BACK IN 1914, following the outbreak of war, the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton had offered to abandon his forthcoming trip to Antarctica and to dedicate his ship and its crew to the war effort. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was having none of it and had ordered the trip to go ahead at once. The style and bravura of Shackleton had evidently touched his easily overheated imagination.
Now, on 20 May 1916, Shackleton reached a whaling station in South Georgia, following an epic journey of 800 miles. He was seeking help for his team which had been stranded on Elephant Island, following the breakup in the ice of his ship Endurance. He asked the Norwegian manager when the war had ended. “The war is not over,” came the reply. “Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.”
These words seem richly apposite for a week in which Verdun continued to consume lives without an obvious rationale save that of attrition. Fighting focused in Avocourt Wood and on the notorious Côte (Hill) 304. It can be hard work making much sense of the rapid tallies of gains and losses — on 20 May, following a German attack on Mort Homme, they captured the summit of Hill 295, but the next day the British regained a mine crater on Vimy Ridge and the French took the quarries of Haudromont and two trenches on the Esne Haucourt road. The German attack on the western slopes of Mort Homme succeeded at the very same time.
Put like that, it does all sound rather mad. The desperate battle for Hill 304 certainly left an indelible impact on one French machine-gunner:
The pounding was continuous and terrifying. We had never experienced anything its like during the whole campaign. The earth around us quaked, and we were lifted and tossed about. Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trench no longer existed, it had been filled with earth. We were crouching in shell-holes, where the mud thrown up by each new explosion covered us more and more. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died while splashing us with their blood. It really was a living hell.
At Etretat hospital, the British nurse Edith Appleton continued to cope with the terrible injuries occasioned by modern mechanised war. Her diary entry for May 19 makes not of “a convoy of 300-odd … Some of the men are very badly wounded, and now in one ward is a poor youngster with both legs broken, both arms wounded, one eye shot out and the other badly damaged.”
Meanwhile, British commanders were discreetly preparing for their own offensive. Given the scale of carnage in Verdun, a part of the mind revolts at the logic of extending it. But one route to salvation for the French lay in the British conjuring up an effective diversion. Haig was acutely conscious of the disproportionate burden of loss and suffering shouldered by the poilus, even if such a sentiment seldom made its way into the Northcliffe press.
The logistics leading up to an attack of this scale were mind-boggling. Hankey recorded:
They ranged from the local preparations opposite the front of the attack to the adaptation thereto of our military and foreign policy all over the world … They involved rest after the long winter in the trenches, the preparations and intensive training of the troops selected for the attack, arrangements for their unobtrusive concentration and accommodation … the accumulation of vast dumps of ammunition for the guns and howitzers, the massing of the batteries, the preparation of elaborate communications by road and rail in order to maintain the stream of munitions and supplies for a prolonged battle; the provision of aerodromes and the concentration therein of the aircraft required to maintain aerial supremacy; water supply, drafts of men to replace casualties, dressing-stations, sanitation and a thousand other details.
As Hankey, pointed out, an additional burden was the need for
secrecy and concealment from the lynx eyes of the German spies and aircraft. Away behind the front dumps and depots, sheds and railways, hospitals and rest camps had to be brought into existence right away down to the base ports, where elaborate arrangements were necessary to avoid stagnation and congestion.
The British were generally rather good at this kind of thing. “It was all extraordinarily well done, especially when the comparative rawness of many of the staffs and the inconvenience of sea transport are taken into consideration”, Hankey considered.
For a certain type of mind, there were fascinations in fashioning this scale of enterprise, but they lay well outside the purview of the regular soldier who simply had to square up eyeballing the enemy, doing the fighting and dying. The German Grenadier, Rudolf Koch, expressed a simple but common view:
The soldier does his duty and does not question why. It was duty alone that held us upright and together the whole time. One cannot speak of enthusiasm in such a place; everyone wishes they were a thousand miles away, and the easy wound that will get them home is everyone’s secret desire, from the company commander to the lowest grenadier.
Except, of course, that there was nothing simple about that. One tell-tale sign of low spirits came when soldiers gave up believing in their own future. A German officer, Paul Hub, severely wounded the previous May, wrote bleakly to his fiancee, Maria on 17 May, dampening her hopes of getting married after two years of engagement because, as he explained, of “my worry about becoming a cripple”. Hub, who had already lost two brothers in the war, was worried that he might be crippled in the fighting with terrible consequences:
If you were tied to me, what would your life be like? I know you would give up everything for me, as I would for you, but the sacrifice would be too great.
