Hats Off

LET US NOW praise frightened men. Early in the morning of 15th August, Arthur Lapointe, of the 22nd French-Canadian Battalion in Passchendale, took to his diary:

4.15 a.m.: Only ten minutes now before Zero. The horizon shows a line of grey. Dawn is coming, and my heart is filled suddenly with bitterness when I realize that the day may be my last. In a few minutes we attack, and we shall need all our courage and skill to drive the enemy from his trenches. A shell bursts in our trench, breaking the leg of a man a few yards way. Stretcher-bearers apply a dressing and carry him to the rear. ‘There goes a man who won’t die in the attack,’ remarks a soldier, almost enviously.

Our company commander, Capt. J. H. Roy, appears. ‘Ten rounds in your magazines and fix bayonets!’ he orders. There is a click of steel on steel. Only two minutes now remain. Two minutes −  in which a thousand thoughts mingle in my brain. The thought of the battlefield, where I may lie in a few moments weltering in blood; the sweet thought of our beloved land across the sea; and the thought of those I hold most dear. They do not know that in another moment I must face danger, even death. Yesterday, I believed I could die with something approaching indifference. Now I am aware of an intense desire to live. I would give anything to know beyond doubt that I had even two whole days ahead of me. Yesterday, I had made all preparation for the voyage from which no traveller returns. But now I am unwilling to go. I see things − differently than I did yesterday.

The prospect of ignominy, of the firing-squad, and the urge to be worthy in the company of men alongside, seem to have reconciled otherwise ordinary men to exceptional danger. They accepted their lot, but perhaps rather less willingly than the folks at home might have liked to believe. Regret and anger both permeate the diary of 2nd Lieutenant Edwin Vaughan as he prepared to for the attack at St Julien, scheduled for 16th August:

August 14 …after lunch we packed up, and taking various little zigzag roads in an easterly direction for about two miles, we found ourselves at Dambre Farm near Vlamertinghe. Here we marched into a little field furrowed with deep channels full of water with knolls and shell-holes everywhere, and a few leaky old tents into which we crammed the troops who were in a rotten temper − induced chiefly by the rain… settled down to a terrible night of anticipation…

August 15 I could not sleep, but lay awake thinking and wondering about the attack, fancying myself blown to bits, or lying out on the wire with a terrible wound. It was not until dawn that I dozed off and slept fitfully until 9 a.m. The whole day we were busy, examining gas-masks, rifles, Lewis guns, field dressings, iron rations, identity discs etc., and trying to joke with the troops despite the gnawing apprehension that was numbing our minds.

Preparing for battle: men of the West Yorkshire Regiment, 1917

It was better by far to have something to do than nothing:

I changed into Tommy’s uniform and tried to prepare for every contingency − spare laces and string in one pocket, spare pencils in another, scissors in my field dressing pochette, rations and cigarettes in my haversack with my maps, small message maps stuffed into my respirator satchel, and a pocketful of revolver ammunition… We handed our money and decent cigarette cases over to CQMS Braham so that if anything happened to us Jerry would not have them.

And, in extremis, Vaughan clung hungrily to ancient comforts:

I also saw that my rosary was sewn into my tunic with the sovereign that Marie had given me for luck, and that my holy medals were firmly attached with my identity discs to my braces.

The attack itself was horrendous:

I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage. The effect was so striking that I felt no more that dreadful dread of the shellfire, but followed them calmly into the crashing, spitting hell until we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful!

Knowledge that, at this supreme moment, one had not succumbed to fear was experienced by many soldiers as a blessed relief. But, as Vaughan’s eyes began further to take in the scene, there were fresh horrors to be endured:

…from the heap of flesh that had been [Corporal] Breeze I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two… He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer…

Later, through rain and darkness, they came across a derelict tank and thought of using it as headquarters:

As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door…

Cynthia Asquith’s husband, Beb, knew all about such horrors. He had just arrived home for ten days’ leave, having spent the last fortnight as a Forward Observation Officer in the heart of the battle of Third Ypres. Her diary records:

20 August …He has had a ghastly time, both for danger and discomfort − continually in such smells that he had to puff a pipe ceaselessly or be sick, and never coming out of the line for a proper rest. He is undoubtedly… exhilarated by some aspects of the fighting, but on the whole is very, very war-weary, and, I am afraid, loathes the idea of returning.

