Hooligans, armed with rifles

THE DANGERS OF believing history written by the victors are considerable.

So much for the health warning. Even so, let it be said: German troops retreating towards the Hindenburg Line were savage.

For one thing, they set up explosives everywhere, especially in dugouts and trenches they were vacating. Mindful of the magpie-like instincts of soldiers, they devoutly booby-trapped any item which might seem attractive as contraband or souvenir. Indeed, they did it so well that those Germans who were last to leave the area learned to move warily. Lieutenant Ernst Junger recalled: “During the last hours I had dared not touch any box, bucket or door in case I might go up in the air”.

The Allies were, very often, caught unawares. Lieutenant Nash with the 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment remembered that “Booby traps abounded and a large part of our casualties were caused by these slaughter traps.” In Bapaume, the Australian troops who had first liberated the town on 17th March, had cleared mines left in the cellar and on the first floor of the town hall. Only then did they declare the building safe. That was just what the enemy had intended: delayed-action devices in the clock tower exploded on the night of 25th March, killing 25 people.

Avant le deluge: Australian bandsmen play the Victoria March in the Grande Place, Bapaume, 19th March 1917

Although the withdrawal by the Germans was planned and tactically coherent, they also put up strong if unpredictable pockets of resistance in ways more typical of an army retreating inch by inch. The city of Rheims attracted particular punishment –  395 shells fell upon it in during the course of 25th March –  a traumatic day and night for its citizens. Such horrors, however, did not stand in the way of a significant advance by the British, any more than the heavy snow storms which blew up during the week. By the end of the week the British had taken Lagnicourt and captured the village of Coucy Le Chateau.

The German retirement to the Hindenburg Line led some Allied troops to believe the end of the war was imminent. Hankey’s diary for 22nd March recorded:

I lunched with Lloyd George and dined with him also to meet Derby who had just come back from France and was full of interesting stories of the great German retreat. The soldiers, he said, were in great spirits, but the leading generals were more anxious than he had ever known them.

John Masefield, the future Poet Laureate, took a different view. He was had worked as a hospital orderly and wrote to his wife, on the “scorched earth” policy favoured by the enemy:

The future Poet Laureate

March 21  You would have thought that the enemy would have learned a little, and been perhaps humble, and eager to win the sympathy of neutrals now, as a brave people about to endure disaster; but all through this retreat he has been repeating Belgium. He has systematically destroyed what he could not carry away. Everything moveable has been pillaged and sent back to their dirty nest the Vaterland, and everything not easily moveable has been fouled and broken. Bureaus, mirrors, tables, sofas, have been smashed with axes, fruit trees have been cut, lopped or ringed. Beds have been used as latrines, so have baths and basins, and the officers who used them thus have left their cards on the mess. Houses, churches, cottages, farms, barns and calvaries have been burnt, blown up, pulled down or gutted. Every dirty wanton devilry of rape, defilement and degradation has been committed on the inhabitants. In Peronne, the books of the library were taken down, defiled with human excrement, and then put back upon the shelves. In the same town a poor cat was found crucified by these devils, and they had put a cap on its head and a cigar in its mouth. I can understand mental degenerates doing these things, but not men. They are not the acts of men. They are not civilised human beings. They will bloodily suffer for what they have done during this retreat.

Can all, or even most, of this be true? The Germans were certainly determined to finish the war sooner rather than later, and were closing down options everywhere, especially as Russia subsided into political chaos. On 23rd March, there were reports of German troops massing on the Riga–Dvinsk road, seriously menacing Petrograd. On the other hand, the Russians were not giving up yet. The next day, Russian armies declared their loyalty to the new Provisional Government.

Even now, however, there were ominous indications that the urge to sweep the Augean stables of the Romanovs might yet supersede its wish to defeat the Germans. Wanting no imperial relics involved in the conduct of the war, the Provisional Government annulled the appointment of Grand Duke Nicholas as Commander-in-Chief.

