I Don’t Like Dying So Young

German fighter ace Kurt Wolff

ALL CRISIS IN Russia, and precious little fighting.

Kornilov’s troops were advancing on Petrograd and the Provisional Government had become one of the great misnomers – being pathetic rather than provisional, and incapable of governing. Kerensky might have baulked at such an unflattering assessment, but his few increasingly apprehensive acolytes knew that mayhem and madness lay just round the corner. By contrast, Lenin and his colleagues were smacking their lips in anticipation.

Despite having been little more than a fringe interest group in Russian radical politics for the previous decade, the Bolsheviks had never lacked self-belief. Trotsky, imprisoned since the July Days had at last abandoned his Menshevik past. Elected onto the Bolshevik Central Committee on 16th August, he recalled that he was now visited in prison by sailors seeking advice on revolutionary tactics.

Should they defend the Winter Palace or take it by assault? I advised them to put off squaring of their account with Kerensky until they had finished Kornilov. “What’s ours will not escape us.”

Lev Bronstein (Trotsky)

This was the kind of smug determinism that made him, to those who liked that sort of thing, irresistible. Others loathed him, of course, but it was possible to hate the Bolsheviks and the Tsar at the same time. The prospect of a military coup by Kornilov appeared, at the time, to herald a return to the Romanovs and an aristocratic cabal. Deciding which was the least bad option made this moment, for many, the hour of choice –  should they turn left or right?

In the big cities, left seemed the default setting. The Petrograd Soviet, now based in the Smolny Institute, swayed many heads and hearts. At this time of crisis, they were magnificently unqualified in their furious opposition. The Red Guards, formed after the March revolution, initiated the defence of the city, and their ranks were swelled by sailors from Kronstadt and by hundreds of ordinary citizens. And, because desperate situations require desperate remedies, thousands of Bolsheviks were now given back weapons that had been confiscated from them after the July Days, and even supplied with extra ammunition. It was a powerful totem of their new potency, as was the desperate activity into which the Petrograd citizens were thrown. Workers from the munition factories, assisted by engineers and sappers, began building trenches assisted by thousands of soldiers who had arrived from the front.

The attack, when it happened, was a damp squib. General Krymov’s “Savage Division” was halted by pro-Bolshevik railway workers who refused to move his troop trains and took the opportunity to sabotage assorted bridges, signal points and rail-tracks. His troops melted like snow when they encountered the soldiers loyal to the Provisional Government – the latter an increasingly endangered species. Krymov, presumably by now in a funk at having backed a loser, met Kerensky in Petrograd on 13th September. Afterwards he told a friend: “The last card for saving the Fatherland has been beaten. Life is no longer worth living.” Later that day, he shot himself through the heart.

General Aleksander Krymov

Kerensky remembered:

It was all over on the morning of September 13th. The Commander-in-Chief’s rebellion was crushed in four days, without a single gunshot, without a single drop of blood shed.

That much was true, but it had less to do with Kerensky than with the increasing irrelevance of both the Provisional Government and the army leadership.

As news emerged of Kornilov’s arrest, two Western journalists were despairing: “We all knew it was the last chance. The Bolsheviki were armed; the Red Guard was formed… Kerensky was doomed.” Their sadness was shared by many Westerners in Petrograd. Kornilov had, in many eyes, offered the prospect of salvation to a dying nation. The alternative was the increasingly inevitable Bolshevik coup or military defeat at the hands of the Germans.

The American Ambassador, David Francis, privately thought that Kornilov was “a brave soldier and patriot whose mistake was making demands before public sentiment was sufficiently strong in their favor to force their acceptance”. Plans were now finalised for the evacuation of 266 people: the entire US colony, embassy and consulate staff plus members of the Red Cross Mission.

On 16th September, the Cossacks declared their loyalty to this government and Kerensky put on a brief show of strength: he was now dictator in all but name, and Russia was declared a republic with a Council of Five in charge. In a gesture of what looked later like suicidal optimism, he also ordered the release of Trotsky and other Bolsheviks from prison the following day.

