IT DID NOT require a great offensive to spawn terror and misery.
What was new this week, and shocking, was that the Germans suddenly disappeared from part of the line. On 6th February the British advanced south of the Ancre river and occupied 1,000 yards of enemy trenches without opposition. The next day, they moved into the village of Grandcourt only to find the Germans had gone. Aerial reconnaissance had already indicated an evacuation, but to concede this much space without a fight was unprecedented.
Second Lieutenant Alfred Pollard of the Honourable Artillery Company was sent on an overnight patrol to verify. By the light of a full moon and in a snow-covered landscape, he was making his way to the Ancre when he came across a deserted trench full of British bodies.
Nothing stirred me. I was just a machine carrying out my appointed work to the best of my ability.
(He could not but be aware that his sang froid contrasted strongly with his distress when he had first seen a trench of dead men, back in 1915:
I was a mere boy looking on life with hopeful optimism, and on war as an interesting adventure. When I saw the Hun corpses killed by our shell-fire I was full of pity for the men so suddenly cut off in their prime.
He also knew why he had changed:
Now I was a man with no hope of the War ending for years. Neither pity nor… anger against their killers.)
The empty village was visible proof that Operation Alberich had begun. This phased withdrawal of the Germans to their well-constructed defensive line, the Siegfriedstellung: the translation – not very helpfully - is the Hindenburg Line. Germany had evidently moved on to the defensive. Devised by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, it was a series of fiercely fortified defensive positons from Arras to Laon. At a stroke, this eliminated the salient that for the past two and half years had bulged into Allied lines between Arras and St Quentin – an operational quirk which had consumed so many lives.
Neither man wished a repetition of the insane cost of the Somme, and nor could they afford it - Germany risked running out of men. The new, straighter frontline would be shorter by 25 to 30 miles and up to 13 divisions might now be released for service elsewhere. The Germans left in the West now stood at only 154 divisions, in contrast to the Allies, who fielded 190 divisions, some of which were also larger.
The Kaiser’s forces did not, however, go gracefully. A ruthless “scorched-earth” policy ensured that, whoever came after them was heir to nothing more than devastation. It was an ignoble way to behave, and proved a powerful propaganda weapon for the Allies – who did not, however, repine. All week the British carried out a series of raids – some obviously successful, such as those at Givenchy and Neuve Chapelle, and others more inconclusive. They took prisoners too – over 350 by week’s end. Enemy counter-attacks lacked, for now, much of their old sting, but it was grim work. Snow and frost, and thaws, resulted in flooded trenches, sickness and were everybody’s portion.
There was, however, a moment of sweet recognition for Oc Asquith, whose impossible gallantry in the previous week’s attack on enemy positions around Grandcourt was formally recognised. The divisional historian described the young Asquith as “irresistibly convincing” – a born leader who was allowed to lead - the rarest event in the war and Brigadier Philips’ recommendation that he be awarded the DSO was confirmed.
For the man himself, it must have been a very proud moment. For his family, the experience was bitter-sweet. Having left hospital in Boulogne, Oc was now berthed in the Duchess of Rutland’s hospital in Arlington Street - his physical presence in an unoccupied land a source of immense reassurance to his father. But he repaired quickly and his wound was reclassified as being no longer “severe”.
This meant, of course, he would have to return. The former PM, fresh from visiting him, wrote to a confidante, “He is up and dressed and carries his arm in a sling. It is only a slight wound, and I fear he will very soon be fit to take himself again to the Front.” Not just fit, but eager. Soldiers freshly recovered were seldom allowed to dawdle at home, and many were too emotionally invested in the strange and terrible lives they led to wish to do so. Only the “wound stripes” on their uniform when they returned to France testified to their experiences.
Oc had been lucky, at least for now. Another holder of the DSO, another larger-than-life officer grandee, was not. Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Boyle was killed near Grandcourt on 7th February. A powerful tribute to him came from the pen of Leonard Haine, of the 1st Battalion, Honourable Artillery Company. Haine was a private soldier – a body of men who often viewed senior officers with caution - and his praise must have counted for a lot.
It was an extremely severe winter. The gunners behind us told us there were forty degrees of frost. It made things almost impossible, because a shell bursting a quarter of a mile away could kill you. Now usually if you were in luck a shell could burst within a few yards of you and if your number wasn’t on it you were all right. But at that time these shells just hit this solid ice and they scattered.
We had our colonel killed there during that February. He was a wonderful chap: Ernest Boyle. He was fifty-six years old, which for a front-line soldier was very old. He’d been severely wounded at Hooge when we did a show there. But he was one of the few real fire-eaters I ever met. There were a few; most were unintelligent people; they hadn’t got the imagination. But Ernest Boyle was a complete and utter patriot, and I remember he used to say, ‘My ambition is that my bones shall be buried in Flanders’ — and they were, poor chap.