His predecessor, the former Tsar, was now deprived of his liberty. Arriving at the Alexander Palace, Tsarskoe Selo, on 22nd March, he became in effect a prisoner. His diary for that day recorded:

I arrived at Tsarskoe Selo quickly and without mishap — at 11.30. But God, what a difference, there were sentries on the street and in the park around the house, and ensigns of some sort in the entrance! I went upstairs and saw darling Alix and the dear children. She looked strong and well, but they are all lying in a darkened room. They are all feeling fine, except Maria who only developed measles a short time ago. We lunched and dined in Alexei’s playroom. Saw dear Benckendorff. Went for a walk… and worked a little in the garden as we aren’t allowed to go further! After tea I unpacked my things.

It reads as rather a nice domestic vignette. He might have been a commercial traveller, returning home after a week on the road.

His wife’s friend, Anna Vyrubova, was more trenchant:

Never, never while I live shall I forget what I saw… Below in the garden of the palace which had been his home for twenty years stood the man who until a few days ago had been Tsar of all the Russias. With him was his faithful friend Prince Dolgorukov, and surrounding them were soldiers, say rather six hooligans, armed with rifles.

With their fists and with the butts of their guns they pushed the Emperor this way and that as though he were some wretched vagrant they were baiting in a country road. ‘You can’t go there, Mr Colonel.’ ‘We don’t permit you to walk in that direction’, ‘Stand back when you are commanded’.

The Emperor, apparently unmoved, looked from one of these coarse brutes to another and with great dignity turned and walked back towards the palace.

Long before the Bolsheviks had taken power, therefore, one gets a sense of Russia painting itself in the colours of Year Zero. A general political amnesty was declared and the death penalty abolished. On 23rd March, the exhumed body of Rasputin, taken from the park of Tsarskoe Selo, was drenched in petrol and burned.

Vasily Mishnin, in a Belarus field hospital, was still feeling celebratory –  like so many soldiers:

It’s important that none of it can be reversed. The police are being arrested, their weapons are taken away from them. Please God let it be like this for ever. What joy, what an unprecedented change. I want to save the newspapers. They’re already collector’s items. One edition of the ‘Russian Word’ has sold for 10,000 roubles.

So was Joseph Freeman, a student who had fled the Ukraine to go with his family to the United States, following years of anti-Semitic persecution:

The overthrow of the Czar filled us with joy. What had been a dream for years was now a reality. The prison of the peoples had collapsed. We sang the Marseillaise and the International in the streets, cut classes for the day, and rushed to tell our families the great news. Almost the entire American press, from the extreme right to the extreme left, applauded the Revolution.

And, as ever, the liberal democracies blew with the wind. The first power to recognise the new government was the United States, followed by Great Britain, France and Italy.

Some of those heads upon which crowns still rested were feeling distinctly uneasy. Ever since the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl had succeeded Franz Josef, he had been trying discreetly to initiate negotiations for a separate peace, calculating that only Austria-Hungary’s withdrawal from the war would preserve the Dual Monarchy. In retrospect, it is easy to see that any attempt to rescue the Habsburgs would have required something a great deal less prosaic than merely world peace. Still, using his brother-in-law, Prince Sixte of Bourbon-Parma, as courier, Emperor Karl gamely wrote to the French President Poincaré on 24th March, offering to support Serbian independence, the restoration of Belgium and assurances that he would support French claims for the return of Alsace-Lorraine. At this point, the Emperor had not taken the tiny formality of confiding in his Foreign Minister Czernin. Still, the sub-text was clear –  the Austro-Hungarian Empire was buckling.

Emperor Karl: man and boy

Its political woes and ethnic divisions are familiar to many, but the plight of its civilians was becoming perhaps the greatest of all threats to its survival. The author Stefan Zweig testified to that: he had been sent to Switzerland to promote Austria as a peace-loving country but was himself under no illusions:

The Austrian people suffer greatly. There is a shortage of the most rudimentary supplies. There is no milk any more. The children die like flies. Tuberculosis is eating at Germany and Austria. The cities are in dire state. Poverty is even felt in how people are dressed — everything is patched and ragged. Citizens of Berlin and Leipzig are the worst off. The uneven distribution of food leads to envy and enmity among various provinces. The Holy Alliance of Austria-Hungary, which impressed the Allies during the first years of the war, no longer exists.