2nd Lieutenant Montague Moore, VC

The offensive continued to spawn heroes. Six VCs were awarded between 14th and 20th August, often linked with the storming of the concrete block-houses. In the last of these, on 20th August, 2nd Lieutenant Montague Moore of the Hampshire Regiment − a virtual boy of 21 − led 70 men in an assault near Ypres, but encountered such fierce resistance that by the time he reached the objective only five men remained. Undaunted, he then bombed a dug-out and captured 28 prisoners, two machine-guns and a light field gun. Sixty reinforcements arrived and, despite constant shell fire, he held the position for 36 hours.

Block-houses, or pillboxes, traumatised the British. It was from these that the enemy rained down death and destruction. Yet while they seemed impenetrable to an attacker, the Germans shared fully in the terror.

Captain Kalepsky of the 86th Infantry Regiment recalled:

The bunkers were reasonably strong and could withstand even direct hits from some of the heavy enemy shells, but owing to the ground conditions in the Flanders area they could not be erected over a strong foundation. When a couple of heavy shells opened up a crater close to them, they would lean over, sometimes with the entrance down, with the soldiers trapped inside. There was no way of rescuing them, of course, and we suffered a rather heavy number of fatalities in this way − and the thought of the painfully slow death of those entombed haunted us all.

Australian soldiers in 1917 at a captured German concrete pillbox

Leutnant Felix Lubinski, a Company Commander in the 74th Infantry Regiment, noted:

Life in the concrete bunkers is hell… Officers and other ranks share the same lousy plank beds… The plague of flies, grown fat on the corpses that surround us, is terrible… The old military discipline was gradually slackening… The unexpected prolongation of the War, constant shortage of reserves, poor food conditions and the inexperience of the younger officers and NCO − all added to the discernible deterioration of morale.

Poor German morale only counted for something when it could be measured in terms of military breakthrough. Haig’s assessment that the German Army was on the edge of collapse was simply not borne out by the evidence. Captain Goring MC from the Yorkshire Regiment, believed that the real enemy was the incessant rain:

Well, the first thing that happened was that I lost my platoon. I waded across, got through the gap in the wire, turned round and there was nobody there… What had happened was that they had started to cross the swamp and… there was a bit of flooded ground about three foot wide. Well, I’d hopped it, but of course my platoon went straight into it…

Well-hopped. Rifleman E.E. Winterbourne had a different experience:

Beyond the trench it was soft going, but it seemed to be perfectly good ground… All of a sudden I put one foot down and the next moment I was through the earth and in a bog up to my armpits.

Testimony like this was causing serious jitters at HQ.

The incontrovertible military success of the week belonged to the French who, on 20th August, mounted a renewed offensive around Verdun area, and took some 6,000 prisoners. Haig remarked that “This defeat should have a great effect on the enemy because they thought the French Army had become a negligible quantity. Ludendorff agreed with him, concluding that “The French Army was once more capable of the offensive.”

As it turned out, they were both quite wrong. Could anything repay this outpouring of blood and guts? General Gough, unlike Haig, could see no point in the offensive continuing.

On 15th August, the British attacked on a wide front north-west of Lens to Bois Hugo, north-east of Loos, and penetrated the German positions to a depth of one mile. The following day, 16th August, the combination of morning mist and smoke from the continuous shelling meant that no aerial reconnaissance of German gun positions was possible. Troops had to advance on a nine-mile front north of the Ypres−Menin road without artillery support. In the event they captured all objectives, including the ruined village of Langemarck, as well as 1,800 prisoners. Haig insisted that “the day closed as a decided success for the Allies. A wide gap had been made in the old German third line system, and over 2,100 prisoners and some thirty guns had been captured.”

