Hard lessons learned

WAR CHANGED EVERYTHING. War changed nothing. On 18th November, Haig closed down the Somme front.

The nation was bereaved. It had been the scene of a scale of loss and of suffering defying any known language. The 141 days of attritional conflict had inflicted casualties which amounted, according to official figures, to 419,654 British and Dominion casualties. Of these, 127,751 British soldiers died between 1st July and 20th November (an average of 893 a day). 204,253 French and between 650,000 and 680,000 German men were killed or missing, wounded or prisoners of war.

Statistics do not tell the half of it. To the men who had taken part and survived, the Somme was the site of a battle experience way out of the reach of words  –  and the backdrop for the scything down of friends and brothers-in-arms. Back home, it was not only families and lovers who mourned, but whole villages and towns. The Somme was the killing ground of the Pals’ Battalions which had been formed in those first heady weeks and months of the war. You fought harder when your pals were alongside, but you grieved more bitterly when they went.

The final four days were marked by bitter fighting, with the 51st Division suffering 2,200 casualties. But there was a result: Beaumont Hamel had been captured and the British also took Beaucourt, advancing to the outskirts of Grandcourt by 17th/18th November.

Although later generations chose often to ridicule it, Haig’s belief  –  that the offensive had been successful rather than not  –  feels right. The three main objectives for which the battle had been fought had been achieved, he declared: the relief of Verdun, holding the German forces on the Western Front and wearing down the enemy’s strength. Perhaps provocatively, he insisted that “Any one of these three results is in itself sufficient to justify the Somme battle.”

Field Marshal Haig inspecting the 51st Highland Division

Field Marshal Haig inspecting the 51st Highland Division

The consensus of modern scholarship broadly echoes this thesis  –  a major shift after decades in which the Field Marshal was the object of bitter denigration. It is incontrovertibly correct that the hard lessons learned on the Somme were indispensable to the Allies’ future prosecution of the war. And, as the veteran Charles Carrington observed: “The German Army was never to fight so well again, but the British Army went on to fight better.”

According to Captain von Hentig of the German General Staff:

The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army, and of the faith in the infallibility of the German leadership, dug by British industry and its shells… The German Supreme Command, which entered the war with enormous superiority, was defeated by the superior technique of its opponents. It had fallen behind in the application of destructive forces, and was compelled to throw division after division without protection against them into the cauldron of the battle of annihilation.

Not that the Allies had enjoyed a notably better time than the enemy. The appalling conditions and weather endured by soldiers of all armies during the Somme offensive, especially in the Ancre area during its final days and weeks, was described memorably in the Canadians’ Official History of the war:

Here, in a wilderness of mud, holding water-logged trenches or shell-hole posts, accessible only by night, the infantry abode in conditions which might be likened to those of earth-worms, rather than of human kind. Our vocabulary is not adapted to describe such an existence, because it is outside experience for which words are normally required. Mud, for the men in the line, was no mere inorganic nuisance and obstacle. It took on an aggressive, wolf-like guise, and like a wolf could pull down and swallow the lonely wanderer in the darkness.

The contribution of the Dominions had indeed been pivotal to Allied action. The Royal Naval Division had also proved its mettle during the battle on the Ancre. The PM’s son, “Oc” Asquith, was now back home recuperating from shell-induced hearing damage, and wrote to his friend Freyberg that he was “very anxious to see the casualty lists. I do hope we got off reasonably lightly in killed at any rate… I can’t tell you how flat I feel at not having been on it. It’s too bloody. I hope no serious harm has come to any of the old guard, officers or men.”

"Oc" Asquith

“Oc” Asquith

He hoped in vain. He would soon hear of the RND’s heavy losses and that Carrington, his soldier servant, “the most devoted brave little fellow”, had died of wounds aged 19. Oc’s close friend, the brilliant musician, “Cleg” Kelly, whose “Elegy” for Rupert Brooke would prove immortal, had been “shot in the back of the head opposite a dug-out in the German 3rd line”.

A war whose boundaries extended into three continents never stopped spawning new and unexpected narratives. While dazed survivors of the Somme hesitantly emerged from their dugouts on 18th November, the tall and handsome Captain Louis Robert de Beauchamp piloted a Sopwith Camel over the Alps in order to bomb Munich. It was an act of impossible audacity, and executed without incident. He then landed near Venice, strode into the reception hall of the Danieli hotel  –  dressed in red trousers and carrying a machine gun  –  and calmly requested soap, a razor and a bed for the night.

Captain Louis Robert de Beauchamp

Captain Louis Robert de Beauchamp

Beauchamp, as his sensitive picture suggests, was the very antithesis of Lord Flasheart. Full of dignity and calm panache, he was a worthy hero of France. But he neither courted fame, nor had long in which to to enjoy it. A month later, he was killed.

Any satisfaction which Allied leaders might have drawn from the campaign in the West was muted by the catastrophic fortunes of the Romanian army in the East. Its retreat south of the Vulkan Pass lasted most of the week, climaxing on 17th November in the Battle of Targu Jiu in which the Germans broke up what little was left of the Romanian front.