He got just a thing from a shell which landed, oh, two or three hundred yards away I suppose; killed him. He was taken down the line to a little village called Hamel. He was a very well-known chap because he’d got such a wonderful career, and several generals and people turned up for the funeral. But they couldn’t dig a grave because the ground was completely solid.
According to the HAC Journal, “Death in the field held no terrors for this very gallant gentleman, and so he left us, loved and mourned by all.”
The bitter winter had ground most activity to a halt in other theatres of war. On 6th February the Germans mounted an attack against the Russians near the frozen Sereth river, south-east of Focsani, but were driven back. They tried to advance again at the end of the week, south of Halicz, a small force crossing part of the Dniester on the ice, but that got nowhere. The single success came on 12th February in southern Bukovina, in an attack near Jakobeny, where they took over 1,200 prisoners. The Austrians took 1,000 Italian prisoners east of Gorizia on 11th February but, two days later, the Italians recovered not only their trenches but at least a hundred of those earlier taken into captivity.
Weather, at least, was not such an issue in the Middle East. General Maude continued to make conspicuous progress in the drive towards Kut el Amara. He was a popular figure among his men, and enjoyed the reputation of someone who cared deeply about their welfare. Maybe that helped them push forward: by 11th February, in a renewed assault, the British had hemmed in the Turks on the Dahsa bend of the Tigris, taking all but the last line of Turkish trenches. A later despatch by Vice-Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss noted “large numbers of prisoners having been taken, guns captured, and heavy loss inflicted on the enemy”. Those in the know dared to hope that good news lay round the corner.
Ships at sea had, of course, no choice but to cope with whatever weather was thrown at them. In this war, it had long been understood that submarines were the greater menace. The SS California of the Anchor Line was sunk on 6th February without warning by SM U-85 under Kapitänleutnant Willy Petz. The steamer, on the way home to Glasgow from New York, had been 38 miles west of Fastnet when it was hit by two torpedoes. Five men were killed by the initial explosion and the ship sank in only nine minutes. Another 36 men were drowned, some when an overloaded lifeboat was sucked below the waves in the wake of the sinking ship - a scene of unimaginable horror.
The war in the air was intensifying too - evidence, perhaps, of more robust construction, or just of desperation. On 10th February German airmen carried out bombing raids on Dunkirk, Amiens and Nancy. Amiens was a frequent target as Signalman Tench, attached to General Rawlinson’s headquarters, recorded rather tetchily in his diary. He also noted the shortage of supplies for the local civilians.
7th Februar. On duty again from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Rather vigorous bombardments during the evening. Hostile aeroplanes again visited Amiens in the late evening… 2 or 3 persons were killed. …almost daily I procure something to take to my land people, which takes the form sometimes of wood, and sometimes bread and cheese which I obtain from our mess. In consequence of the high price of sugar in the village… I buy a couple of pounds a day from our canteen, at two pounds for one franc, just half the price for the same quantity at the shops in the village.
9th Februar. Heavy artillery still trekking through our village. The bread which we had had issued lately has been so frozen that it can only be cut with great difficulty, even with the stoutest of knives. Enemy aeroplanes reported their visits to Amiens and other places last night and were employed dropping bombs from 8 p.m. until about 4 a.m. the next morning. …It is rather a difficult matter to get to sleep during these idiotic visits.
In the wake of Germany’s announcement that she would sink neutral shipping, there were real and well-founded fears that Britain now risked starvation. Britain in Victorian and Edwardian times had neither sought nor been much troubled by governments seeking to interpose themselves in the minutiae of citizens’ lives. Obviously, the claims of the Great War had been host to a flurry of new statutory powers, but these had not included food rationing. Now, however, the urgency of the times suggested this could not be long delayed. It was already illegal to consume more than two courses when lunching in a public eating-place or more than three for supper and Lord Devonport, Britain’s first “Food Controller” had recently appealed for voluntary rationing. Such well-intentioned overtures were, however, straws in the wind. To add to the latest danger, there had been a poor wheat harvest in 1916 and the potato crop had failed in Scotland and in parts of England.
The authorities now sought to guarantee supplies for all by urging restraint. Civilians were entreated to restrict their weekly consumption to four pounds of bread, two and a half pounds of meat, and three-quarters of a pound of sugar. The previous week had seen the creation of the Women’s Land Army, details of which now began to be circulated. The “Land Girls”, as they were soon dubbed, were all volunteers and the Board of Trade occupied itself by sending agricultural organisers around the country to encourage famers to take on women volunteers. Desperate times required desperate remedies.