Troops summoned by Kerensky

The austere truth was that Kerensky was not the problem so much as Russia. A mood of desperate fatalism seems to have overtaken large sections of the population. On 11th September, Boris Nikolsky had written:

The people are entirely passive. There is only one phrase on everyone’s lips: we don’t care. Whether there is Kerensky or Kornilov, order, calm, food, does not concern them. Yet on the other hand the mood is fearful, anxious and nervous.

Vasily Mishnin, serving with a Russian field hospital in Poland, agreed:

The weather is foul, cold and wet, and on top of that there is the news that Riga has fallen to the Germans. We are beside ourselves with worry. It seems all is lost. Worrying rumours abound about a retreat. They say we are giving up Minsk, Kiev, Odessa and everything right up to Moscow, but there is still no sign of peace. I am in a rotten mood and the troops even more so. Peace is all we want, that’s all.

One potential bulwark against the Bolshevik leader was the rumours swirling that he was a spy in the pay of the Germans. Despite the war’s deep unpopularity, this was a charge which,  if believed,  still had the power to do great damage to Lenin and his cause. Journalist John Reed arrived in Petrograd on 14th September and wrote three days later: “The documents proving pro-German conspiracy were discovered to be forgeries and one by one the Bolsheviks were released from prison without trial…”

Journalist and Communist John Reed

The war in the East was not quite over. Some Russian units continued to resist the German advance south of Riga and Russian warships in the Gulf of Riga bombarded onshore German batteries. Even so, the confusion of domestic politics impacted at many points along the front, typically expressed in defeatism and desertion. Dmitry Oskin, a future Bolshevik Military Commissar, found his commanding officer screaming in anger as:

… he saw the last of the 11th regiment walk past… ‘The bastards, the swines… Where are they running to? Why are they running? The Germans have only broken through on one tiny strip of land. One company would have been enough to send them packing. What a disgrace!…

And our troops, it had to be said, are retreating so fast, there’s no stopping them. ‘It’s all the Bolsheviks’ fault,’ say the officers. ‘They are undermining the front. It’s all their fault we are retreating. Those German hire-hands! The spies!’

The chaos is stupefying. The rear is seized with panic.

Not was it was only Other Ranks who were vanishing:

All divisional and army officers serving at the front have disappeared without a trace. The field telegraph and post office have vanished.

Set against anarchy and defeat, it may seem anticlimactic (or even indelicate) to allude to problems of sanitation. These, however, were the portion of the Imperial family, living in reduced circumstances in Tobolsk. His Majesty’s diary entry on 17th September explained the problem exactly:

The lower W.C. is filled with waste from the upper W.C.; therefore, we had to refrain from visiting the upper one and abstain from bathing; all this because the cesspool was too small and because nobody wanted to clean it. I asked S.S. Botkin to bring this to the attention of the commissar, Pankratov, who came and was dismayed at the state of things.

It does not seem to have occurred to the former Tsar or any of his family to don the equivalent of rubber gloves and get busy themselves. The quality of their life in Tobolsk was further compromised by restrictions placed on their movements. On 15th September, the Tsar noted:

The weather was clear and warm. I began to walk in fenced yard in front of house; it was better here than in the damp garden because here the sun shines all day. I climbed with the children on the roof of the greenhouse…

The Imperial family on the roof of their residence in Tobolsk, 15th September 1917

In Passchendaele, disaster was not impending, as in Petrograd, but unfolding.

As General Plumer continued his meticulous planning for the next stage of the Third Battle of Ypres, scheduled to commence on 20th September, minor skirmishes continued. German attacks near Langemarck were repulsed on 13th September and their attack on Apremont Forest near St Mihiel on 16th September failed to make any headway. Yet they persisted, raiding areas west of Craonne and penetrating the French advanced line north of Caurières Wood. On 15th September, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir William Robertson, wrote to Haig: “Of course the difficulty is the ground in Flanders. It will never be good for tanks I am afraid…”

With majestic understatement, he continued:

It seems to me that the tactical situation has become rather difficult. A year ago we thought that victory lay in having a large amount of heavy artillery. We have got a large amount now, but the enemy’s machine-guns are still a difficulty, not yet surmounted. Our hope is, I gather, that the artillery will knock out the hostile machine-guns, but unfortunately this entails the entire destruction of the surface of the ground and renders it almost impassable, especially in Flanders.

