Going To Hell

THE NAME OF Passchendaele meant nothing – yet. The battle on the Western Front now raging was part of the latest “big push”. Perhaps some of the battle planners called it the “Summer Offensive”.

Summer? What a sorry deception was contained in that single word! Fighting continued all week but already the mud and rain were making the task of the attackers fearsomely harder. There were one or two good moments, upon which the British press pounced: the capture of Westhoek on 10th August and the occupation of Glencorse Wood, with 240 prisoners taken, both made for great headlines. But then came strong German counter-attacks the following day and the British line was pressed back. The following day was also the day when II Corps made a massive attempt to capture the Gheluvelt plateau. According to their official historian, their failure to do so is explained by “the undiminished strength of the German artillery concentration on and behind the plateau”.

Undiminished was right: the Germans had placed machine-gun posts in pillboxes made of reinforced-concrete, the walls of which were four feet thick. In an effort to get past these, the British contrived a series of assault tactics, including masking the pill-boxes with fire and smoke. But, as Captain Falls noted:

the human body is lucky to prevail over ferro-concrete, and many brilliant attacks failed, with nothing to show but a few corpses sprawled about the strong points.

More like hundreds. And all this while the rain continued.

There were also indications of how the strains imposed by battle had permeated. Second Lieutenant Edwin Vaughan recorded making his way back to the front after a week’s leave through Poperinghe on 10th August where he was told that

life was becoming more hectic.

Shelling was heavier and officers much more badly behaved. Every night there was a small riot when drinks had been flowing, and through it all the guns, the lorries, the ambulances and the troops rolled steadily through the town to Ypres.

As we left the town, a string of lorries swung round the corner and we dismounted to let them pass. One after another they throbbed slowly past painted in iron grey, wreathed in dust, buses with sleeping troops on top, all silent, dust-covered rifles projecting and no flicker of light seen – I had a vision of the dead armies of Ypres stealing back to the battlefields to help us on our next push…

We heard this morning that we are moving up again tomorrow and that on the 16th we will be in support to a battalion of Irish Rifles at St Julien. The imminence of the attack made me very frightened and I trembled so much that I could not take part in the discussion at first. But after poring over the map for a bit and passing on all information to my platoon, I grew calmer. Before noon we had learnt every detail of the ground from the map and, incidentally had been issued with private’s clothing…

Evening on the Ypres-Poperinghe Road, 1917, by Lieutenant C. H. Barraud

Unable to sleep that night, he went “in pyjamas and slippers… into the wood. A gentle rain was falling and the mud came up over my bare ankles.”

That moment of tranquillity did not last: four shells suddenly burst close beside him.

…I heard a voice screaming faintly from the bushes. Jamming on my tin hat I ran up the track and stumbled over a body. I stopped to raise the head, but my hand sank into the open skull and I recoiled in horror. The cries continued and I ran up the track to find that the water cart had been blown over on to two men. One was crushed and dead, the other pinned by the waist and legs.

Vaughan’s turn to go into battle still lay ahead of him. Private Walter Williamson, of the 6th Cheshire Regiment, was recovering from his time in the front line with a spell of office-duties in the Orderly Room, which had recently had a shell drop on top of it. As a result, records had been lost. In consequence,

great difficulty was found in getting details of the casualties.

…a long roll remained of men still unaccounted for. For the time being these had to be reported as ‘Missing’, until such times as evidence came through that they were officially notified as Prisoners of War… Many cases were known to us of men being slightly wounded, and having been seen on their way to the dressing stations, after which, all trace of them had been lost…

There was always the chance that some men in these circumstances might do a bunk. Much more likely, however, they had been killed. Williamson claimed that

the enemy had made deliberate attack by shellfire and aeroplane bombs on every dressing station or casualty clearing station that they could locate. Many of these places, with rows of stretcher cases and walking cases waiting to be attended to, had been utterly destroyed, the staffs killed and the records blown to pieces.

However perilous the fate of those at dressing stations, it was worse on the front line. Having been at the front since 1915 and won the MC on the Somme, Fr William Doyle, chaplain to the 16th Irish Division, now passed his days veering between rescuing the wounded, anointing the dying and burying the dead. This was all done, as he recorded in his diary, in the midst of

perpetual rain, oceans of mud, damp, cold and a plague of rats.

7th August  I dashed off in the darkness, this time hugging my helmet as the enemy was firing gas shells. A moment’s pause to absolve a couple of dying men, and then I reached the group of smashed and bleeding bodies, most of them still breathing. The first thing I saw almost unnerved me; a young soldier lying on his back, his hands and face a mass of blue phosphorous flame, smoking horribly in the darkness. He was the first victim I had seen of the new gas the Germans are using, a fresh horror in this awful war…

Back again to the aid post for stretchers and helped to carry in the wounded, while all the time the shells are coming down like hail. Good God! how can any human being live in this?…

10th August  A sad morning as casualties were heavy and many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I have ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown away at the knee. But never a complaint fell from his lips, even when they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. ‘Thank God, Father,’ he said ‘I am able to stick it out to the end. Is it not all for little Belgium?’ The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased his bodily pain. ‘I am much better now and easier, God bless you’ he said, as I left him to attend a dying man…

Reverand William Doyle SJ

It is a truism that the Germans were having an equally rotten time. A letter written home on 10th August from Gerhard Gurtler, one of the German defenders near Ypres, testifies to that.