Working on the land seemed the very essence of England - the land of John Bull. Formalising the role of women made obvious practical sense, but it was also a powerful metaphor with which to galvanise a nation exhausted by war. It was hoped also that women would prove attractive role models for patriotic engagement and, surely, soon enough they were milking cows, picking fruit and ploughing the land – achievements the recruitment posters were quick to point out. By the end of 1917, there would be between 250,000 and 260,000 women working in agriculture. For those who stayed at home, Women’s Institutes all around the country led the drive for home-grown food and home-made preserves.
This was not an opportunity which seems to have recommended itself to Cynthia Asquith – she seems to have preferred literary salons and dining with wounded officers from good regiments. Her diary suggests, however, that – even in the homes of the gilded elites – a measure of physical discomfort had crept under the door:
…no coal to be procured for love or money. The phenomenal cold still worse than ever and now we can’t even ‘keep the home fires burning’.
Breakfasted in fur coat… wrote in the nursery it being the only room with a fire.
At last we are beginning to feel the pinch of war in material things. What a long time it has taken! It has been an exclusively emotional experience for most of us, but these last days each hostess’s brow has been furrowed by mentally weighing meat, bread, and sugar.
She was sitting pretty, however, by the side of Ethel Cooper – an Australian who had had the singular misfortune to be stranded in Leipzig when war broke out, and was stuck there for the duration. Miss Cooper wrote to her sister Emmie on 11th February:
…there seem no more potatoes… each of us has been given half a pound of what they call potato-flocken. I know no English word for it — they seem to me to be the dried parings of potatoes — you have to soak them overnight, then rub them through a sieve, and the dark parings remain in the sieve and you can use the rest in soup…
Any other people on earth would rise against a Government that had reduced it to such misery, but these folk seem to have no spirit left. Of course, there are no men, except those in uniform, and nearly all the sturdy women are working for the Government too… what one sees in uniform passes belief — there is nothing that is too unfit — they take everything.
We had an excitement on Thursday at midday when the Leipzig airsheds were blown up. Till last night no paper in Germany mentioned it. Then came an official report to say that owing to an accumulation of snow on the roof it had fallen in pulling down the walls — wounding thirty workmen. Now those great sheds were of solid concrete, and though there is a lot of snow lying about, yet it has neither broken down the roofs and walls of any other building in Leipzig, not even my little wooden summerhouse. Do they really expect people to believe such things when they print them officially?
…Now I must stoke the fires to prevent the bathroom pipes from freezing and bursting — this everlasting fire-stoking is such a nuisance and is ruinous to the hands, but it must be done…
Poor Ethel. Quite apart from enduring these privations, she could not actually post her letters. They were carefully hidden away from the German authorities who often turned over her flat. Her sister received them only after hostilities ended.
The Germans seemed bent on upsetting people – venturing on a bout of unrestricted diplomatic warfare, as well as sinking the ships of neutrals. To the ire of the Americans, news now arrived that the US Ambassador in Berlin, James Gerard, was being held hostage. Gerard was an excellent character, who had done a range of fine humanitarian work in recent years. He had been recalled home the previous week following the cessation of diplomatic relations and protocol would have ensured a swift passage. Instead, he found himself held in Berlin and prevented from communicating with the USA. The German government, faced with the demand for an explanation, seemed flustered. On 9th February, it claimed – untruthfully – that the same had happened to their ambassador in the States, Count Bernstorff. The following day, they acknowledged the error but blamed it on lesser officials exceeding their authority.
The immediate crisis blew over soon enough and Gerard arrived in Switzerland on 12th February, but it had all made for very bad headlines in Washington and much international disquiet. Chile was particularly worried about her ships, and warned the USA that she would retain a free hand to react in case of damage to Chilean ships. China threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Germany. In truth, however, most neutral powers were sitting on their hands.
To those already committed, neutrality seemed shameful. The commitment of the British to the struggle was re-emphasised, with understated clarity, when George V performed the traditional ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament on 7th February. No pomp and ceremony this year, however: the day began with the King and Queen making their way from Buckingham Palace in a plain carriage, accompanied by officers from the armies of the Empire. The King wore his Admiral’s uniform and most of the Lords were in service dress or morning suits. Instead of the usual dignitaries, the King had invited 300 wounded NCOs and men from the colonial armed forces to sit in the Royal Gallery.
The King was never disposed to garrulity but, even by his standards, his speech this year was short and to the point. He ended with a masterly injunction for the British people to hold fast and yet draw pride from all they had already achieved:
The accomplishment of the task to which I have set My hand will entail unsparing demands on the energies and resources of all My subjects. I am assured, however, that My people will respond to every call necessary to the success of our cause with the same indomitable ardour and devotion that have filled me with pride and gratitude since the war began.