We would therefore seem to be confronted with the problem that unless we use a great deal of artillery fire we cannot get on, and if we do use it the ground is destroyed. Of course this is a very crude way of stating the case…

Crude or otherwise, this gloomy assessment succeeding in upsetting the Prime Minister badly. In his own mind, he had never wanted a new offensive in Flanders but had been ground down by the received wisdom of the military. Exhausted, and suffering from neuralgia, he now arrived at his home in Criccieth for a few days’ rest and summoned the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey.

Hankey’s diary entry for 14th September takes up the story:

Found the Prime Minister had been quite seriously ill with a very high temperature… I found him rather despondent at the failure of the year’s campaigning, and disgusted at the narrowness of the General Staff, and the inability of his colleagues to see eye to eye with him and their fear of overruling the General Staff.

Two days later, despondency seems to have turned to desperation:

Lloyd George… rediscussed military policy. He wants to abandon all activity on the Western Front and to concentrate our efforts against Turkey…

He wanted it, but he knew it would never happen without a terrible showdown with the military, in consequence of which he might easily have lost office. Power struggles between elected national leaders and professional soldiers were a sine qua non of warfare in an age of mass politics.

Of course, these tussles spawned intrigue and cabals. The day before, Haig had been visited by a member of the War Cabinet, Lord Curzon. Haig’s diary suggests his visitor sounded a very different tune to that of his political chief:

[Curzon] is convinced that the military experts must be given full power, not only to advise, but to carry out their plans. He is opposed to the meddling now practised by the Prime Minister and others… He considers that Lloyd George has considerable value as P.M. on account of his driving powers, but he recognises his danger.

Lord Curzon

Curzon, of course, was a Tory – and the reflex of politicians to plot could never be repressed for long, even in a wartime coalition. Curzon told Haig “to talk freelyto Asquith, the former Prime Minister, who duly told Haig that the government was “very shakyand that he himself was “all in favour” of the current offensive.

Whatever charges may have been laid against the old inebriate, Asquith had fathered three very fine soldier sons. One of them, Oc, went with his father to lunch with General Sir Henry Horne, commander of the First Army. They then toured Vimy Ridge and saw an exchange between British and German batteries below them. Oc told his stepmother that “Father looked well and was in excellent spirits… his Gas-Box respirator drill leaves a good deal to be desired.”

Two German soldiers and their mule, donning gas masks

Asquith’s other son, Beb, was only too well aware of the dangers of gas. He later recalled the problems of delivering ammunition at night at this time. Junior officers, guiding horses along duckboards which were set on the crater-filled, muddy landscape, were perilously easy targets for German artillery:

The time came when gas masks were fitted on our horses and mules: we were doubtful at first whether they would consent to wear this new form of head-gear, but some of them thrust their noses into the masks with an eager whinny in the hope that they were filled with oats. The task of leading them forward over that long hazardous track on a night of inky blackness, unaided by any torch, was one of the most difficult duties that fell to an officer… On many nights the baulks of timber that made the track were blown up in front of the advancing column; dead horses lay on either side of it, and the way was often obstructed by groups of animals which had been killed lying with stiffened legs in the centre of the path. In many parts of this dismal journey the stench was appalling.

“Dismal” surely understates it. There was a desperate melancholy to the plight of horses, for so long the servants of man. The future novelist, Dennis Wheatley, who had been in France since August, described the effect of a German bombing of the horse lines when 47 mules and horses were killed outright and another 52 had to be shot:

There were dead ones lying all over the place and scores of others were floundering about screaming with broken legs, terrible neck wounds or their entrails hanging out. We went back for our pistols and spent the next hour putting the poor, seriously injured brutes out of their misery… To do it we had to wade ankle deep through blood and guts.

The sense of floundering, not to say drowning, by inches characterised war on the ground. War in the sky offered different terrors. Aerial technology had evolved rapidly in the past twelve months, but so had aerial strategy, and the capacity to inflict serious damage on specific targets had grown: on 11th September, the British bombed the region south of Lille and Roulers while their seaplanes attacked the Zeebrugge mole and airsheds. Later in the week, they successfully attacked shipping between Blankenberghe and Ostend, hitting one German destroyer midships and sinking a trawler.