Nothing is so trying as a continuous, terrific barrage such as we experienced in this battle, especially the intense English fire during my second night at the front… Darkness alternates with light as bright as day. The earth trembles and shakes like a jelly… And those men who are still in the front line hear nothing but the drum-fire, the groaning of wounded comrades, the screaming of fallen horses, the wild beating of their own hearts, hour after hour, night after night. Even during the short respite granted them their exhausted brains are haunted in the weird stillness by recollections of unlimited suffering. They have no way of escape, nothing is left them but ghastly memories and resigned anticipation…

‘Haven’t you got a bullet for me, Comrades?’ cries a Corporal who had one leg torn off and one arm shattered by a shell-and we could do nothing for him… The battle-field is nothing but one vast cemetery.

In peacetime, Gurtler had been a theology student at Breslau. Four days after writing this, on 14th August, he would be killed.

This latest offensive undoubtedly had thrown the Germans on the defensive. Yet they took scalps wherever they could. The passenger ship, City of Athens, hit a mine off Cape Town on 11th August and over 21 of the 213 on board perished. The next day, however, came signs that the Admiralty, after months of attrition at sea, had learned a few tricks of its own: HMS Oracle rammed a Type U43 submarine SMU-44 in the North Sea south of Norway and all 44 crew died.

The tentacles of war, however, spread further still. That same day, 12th August, 20 German Gotha bombers were spotted off Felixstowe. These were driven off by the RFC, but not destroyed. Turning south, they now attacked Margate and Southend.

A.S. Hare from Southend was an eleven-year-old boy at the time. Much later, he recalled:

…the third bomb fell within ten feet; fortunately it fell in the flower bed and I was blown down and found myself with two others in the crater burnt by heat and coughing up cordite, one like me still alive. I got out and ran, unfortunately taking the same direction as the planes – the next one fell in front of the Technical School, and a Salvation Army girl and also a man trying to get protection along a low one-foot wall were both killed. The girl was mutilated beyond recognition. I was not so lucky this time getting a piece of shrapnel in my neck…

The sights in the hospital (a small cottage type) were terrible to behold. Only two doctors, so the nurses had to operate on the minor cases… Australian soldiers billeted in the town brought in children in their arms with legs shattered, some with limbs missing…

For those beneath the bombs, the timing of the attack could not have been worse – it was around 5 p.m. and the streets were packed with holidaymakers. The Germans hovered over the town for around ten minutes, pursued by British planes and under fire from anti-aircraft guns. One Gotha was brought down but the others escaped to their bases on the Belgian coast. Thirty-two people were killed and 46 injured – a big enough tally to challenge any perception that the First World War left British citizens off the hook – least of all in Southend and Margate: both towns had been raided just over two years earlier.

A child injured in the air raid on Southend

The energies of the nation’s leaders were also diverted this week by the upcoming Stockholm Conference of international socialists. Many were adamant that no delegates should attend such a conference – less because it was socialist than because it was international and, just now, that smacked of fraternisation with the enemy.

The row put Arthur Henderson, a Cabinet Minister and Secretary of the Labour Party, into the crosshairs. He had recently returned from an official mission to Russia and also attended a conference of Allied socialists in Paris. Having travelled with the leading pacifist of the time, Ramsay MacDonald, the right wing press already considered him a turncoat. When, on 10th August, the Labour Party Conference voted by a majority of 1,846,000 to 550,000 to send delegates to Stockholm, there was an outcry. Henderson, it was claimed, had neglected to make clear to his party that the Government which he served had already declared its opposition, and he resigned from the Cabinet the next day.

Arthur Henderson

Poor Arthur. He had been unlucky in his timing and probably naïve. Many were sorry to see him go. Cabinet Secretary Hankey noted in his diary:

He was a good fellow, a loyal man and a useful and hardworking member of the War Cabinet. Even on resigning he expressed his unabated desire to assist in the prosecution of the war.

On 13th August, Bonar Law announced that no passports for the Stockholm Conference would be issued. The US Government had taken the same line a couple of days earlier. It was a show of Allied unity which, by now, was starting to look like a western luxury item. In Russia, soldiers continued to desert in droves.

Even so, the combined Russian-Romanian force continued its stubborn resistance against General Mackensen’s forces. These had crossed the Susitza river and taken 3,000 prisoners on 7th August. They then took another 7,000 when they crossed the river Sereth later in the week. But this was no pushover: the Romanians counter-attacked in the Focsani district on 11th August and took 1,200 German prisoners of their own.