Under a veneer of imperturbability, King George V and the royal family were also extremely rattled by what had happened to their Romanov cousins. The King’s telegram assured the erstwhile Tsar:

Events of last week have deeply distressed me. My thoughts are constantly with you and I shall always remain your true and devoted friend, as you know I have been in the past.

Such comfort as these words may have afforded was never permitted to reach the ears of the Tsar. Foreign Minister Miliukov felt it “might be misinterpreted and used as an argument in favour of [the Tsar’s] detention”. The extremely nervous Provisional Government was fighting to establish its authority and rather ostentatiously distanced itself from any sucking-up to royalty. On 21st March, Lloyd George sent them a congratulatory telegram, describing the revolution as “the greatest service that the Russian people have yet made to the cause for which the Allies are fighting… this war is at bottom a struggle for popular government as well as for liberty”.

Pavel Miliukov

This particular effusion must have lent a certain chill to George V’s china blue eyes when the Prime Minister appeared for his next audience. He said nothing directly, however, but instructed his private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, to indicate to the PM that perhaps this was “a little strong”. The British Ambassador in Petrograd, Sir George Buchanan had already issued an official warning to Miliukov that “any violence done to the Emperor and his family would have a most deplorable effect and would deeply shock public opinion in this country”. Deftly turning the tables, Miliukov enquired if the British would grant them asylum in England. On 22nd March, the answer came –  they would, at least for the duration of the war.

Within Britain itself, the big political excitement was the fallout from the Interim Report on the Dardanelles. There was a debate in the Commons on 20th March, with all the usual posturing from those wanting to be on the right side. Many MPs were unhappy that such a report had been produced while the war remained in progress, possibly giving comfort to the enemy, and especially as little evidence accompanied its findings.

But what was to be done? As the former PM, Asquith, observed:

If you publish the Report and suppress the evidence you run grave risk of injustice to individuals. If, on the other hand, you publish the Report with the evidence you run grave risk of endangering the national interests.

The late Secretary for War had taken a particular battering in the report. Asquith was incensed that:

Lord Kitchener’s conduct and capacity should have been taken advantage of by those who only two years ago were in a posture of almost slavish adulation to belittle his character and, so far as they can, to defile his memory. Lord Kitchener’s memory is in no danger. It lives, and will live, in the gratitude and admiration of the British people and of the whole Empire.

The late Secretary of War –   a reputation besmirched?

An echo of Victorian imperial zing –  the kind which had once cemented the reputation of Kitchener (Kitchener of Khartoum, after all) –  was resurrected this week in the First Battle of Gaza. Or so it briefly seemed. With Baghdad already taken by Maude and his troops, confidence was running high and it was decided to attack the enemy stronghold of Gaza, an important depot for cereals with fertile land all around, and an ideal launch-pad for an assault on Jerusalem.

Having pushed the Turks back in the preceding days, the British Commander, General Dobell, launched his assault on Gaza on 26th March under cover of dense fog. They cut off access for any Turkish reinforcements and Chetwode’s mounted column reached the outskirts of the town where the infantry was held up by Turks ensconced in rifle pits, sheltering behind cacti and buildings. British warplanes then flew overhead dropping bombs and, by 6 p.m., the outskirts of Gaza were in British hands with the defenders retreating into the town. So far –   excellent. The enemy commander, the German von Kressenstein was seen nervously sending telegrams to all and sundry, convinced the battle was lost. Then, for whatever reason, the British decided to call off the attack –  just as the Turks were contemplating surrender, but then hindsight is wonderful. The reprieve gave Kressenstein time to summon 4,000 extra reinforcements and there were 4,000 British casualties (compared to 2,400 suffered by the Turks) in the counter-attack which followed.