The daily routine of bombardments, raids, wiring parties, with the inevitable concomitants of death and appalling injury, hardened attitudes. Norman Taylor, a young officer with the 1st Surrey Rifles wrote to his father:
I am now beginning to realise the genuine hatred of Germans one gets after a year or so of this, which one cannot understand when one first comes out. You have no idea what a subtle thrill there is on a good moonlight night, a Hun working party perhaps faintly silhouetted and opening a sudden burst of fire with a gun on them.
In this context, the German ancestry of the British royal family occasionally reared its head. One of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, founder and president of the YWCA Women’s Auxiliary Force, came this week to visit British troops in France and arrange entertainments for them. Born and domiciled in England, her loyalties were irreproachable — but the fact that one of her brothers, Prince Albert, served with a Prussian regiment raised eyebrows and a few hackles.
Edith Appleton notes on her diary on May 22:
Yesterday we were inspected by Princess Victoria — I hope she is not a spy! Her having a brother with the Germans does put one off a bit … It gives one a feeling of nausea to think she has a brother doing his best for our enemies.
In the better-informed circles in Britain circle, the Turks may have been hated even more than the Germans. The misery of those troops who had been besieged at Kut was destined to endure long after their surrender. Negotiations had taken place concerning the care of the wounded and the possibility of an exchange of prisoners but, in the ruthless currency of warfare, Indian soldiers were on offer, not British officers.
Edward Mousley recorded:
The Turkish authorities seem determined not to send any British officer back if it can be helped. More than one who was rejected by the Turkish medical officer as not sufficiently ill to warrant exchange has succumbed. A poor fellow in the next ward who has been groaning for days died yesterday … Four [officers] were selected in all. By no means the worst cases, while men with legs in splints, smashed thighs, and shot backs, one of whom could not sit or stand up, were rejected.
The Turks revelled in their victory over the great British Empire. Ramming home the point, fit Turkish prisoners had been exchanged for sick and wounded Indian soldiers.
Demoralisation and probable death were the portion of those who remained. Officers were transported into captivity by boat, but other ranks endured appalling conditions on the forced march across the desert, beaten by Arab and Kurdish guards and nearly starving. Prisoners were humiliated and paraded through streets while being abused and spat upon. The first batch of prisoners reached Baghdad on 17 May where eleven British medical staff set up a primitive hospital for the sick and wounded, helped only by some French nuns and with assistance from the American consul.
The day before, on 16 May, the British, French and Russians signed the famous Sykes-Picot plan. This was a secret scheme to divide the Arab world after the war. This planned for a time when, liberated from Ottoman control, Arab lands would be divided into three spheres of interest, with the possibility of the establishment of a Jewish homeland too. There would be also an independent Arab state or Confederation of Arab States — less generous than it sounded, insofar as the designated area consisted mainly of sparsely-populated desert.
Such hubris! The bold vision would continue to be undermined, often ridiculed, in the decades which lay ahead. The immediate present bore cruel witness to the inability of the British to do more in Asia Minor than lose battles and suffer at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
Francis Yeats-Brown bore witness:
I saw some hundred men, prisoners from Kut and mostly Indians, gathered on the platform [at Bozanti station]: one of them was sitting on this heap of sacks: he was sitting here rocking himself to and fro in great pain and sorrow, for a guard had struck him with a rifle butt and broken his arm. Not only his bone but the spirit within him was shattered: no hope remained: he had done that which is most terrible to a Hindu, for he had eaten the flesh of cows and broken the ordinances of his caste. His companions had died in the desert without the lustral rites prescribed by the Vedas, and he would soon die also, a body defiled, to be cast into outer darkness. For a time the terror of that alien brain was mine: I shared its doom and knew its death.
The fallout from battles in the Near East was being experienced by thousands of families back at home, not least that of the Prime Minister. His daughter-in-law Cynthia was deeply concerned for her brother Ego. Her diary entry for May 19 records:
We have no idea where he is. There seems no reasonable doubt that he must have started with them from the battlefield, since all the bodies and badly wounded have been identified. As it was a twelve-hour march to the railway, the assumption is that he cannot have been very badly wounded, but of course he may have got worse and been obliged to be left somewhere — it’s horrid not knowing….Apparently the poor Yeomanry made a magnificent fight of it, standing up against seven to one for about fourteen hours with only one machine gun. There was some disastrous headquarters blunder…
And, to her great credit, she was evidently able to step outside her own immediate concerns:
Went to Downing Street for lunch. P.M. just back from Ireland, looking very rubicund and pleased with his joy-riding. I sat beside a poor blinded officer who had been at the wonderful St Dunstan’s institution for the blind. He was most pathetic and very nice, making my heart ache. I had to cut up his food for him, and there was an awful moment when he thought his empty plate had got food on it.