By now, the sense of incipient catastrophe in Russia was palpable – a crisis over and beyond everything else that had happened over the previous eight months.

Prime Minister Kerensky, having resigned the previous week, now formed a new government with six Socialists and eight non-Socialists, five of whom belonged to the Cadet Party. He suggested his aims were based on “the harsh necessity of continuing the war, preserving the army’s fighting capacity and restoring the country’s economic might” in order to save the republic.

Kerensky in 1917

Reading this now, images of pigs in flight come to mind. Kerensky appears to have confused lofty ambition with serious policy. Two visiting suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhust and Jessie Kenney, secured an interview with him on 3rd August and Kenney noted:

I did not have the impression of a man dedicated to one end, in the way that Lenin was… or Plekhanov, or Mrs Pankhurst. He had been a fine lawyer, was an enthusiast, an orator of eloquence, but did not have the restraint over himself that the others possessed. There was a vacillation here, a man open to his passion and his moods… Quite obviously he was no match for Lenin, who, relentless and dominating, would ride mercilessly over everything and everyone in his path.

While Kerensky was certainly an infinitely nicer person than Lenin, he made startlingly rookie errors. He earned few Brownie points, for instance, by: “sleeping in the emperor’s bed, using his desk and his motors, giving audiences with much form and ceremony”.

Still, he was determined that the Tsar should come to no harm on his watch and, mindful of the recent disturbances, decided to move the family from anywhere near Petrograd as soon as possible. Wishing to avoid a journey through densely populated areas where the train could be intercepted, he explained later,

I chose Tobolsk because it was an out-and-out backwater… had a very small garrison, no industrial proletariat, and a population which was prosperous and contented, not to say old-fashioned… In addition… the climate was excellent and the town could boast a very passable Governor’s residence where the Imperial family could live with some measure of comfort.

His concern for the personal wellbeing of the Imperial family also put him at odds with many of his countrymen. He had already warned the Tsar that “The Bolsheviks are after me, and then will be after you”. On 11th August, he told the Tsar to prepare his family to leave Tsarskoe Selo within a few days, but, to avoid wagging tongues, gave no indication of the destination.

The family hoped they might be going to their palace at Livadia in the Crimea. But, once again, the Tsar seems to have been ready to retreat into the present:

12th August  Today our dear Alexei turned 13 years old. May God give him health, patience, strength of spirit and body in the coming difficult times. We went to Mass and after lunch to the service in which they presented the image of the Virgin. Somehow it was especially warm to offer prayers to Her Holy Image together with all our dear people.

The “small” palace at Livadia, the preferred residence of the Imperial family

His imperturbability – even now, it is hard to know how far it was a pose – contrasted with that of his erstwhile subject, Lev Bronstein, aka Trotsky, who had been arrested on 23rd July. He claimed later to have had few doubts as to how the present crisis would play out:

The soldiers were now saying, to the last man: ‘Enough of bloodshed! What good are land and freedom if we are not here!’ When enlightened pacifists try to abolish war by rationalistic arguments they are merely ridiculous, but when the armed masses themselves bring weapons of reason into action against a war, that means that the war is about over.

A steady exodus of Westerners from Petrograd testified to the growing sense of foreboding. American war photographer, Donald Thompson, left at the end of the week to catch the train to Vladivostok. He contrasted the euphoria and revolutionary optimism five months earlier with its relapse into bitterness and despair:

I see Russia going to hell, as a country never went before.

Russia felt like a lost cause just then. In truth, no nation was wholly insulated from the volatility which total war imposed upon its people. Ethel Cooper, the Australian musician, was still stuck in Leipzig and wrote to her sister on 12th August in alarming terms about what was happening there:

There is an outbreak of something here that they don’t call cholera, but which is certainly an extremely infectious dysentery. Dr Knopf tells me that the hospitals are crammed, and people are dying of it by hundreds.

Princess Evelyn Blucher, the Englishwoman in Berlin, was more preoccupied by the food shortages afflicting the Germans:

…The food controllers in a panic promised… extra meat at a cheap price, to make up for the curtailed bread rations, and ordered all the milk cows in certain districts to be slaughtered. This promptly took place, to the great rage of the agriculturists, who indignantly opposed the ‘madness of the order.’ But it was too late, the order had been carried out, and for a week or two there was such a surplus of meat that it actually had to be given or thrown away, to prevent its spoiling in the hot weather.

The result is now that milk is running short, and there is renewed grumbling…

A dramatic portrait of Countess Blucher

Rather haughtily, perhaps, she seems to have considered the Germans too quiescent to do much more than grumble:

…riots and disturbances do now and then take place, though they are hushed up. The Germans are such a patient and long-suffering race that they do not as yet realize their own power, and the Prussian precept, ‘Es ist verboten,’ has been so drummed into them that they accept all regulations and orders without any further demur. I do believe that if they were bidden to go out and eat grass, they would obey in herds, without any further question.