The war in the Middle East often struggled to gain much purchase in the popular imagination. Anyone disposed to think of this battle as a footnote should ponder the recollection of one Rafael de Nogales, a Venezuelan-born cavalryman in the Ottoman army, who had ridden into Gaza:

The silence of death rules everywhere. In the middle of the streets, piled up among soot-blackened rafters and smashed carriages, lay hundreds of bodies, the burnt and shattered remains of people and animals. On the blackened walls of buildings that were still smoking and tottering on the point of collapse could be seen big purple patches that resembled red carnations, carnations of blood marking where the wounded and dying had rested their chests or heads before drawing their last breath.

Ottoman officers after holding off the British at the Battle of Gaza

By comparison with the heat and fury of the battlefield, few civilians could compete in terms of terrors endured –  and certainly not Cynthia Asquith, who was currently filling her days, in a part-time and rather languid way, at the convalescent hospital in the house of her friend Lady Lytton:

March 21  …had to put on my white uniform for Pamela’s hospital. Felt rather a fraud as we only do pantry work. The shift is from three to five, ideal hours. There are supposed to be four of us: Moira Osborne, Pamela’s little sister and a rosy girl and myself. We cut bread with a fascinating machine in a very nice blue pantry, boil eggs, and so on, and then take the teas round to all the bed-ridden men in the wards. Finally, we have to wash up all the mugs. It is frightfully cold downstairs, and one’s feet get frozen — otherwise, quite pleasant work.

Not exactly blood, toil and tears, to adopt the phrase of Lady Lytton’s former fiancé, Winston Churchill.

Wilfred Owen, who was convalescing in Gailly after some concussion, offers a snapshot of a rather harder-edged civilian life in his diary on 25th March:

I went [for] a joy ride on a Motor Ambulance… and so passed a vivid afternoon. The car was going in the direction of the Front, and I stopped at a certain village where refugees from the regained area were just arriving: all hags and children. I had a long talk with a boy of 14, who if he had been 15 would not have been liberated. He could not spell his name, since he has worked on the fields since he was 11. He did not look by any means starving, but had known nothing but scanty food for two-and-a half years. I plied him with chocolate, and drew the following information. That the Germans had carried off all men over 15; left 5 days bread rations for the remainder, set fire to almost every building, choked up the wells with farmyard refuse and disappeared.

German ruthlessness had become endemic in recent weeks –  scorched earth and, of course, unrestricted submarine warfare. Now, however, it seemed on the edge of provoking the response which cautious heads in Berlin had most dreaded. On 20th March, President Wilson summoned a special sitting of Congress for 2nd April, “to receive a communication by the Executive on important questions of national policy”.

A declaration of war on Germany seemed imminent –  especially when, on 25th March, the U.S. Legation in Brussels was removed to Le Havre, leaving neutral countries to undertake relief work for the Belgians. But this is less surprising when one considers that the many ships lost during the week included the American tanker Healdton, which was torpedoed and sunk in the North Sea with the loss of at least seven lives. The tally of marine disasters grew ever more extensive: in the previous seven days, HMS Laforey, a destroyer, hit a mine and sank off Boulogne when 59 of her crew of 77 perished; off the coast of Tunisia, Queen Eugenie was sunk by UC-67: 35 died and the only two survivors were taken prisoner.

The real outrage, however, focused upon the fate of the hospital ship, HMHS Asturias. On the night of 20th March, en route from Avonmouth to its base in Southampton, it had no reason to believe itself in danger. It was clearly marked with green stripes and red crosses, steaming “with all navigating lights on and with all the distinguishing Red Cross signs brilliantly illuminated”. All the conventions of war suggested hospital ships were off-limits to the enemy, but the captain of the U boat UC-66 decided otherwise and released his torpedoes. The good news was that over 1,000 wounded soldiers had just been unloaded. Less helpfully, it was carrying an exceptional number of nurses returning home on the expiry of their service. Thirty-one people died and another dozen were declared missing.

Germany sought to justify her actions by claiming that British hospitals ships were carrying munitions and troops and therefore were valid targets. This was hotly denied by the authorities who now promised dire vengeance. The spiralling radicalism of war may be tediously predictable in retrospect, but, for those exposed to its consequences, it was infinitely terrible.

A U Boat poster from 1917 by Hans Rudi Erdt