British troops near Langemarck, 18th August, 1917

But the Germans still counter-attacked ferociously. One of their victims was the 44-year-old Jesuit Chaplain with the Irish Fusiliers, Fr William Doyle. Renowned for his bravery under fire, and for his sensitive and dedicated ministry to the spiritual needs of all men (Catholics and Protestants alike), Doyle had already cheated death on numerous occasions but still refused to stay out of the danger zone.

Two days earlier, he had written to his father:

I think what I have written will give you the same confidence which I feel, that my old armchair up in Heaven is not ready yet, and I do not want you to be uneasy about me. I am all the better for these couple of days of rest and am quite on my fighting legs again.

Fr William Doyle, SJ, MC

The fighting legs were unequal to the occasion, however. Fr Doyle was blown to bits by a shell on 16th August in the attack on Frezenberg Ridge. The war correspondent, Philip Gibbs, would write:

The Orangemen will not forget a certain Catholic chaplain who lies in a soldier’s grave in that sinister plain beyond Ypres. He went forward and back over the battlefields with bullets whistling about him, seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them to give them absolution, walking with Death with a smile on his face, watched by his men with a reverence and a kind of awe. His familiar figure was seen and welcomed by hundreds of Irishmen who lay in that bloody place. Each time he came back across the field he was begged to remain in comparative safety. Smilingly he shook his head, and went out again into the storm. He would not desert his boys in their agony.

By comparison, the travails of the Russian imperial family seem an agreeable excursion into a world of privilege and fantasy. The Tsar’s diary concerning their departure this week from Tsarskoe Selo, and their journey to Tobolsk in Siberia, leave one in no doubt, however, that this was a time of acute uncertainty:

14 August There were several false alarms, when we put on our coats and went out onto the balcony, only to return back into the hall. It grew quite light. We had tea, and at last, Kerensky appeared and said we could go. We got into our two cars and drove to Alexandrovsky station. From the park we were escorted by a cavalry unit. At the train we were met by Tatischev [his aide-de-camp] and two commissars from the government who were to accompany us to Tobolsk. We set out towards Petrograd with a beautiful sunrise, and joined the Northern line by a branch track. We left Tsarskoe Selo at 6.10 in the morning.

Kerensky had, in fact, just visited the specially selected 330 men and six officers who were accompanying the Romanov family.

You have guarded the imperial family here; now you must guard it at Tobolsk where it is being transferred by order of the Provisional Government. Remember: no hitting a man when he is down. Behave like gentlemen, not like cads.

It was all very upstanding − he sounds rather like a jolly good housemaster. It is not difficult to imagine the sneer these words would have produced on Lenin’s face.

“Remember,” Kerensky added, “that he is a former Emperor and that neither he nor his family must suffer any hardships.”

Actually, the hardship seems − this far − to have been very limited. The family, in addition to the ladies and gentlemen of their suite, were accompanied by two valets, six chambermaids, ten footmen, three cooks, four assistant cooks, a butler, a wine steward, a nurse, a clerk and a barber. They also took their jewels, wine, and favourite pictures and rugs. They were all loaded on a train bearing Japanese flags and placards proclaiming “Japanese Red Cross Mission” − ethically questionable, but doubtless a mark of the danger through which they were passing.

On the long journey eastward, every time the train stopped at a village it was surrounded by troops and all the blinds were drawn so the passengers could neither see out nor be seen. The Tsar’s diary continued:

17 August We advanced unbelievably slowly, in order to reach Tiumen late at night. There the train went right up to the jetty, so that we were able to get straight onto the steamer.

19 August …I forgot to mention that yesterday before dinner we went past the village of Pokrovskoe − Grigory [Rasputin]’s home.

At 6.30 we arrived in Tobolsk, although we had been able to see it for over an hour. There were a lot of people standing on the bank − which means they knew of our arrival. As soon as the steamer docked, they started to unload our baggage. Valia, the commissar and the commandant went to inspect the houses, which have been assigned for us and our suite. When the first returned, we learnt that the buildings are empty, dirty, without any furniture, and that it was impossible to move into them. For this reason we stayed on the boat and waited for them to bring back the luggage that we needed for the night. We had supper and joked about the surprising inability of people even to arrange accommodation, then went to bed early.