In the South, fortunes were looking up for the Entente, however, as their advance on Monastir proceeded apace: the Germans and Bulgarians nervously evacuated the city on 18th November, which was taken by the French on the following day.



Here too, the derring-do of a spirited individual captured the headlines. On the cold, snowy night of 15th November, the Englishwoman-turned-Serbian-Army-Captain, Flora Sandes, was ensconced with her compatriots in the Fourth Company on the slopes of Hill 1212 by way of a prelude to an assault on the Bulgarian positions above. Only 500 men remained in her regiment from a strength of 2,000 only three months before. At dawn the following day, the Bulgarians stormed the position under cover of heavy fog, launching bombs at the defenders. One of those gravely injured was Sandes.

For a time she lay unconscious  – on exposed ground, bleeding into the snow, with shrapnel wounds in her back and side, a broken arm and blast lacerations. Her companion-in-arms, Lieutenant Dodic, braved the gunfire to drag her behind the nearest rock and carried her down the hillside. When the stretcher-bearers arrived, they sliced through her clothing to bandage her wounds, gave her brandy and a cigarette. Her response, from the point of view of any news editor, was manna from heaven: “It takes a lot to kill me. Wait and see, I’ll be back again in ten days.”

Having been conveyed to the divisional ambulance at Dobroveni she found herself being warmly greeted, later recording that they “congratulate me on being wounded; for in those days it was considered an honour to be wounded in the defence of your country”.

A postcard of Flora Sandes

A postcard of Flora Sandes

Never mind the reception party  –  she was lucky to be alive at all. When the Serbians recaptured Hill 1212, they found the bodies of ten of their soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Bulgarians lying near the spot where she had been wounded: their throats had been cut from ear to ear.

An American journalist, Herbert Corey, visited her in hospital and concluded, rather patronisingly:

She is at once a good soldier and womanly woman. Most woman soldiers — it is only here in the Near East there are woman soldiers — are either freaks or harridans. Miss Sands [sic] is neither. “Why did a woman like that go in for soldiering?” I asked a friend. The friend is an English officer. He considered for a time. Then–“Um,” said he. “Did you ever live in Croydon?”

The idea that war was fun deserves no oxygen. But humour obtrudes. A diary entry this week about No-Man’s-Land, by Private G.W. Durham of the 3rd Canadian Division Cyclists, has a pawky Anglo-Saxon feel:

Many little things amuse us — such as the musical machine-gunner (Hun of course) who played tunes on his gun. He tried to play the Maple Leaf on his gun one night, we had tolerated him till then as a comedian but this was too much. We organized a raid and took his gun from him, and lest he should be blamed for neglect of duty, brought him with us. Then there is the trench cat, a strict neutral, we call him “Wilson” because we found him asleep on a haversack with a rat rifling the contents! “Too proud to fight”. He walks across No-Man’s-Land at will and knows the meal times on both sides.

Humour and, thank God, humanity. An article this week written for the American magazine, Brooklyn Life, by the Chicago heiress, May Borden, also showcases much that was admirable. Having worked with the French Red Cross, Borden had persuaded the reluctant “Papa” Joffre to let her serve the Sixth Army under General Fayolle in the French sector by setting up, and financing, the 2,000-bed hospital L’Hôpital d’Evacuation, five kilometres behind the firing line at Bray-sur-Somme, and the most important military hospital in the French army.

The hospital was up and running, and always packed. But she needed more funds: the prosaic items of hospital care  –  the nightclothes, towels, pillows and hot-water bottles, “comfort bags” with tobacco pipes, soap and puzzles  –  all cost money. She sought to make up the shortfall, in effect, by telling her story in a way to excite compassion and loosen coffers:

The guns are pounding. An attack is announced for tonight. No one of all our staff of a hundred surgeons will go to bed. The struggle is ceaseless. An inflow of men covered with blood, men without faces, without arms, without legs, men raving in delirium. Dying in your arms as you take off their clothes…

I did not count the number who died as I knelt beside their stretchers. Great strong broken men who apologised in whispers for the trouble they gave in dying; slender boys whom I held in my arms while they cried for their mothers and who mistook me for some anxious woman I would never see.

May Borden

May Borden

This kind of journalism can teeter on the exploitative, but there was nothing tacky about May Borden. Having been told to expect a mortality rate of 30 per cent at Bray-sur-Somme, she and her team came close to halving that and the hospital was commended for the best service in the area. She was also deeply attuned to the psychic exhaustion of those who fought, as well as of their physical frailty:

Just as you send your clothes to the laundry and mend them when they come back, so we send our men to the trenches and mend them when they come back again… We send our men to the war again and again, just as long as they will stand it; just until they are dead, and then we throw them into the ground.

In the British sector, hard-pressed surgeons were often working simultaneously at several operating tables, moving from one to the next. Less qualified assistants were delegated to handle tasks like stitching and dressing wounds. Captain the Reverend Leonard Pearson recalled his efforts at No 44 Casualty Clearing Station:

I spent most of my time doing anaesthetics. I had no right to be doing this, of course, but we were simply so rushed. We couldn’t get the wounded into the hospital quickly enough, and the journey from the battlefield was terrible for these poor lads. It was a question of operating as quickly as possible. If they had had to wait their turn in the normal way… It would have been too late… Of course, I had my other duties as well — mainly burials at that period. At the very worst times I was burying over a hundred a day.

