoccupations of home, even the claims of family and friends, exercised no equivalent claim. Or so, at least, thought Lieutenant E.W. Stoneham of the Royal Artillery.

The comradeship among men was really most extraordinary and very difficult to describe. On one occasion I was offered a safe job behind the lines if I would care to join Brigade Headquarters. It was very tempting but I didn’t want to go. There was something about the relationship with the men that one didn’t want to break. One would somehow have felt rather a traitor to them, so I refused it and stayed with them… Even when I got back to England on leave, it seemed to me that I really belonged at the Front, that the leave was only an interlude. In a way I was quite ready to go back. That was reinforced by the fact that my family didn’t understand what was happening out there, and I didn’t really want them to know about it. So when I was talking to my parents or my sisters, I had to pretend that it was all very nice out there, and I had to describe a world that wasn’t real at all. The real one was the one that I had to get back to, and I felt no compunction about getting away when the leave was over.

A Sherwood Forester bidding farewell to his mother as leave drew to a close

Stoneham was not alone. Consider the reactions of Siegfried Sassoon, to the news that he had been passed fit to return to active service on 27th January:

As I went out into the grey street and the bitter east wind I felt as if a load had been lifted from my sullen heart. I’d got another chance given me to die a decent death. And a damned uncomfortable one, probably…

Not everyone agreed. In a letter to his mother written from Serre on 1th January, Sassoon’s fellow-poet, Wilfred Owen, appeared far less reconciled to the indignities as well as the terrors of life:

I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it. I held an advanced post, that is, a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No Man’s Land.

My dug-out held 25 men tight packed. Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air. One entrance had been blown in and blocked. So far, the other remained. The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn’t. Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life… I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees.

Such alarming candour would not, one suspects, have been to the taste of Colonel Freyberg VC, still recovering from the wounds he had received during the Somme offensive and subsequently being lionised by London society.

Bernard Freyberg, VC

A lifelong bachelor, he was currently the object of a rather voyeuristic fascination to Cynthia Asquith who admitted she loved

his lack of humour, his frank passion for fighting and his unconcealed dread of peace. Life appears to hold no other interest for him… He maintains the human element is just as determining as in Napoleon’s day…

23 January. [Freyberg] came at 3.30 and we had a longish talk. He does interest me and gives me the impression of a potentially really great soldier — in the Napoleonic sense rather than the V.C. hero. He seems to have so many of the qualities — lack of humour, chafing ambition, and a kind of admirable ruthlessness and positive self-reliance. He knows when to quarrel with a superior and when to get rid of an inferior…

Definitely not an Owen soulmate.

For all the indifference of soldiers to the bigger picture of war, somebody had to keep it in mind  –  politicians, presumably. Theirs was an occupation held in higher esteem a 100 years ago than today, but the relative abstractness of their concerns feels awkward and somehow improper when set against the heat of battle and the thumping hearts of those in khaki.

It is perhaps this which can make the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson of the USA, in a major speech to the Senate on 22th January, so irritating in the eyes of posterity. Not that Wilson was anything other than a fine man  –  a liberal and a champion of democracy. But his idealism, just now, was overpowering  – and this, coming from a neutral power, could set teeth on edge.

Having been reassured that belligerents had made it clear that “it was no part of the purpose they had in mind to crush their antagonists”, he deduced that a “peace without victory” was the only way forward. Nations, he said, should be free to decide their own polity and not seek to extend it over others; avoid entangling alliances which would draw them into competitions of power; seek government by the consent of the governed and moderation of armaments and, finally, guarantee the freedom of the seas.

He ended by saying:

These are American principles, American policies. We could stand for no others. And they are also the principles and policies of forward-looking men and women everywhere, of every modern nation, of every enlightened community. They are the principles of mankind and must prevail.

No doubt they roared and whooped over on Capitol Hill. Nobody was much moved in London, Paris or Berlin. They wanted victory alright. They were going for the jugular.