Still, there was a pleasingly medieval feel to aerial combat, something not lost on the public. The British resisted singling out combat pilots wherever possible: esprit de corp was the thing, rather than showy individualism. The French and Germans were less inhibited. Exploits of their daring young pilots flying flimsy craft high in the sky, without parachutes, short of oxygen and, often, of training,  were blasted all over the press.

The darker side of flying in combat was that it took a terrible toll on what, today, we call mental health. Young pilots had lightning-quick reactions and were usually superbly fit. But they were still boys, and lacked emotional resilience. Manfred Richthofen, who had scored a spectacular 61 “kills”, had just been sent home on recuperative leave, partly as he was still recovering from a head wound sustained in July, and partly to keep him alive. At the end of August, he had acknowledged that

after each flight I was completely exhausted. During the first one I almost got sick in the stomach. My wound is healing frightfully slowly; it is still as big as a five-Mark piece. Yesterday they removed another splinter of bone; I believe it will be the last.

Two young aces were killed this week to the great sorrow of their respective nations. One of these was Captain Georges Guynemer who became France’s highest scoring and most beloved ace with a total of 54 victories. By the time of his death, he had taken part in 600 aerial combats, and been shot down several times. After one dog-fight his Nieuport plane, on landing, was found to have 86 bullet-holes. Weighing only 138 pounds (too light for the infantry), Guynemer was not an obviously alpha-type, but he was an excellent marksman, a technical innovator and totally committed – claiming, famously, that “If one has not given everything, one has given nothing.” In June 1917, the citation for his Officier de la Légion d’Honneur said that:

…Heedless of danger he has become for the enemy, by the sureness of his methods and by the precision of his manoeuvres, the most redoubtable adversary of all.

Captain Georges Guynemer

On 11th September, it all came to an end. Guynemer was last seen attacking a two-seater Aviatik above Poelcappelle near Ypres. The grief of the French was matched by that of the Germans when the slender and boyish Kurt Wolff was killed in action four days later after a fierce fight with a flight of Sopwith Camels over Moorslede. Wolff, famously good-humoured and popular, had notched up 33 “kills” and been awarded the coveted Pour Le Mérite. His family and friends had at least the consolation of his body being recovered, unlike that of Guynemer, and he was awarded a full military funeral.

Such obsequies were unavailable to the family of another German who died this week. Little is known of the man beyond this letter:

My Dear Parents,

I have been sentenced to death today, September 11th, 1917. Only myself and another comrade; the others have been let off with fifteen years’ imprisonment.

You will have heard why this has happened to me. I am a sacrifice of the longing for peace, others are going to follow. I cannot stop it now, it is six o’clock in the morning, I am being taken to Cologne at 6.30, and on Wednesday September 12th at 9 0’clock in the morning I am going to be sacrificed to military justice.

I would have liked to press your hands once more to say goodbye, but I will do it silently. Console Paula and my little Fritz. I don’t like dying so young, but I die with a curse on the German-militarist state. These are my last words. I hope that some day you and mother will be able to read them.

Always Your Son, Albin Kobes

What were grandly called mutinies – in reality, usually petty local insurrections – were becoming a recurrent feature in the naval shipyards around Kiel and Wilhelmshaven where the Imperial Navy had been largely tied up in harbour for four years.

For some, there were joys – usually fleeting, but still experienced fiercely. The diary of Captain Walter Williamson of the Cheshire Regiment reminds us this week that a well-stocked estaminet could bring, however fleetingly, pure joy to a suffering soul – or, at least, to a hungry Tommy.

In the evening Pat came round with the interesting information that there was a pastry cook’s shop in Westoutre, well spoken of, and worthy of patronage. It was even rumoured that custards and jam tarts were to be had.

We found the pastry shop and stuffed ourselves to repletion in a manner more compatible with 14 years of age, than the age appearing in our paybooks, and strolled round the village with quite a strange feeling beneath our belts.

The village of Westoutre was… untouched except by a few bombs. Children played in numbers about, and very little of the population seemed to have left.