Compassion was not limitless, nor unconditional. But the instinct to be mindful of those who were dead, or dying, or bereaved was seldom absent for long. The fact thousands of soldiers who had fought on the Somme were now listed simply as “missing” added immensely to the heartache of relatives and friends. Red Cross workers and volunteers tried to track them down, visiting hospitals to glean some information from survivors.This delicate and important task gave onlookers a tiny glimpse into much that was never spoken about.

Sister Henrietta Hall in St Luke’s Military Hospital in Bradford remembered:

We had a very nice man who came round trying to find the missing men. He was a lawyer in Bradford. That was his war work and he used to come every Sunday without fail to talk to the boys — those that could talk — trying to find out if they knew the missing men or knew what had happened to them, and very often he did find some of their comrades.

The trouble was that it did tend to upset the boys a little bit. It took them back to those experiences just when they were beginning to forget them. All the same, I often used to think that it was a good thing for them to talk about it rather than bottle it up, because it always came out in some way and they used to have dreadful nightmares.

This is a very affecting piece  –  not least because it bores right down into an area which agonised civilians. Soldiers were defined by their manliness and fortitude  –  a one-dimensional profile, a cameo, which was what it took to reconcile those at home to their pain and apprehension. Truth was  –  when soldiers returned, that carapace of unflinching toughness was sometimes torn aside, as surely as flesh was ripped and bones were broken.

Compassion, mainly, was not lacking. Time was, however, and sometimes also imagination. In retrospect it appears unlikely that anything Asquith could have done by now would not have invited censure. The desperate losses at the Somme hit too many homes for the public to have remained unaware of what was happening in France, let alone unmoved. The Prime Minister, it was widely believed, was disengaged, self-indulgent, and ripe for replacement.

In these circumstances, the ineptitude of the government’s exhortations to its citizens to eat less was especially tactless. It had provoked a wave of public odium which rattled the already-nervous PM and his colleagues. On 15th November, a Food Controller was appointed. Evidently, rationing was just around the corner. Five days later, milk and flour regulations were issued by British Board of Trade. This level of intervention and state dirigisme was a novelty to the British who had generally been governed with a light touch, and it also undermined most of the shibboleths of liberalism.

Asquith was readier to water down party dogma than to hand over the keys to Downing Street. His daughter-in-law had a well-informed source in the Liberal MP Harold Baker, known as “Bluetooth”, as her diary entry for 15th November indicates:

Bluetooth full of political gossip. London appears to be seething with intrigue and politicians behaving like “politicians”. Lloyd George is hand in glove with [Sir Edward] Carson and Winston [Churchill], and they are doing their best to unseat the P.M. and throw out the Government… Their plot is to unseat the P.M. and Lloyd George is to be Prime Minister and Winston is to go to the War Office…

I asked him if he diagnosed Lloyd George as pure knave… He says he is loathed by all the Liberals now — in fact he is only popular with the dukes, an amusing whirligig of time. He is hated by the army. When he was in France, he thought he would suck up to General Foch by praising French artillery at the expense of the English, which he said was rotten. Foch was disgusted by such toadyism and telephoning Haig told of him, describing him as a sale cochon.

Political gossip and intrigue seem tawdry when considered alongside the terrors and suffering of those who fought and died. There were politicians who seemed keener, we might say today, to talk the talk rather than walk the walk. An impeccable exemplar of self-effacing action was, of course, the superbly capable Nurse Appleton at Etretat. Her diary entries this week  –  she had been compiling them for her mother  –  would be the last for her 18 months. They are also a touching reminder that she, like so many others at war, continued always to draw deep solace from the landscape around her  – from light, shade and water  – and people:

November 14 — It was so strange this morning, I was sitting at my window in the dark, drinking my tea and brushing my hair. The washerwomen were already at work by the dim light of dawn, washing at the sea’s edge, and the men were drawing the day’s supply of water from the tap. There was so much going on in the dark.

November 15 — This morning at 5.30 the place reminded me of a fairytale. There was brilliant blue moonlight, and the stars were glittering, the air frosty. Again the washerwomen were all at work in the shore, and the water-carriers were filling their containers for the day. It all looked so eerie in the moonlight and everything cast sharp black shadows on the ground.

Edith Appleton

Edith Appleton

Her sensibilities could be jarred, however, by behaviour she considered boorish or otherwise untoward. Also on November 14th she wrote that:

The place is still seething with Australians as only 15 went yesterday to convalescent camp. On Sunday night they broke out all over the town, taking no notice of the police. They went to the cafes and generally made nuisances of themselves. Two arrived home next morning dead drunk — they are horrid men.

Things seemed a little better the next day:

November 15 — We are still seething with Australians — I have 100, but they are getting less unruly now, thank goodness. Horrid — but getting less unruly…


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