“Surprising inability”? This feels a bit rich from a man famous for his inability to arrange anything much − other than to look grand and imperial. But the former Tsar seems never to have lapsed into bad temper, even at these trying times. He and his family would be stuck on the boat for several days whilst improvements and cleaning were hurriedly carried out.

Royal dramas apart, the war in the east continued, in a stuttering fashion.

Romanian-Russian forces still sought to hold out against the inexorable advance of General Mackensen up the Sereth valley. On 19th August, the Germans claimed they had taken 22,000 Russian prisoners as a result of the recent fighting in Galicia and Bukovina. Many more had already opted not to hang around any longer, lest the same fate await them. The following day, Russian troops retired on the Riga Front − less a consequence of German arms, and more because of their own indiscipline.

Civilian miseries continued to accumulate. This week a huge fire, which started by accident on 18th August in a kitchen and was spread by strong winds, devastated Salonika (Thessaloniki). It was the second largest city in Greece and, now, two-thirds of it was destroyed. Over 70,000 were made homeless and thousands of houses and shops were burnt. About half of the Jewish population lost their homes and businesses.

Dr Isabel Emslie Hutton, a volunteer in the city, considered the blaze “one of the most appalling fires of contemporary history”.

From “a thin flick of yellow flame” visible at 5 p.m. it became, by 7 p.m.,

a belt of leaping, roaring fire that stretched from one end of the town to the other… It was unforgettable; all the pictures of hell that were ever painted fall short of its fearfulness… Mothers and children scurried along with as much as they could carry, and bedridden grandmothers or invalids were half-dragged, half-carried along. All was confusion, grief and hopelessness.

After midnight, a change of wind direction saved the remainder of the town and, though the fire would smoulder for days, the danger was over. Hutton, correctly or otherwise, believed some present had behaved better than others:

On all sides we heard praises of the British lorry drivers, who worked most strenuously and considerately for all, especially the women and children. Of the other Allies it was said that the drivers were not above taking tips, and that much stealing went on (this is possible for all the well-stocked shops were completely looted). It was said, too, that it was revolting to see the Russians lying in the gutters drinking the wine which flowed down from the burst barrels in the store-houses on the quay.

The Great Fire at Thessaloniki 1917

The domestic excitements for the British this week seemed to have been altogether more palatable. On 15th August, American troops paraded in London for the first time. Contemporary reports noted that, even as they arrived at Waterloo Station they received
“their first noisy welcome… At the railway station there were some hundreds of British soldiers going on leave and a few score coming back from France… The Tommies cheered in British fashion, and the Americans, standing easy, responded with the sort of cheer that one hears from Big League crowds.

Over Here from Over There: US troops in London, August, 1917

The long column of American servicemen then marched up Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall and Piccadilly, saluting the American Ambassador as it passed the American Embassy. According to The Times:

Canadians at the Maple Leaf Club cheered hard and continuously as the procession swung past the Embassy. Perhaps the crowd was thickest and most enthusiastic round Buckingham Palace, where the King, Queen Alexandra, Lord French and Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Lloyd stood at the saluting base in front of the massed bands of the Guards brigade. As the salute was given by each company in turn, the King acknowledged it, and the crowd burst into prolonged cheering.

Queen Mary, the splendid, ramrod-backed consort to King George V, appears not to have been there. She was a woman of inflexible determination and duty, so we can be sure that, whatever she was about, it was for the good of the nation. As Cynthia Asquith’s diary this week records, her gameness − even in trying situations − did not go unappreciated

The King and Queen, 1917

18 August Frances told us a good Queen Mary story at breakfast. Going round a hospital, she was struck by a fair-haired mother with a very dark baby. She commented on this and returned to the woman’s bedside again after completing her round saying: ‘His father must have been very dark − wasn’t he?’ To which the woman breezily replied: ‘Sure Ma’am, I don’t know − he never took his hat off.’