The slightly barbed reference to her father-in-law serves as a reminder that tensions remained high in Dublin — especially as more details had now reached the public concerning the summary ‘justice’ meted out to the rebels.
Veteran Tom Clarke refused one priest’s counsel to apologise for his actions, telling his wife that he had told him, “I am not sorry for what I had done. I gloried in it and the men who had been with me.” The fact the men had said the rosary, received the sacraments and been anointed after death (except the first three as the British had refused to allow priests to be with them) had a great impact in Catholic Ireland. Sean MacDiarmada had told a fellow prisoner after the first executions that had the British not shot them “we would be presented as a lot of poltroons who dared challenge the power of England. I’ll be shot and I hope I will be.”
The British had arrested 3,430 men and 79 women in the immediate aftermath of the rising. Nearly 1500 were released within a fortnight suggesting that British intelligence was, to say the least, less than a precision tool. 1,841 men were then deported to England, without trial, and distributed among the prison system. A further 190 men and one woman, Countess Markewiecz, were sentenced to death, all commuted to differing terms of imprisonment or penal servitude.
There had been plenty of Irishmen and women who had been horrified at the height of the rising. But the arbitrariness of British repression wrought a change on hearts and minds, not least within the Church. General Maxwell had identified two younger priests especially critical of the British and urged Bishop Edward O’Dwyer to remove them. O’Dwyer’s response, in a letter of 17 May accused Maxwell of being a ‘military dictator’ and, along with everyone else, referred to rushed executions of ringleaders:
You took great care that no plea of mercy should interpose on behalf of the poor fellows who surrendered to you in Dublin. The first information we got of their fate was the announcement that they had been shot in cold blood.
The Germans were delighted by this mortifying display of Britain’s inability to appeal to people they claimed as their own. Deliberately appealing to the troubled loyalties faced by many soldiers in Irish regiments in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, they had stuck up a large notice board opposite the Royal Munster Fusiliers: “Irishmen! Heavy uproar in Ireland; English guns are firing at your wifes (sic) and children! 1st May 1916.”
As his daughter-in-law had divined, Asquith had thoroughly enjoyed his visit to Dublin: “I myself went one day partly on foot through a considerable crowd, and was received … with remarkable warmth” he wrote. He was neither the first nor last Prime Minister whose head would be turned by an unrepresentative crowd.
With jaw-dropping complacency, he continued: “There have been fewer bad blunders than one might have expected with the soldiery for a whole week in exclusive charge.” And, while visiting Richmond Barracks, he indulged himself in a rather theatrical display of noblesse oblige, ordering that suspected rebels should be given the best food possible “regardless of expense”, enraging those set to guard them. A prisoner later recalled “eggs and ham for breakfast, tins of jam, genuine butter and porridge”.
Asquith had keener problems even nearer home. On 16 May, the new Military Service Bill, extending compulsion to married men, passed the House of Commons. The East London Federation of Suffragettes now released a pamphlet which asked:
[Do] mothers realise what this means? Do they realise that henceforth every boy born to an English mother will be branded with the mark of Cain? For let nobody be deceived by this lying tale of conscription for the operation of the war. It has come to stay.
That was a prophesy which did not come to pass, but it reflected widespread fears at a time in which the forces of hatred seemed right on the edge of being under control. The philosopher Bertrand Russell had written a pamphlet for the No Conscription Fellowship back in April, and as a consequence six pacifists were tried and sentenced to varying degrees of imprisonment with hard labour for its distribution. Indignant, Russell wrote to The Times on 17 May, informing its readers “that I am the author of this leaflet, and that, if anyone is to be prosecuted, I am the person primarily responsible”. He would later write to a friend:
The sum total of my crime was that I said two years’ hard labour was an excessive punishment for the offence of having a conscientious objection to participation in war.
His wish was swiftly granted. Prosecution followed and Russell was summoned to appear on 5 June. The fate of other conscientious objectors could not have encouraged him: many were imprisoned, their sufferings intensified by the pariah-like status with which they were accorded by an indignant public.
On 18 May, Kiffin Rockwell, a pilot in the newly-formed Escadrille Americaine, the squadron of American volunteers in France which had come into being only five days earlier, downed an enemy aircraft. The “kill” was an American first, and most of his countrymen were thrilled when news of it reached home. So too were the French and British — anything which might seduce his countrymen to commit to the war was to be welcomed.
Welcome, that was, according to the perverted logic of a world at war. One’s mind is cast back to the laconic analysis of the Norwegian manager of the whale station: “Europe is mad. The world is mad.”