THE SHEER AWFULNESS of Verdun taxes the credulity. Ever since the start of the war, people – in copious numbers – had been consumed by bullets, artillery shells, gas and even by mud. They had been wasted by starvation and drowned at sea. What made this different?
One answer was its strategic significance: the fate of the Allies hung in the balance so long as there were a prospect of France being forced to abandon the town. On 16th April, the Germans bombarded Avocourt Wood and Hill 304, part of a dangerous onward momentum. Another may be that Verdun saw artillery bombardment on an epic scale – for ordinary soldiers, not an irrelevance, but a torture.
According to Sergeant Paul Dubrulle, a Jesuit priest serving with the 8th Regiment:
When one heard the whistle in the distance, one’s whole body contracted to resist the too excessively potent vibrations of the explosion, and at each repetition it was a new attack, a new fatigue, a new suffering. Under this regime, the most solid nerves cannot last for long… To die from a bullet seems to be nothing; parts of our being remain intact; but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is a fear that flesh cannot support and which is fundamentally the great suffering of the bombardment.
These tribulations were shared fully by the Germans. One Brandenburger wrote in his diary:
Courage has nothing to do with it. The fear of death surpasses all other feelings and terrible compulsion alone drives the soldier forward. We are motivated to fight on by this damned discipline of the Prussian Army… and the simple feeling that the terrible must be done
For the British generals, some purpose might be rescued if the madness allowed them to launch a successful diversionary offensive. On 14th April Haig at last extracted that the government actually approved his intention to launch such a battle. That same day, Kitchener told him: “There are now 1,300,000 men under training in Great Britain.” The spoiler lay in the last five words: Haig needed trained men, in France – and at once.
For men whose nerves proved insufficient to the terrible task, the firing squad beckoned. The diary of Captain T.H. Westmacott, First Indian Division, records the fate this week of one poor unfortunate:
14 April 1916. We received orders to attend the execution of a deserter in the Cheshire Regiment. The man had deserted when his battalion was in the trenches and had been caught in Paris. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was remitted, and he was sent back to his battalion. He did so well in the trenches that he was allowed leave to England. He deserted again, and after being arrested was sent back to his battalion in France, when he was again sentenced to death. This time he was shot.
We got up at 3.30 a.m. I found Coates, the firing party and a company of Cheshires drawn up opposite a chair under a railway embankment. The condemned man spent the night in a house about half a mile away. He walked from there blindfolded with the doctor, the parson and the escort. He walked quite steadily on to parade, sat down in the chair, and told them not to tie him too tight. A white disc was pinned over his heart. He was the calmest man on the ground.
The officer commanding the firing party did everything by signal, only speaking the word “Fire!” The firing party was twelve strong, six kneeling, six standing. On the word “Fire!” the man’s head fell back, and the firing party about turned at once. The doctor said the man was not quite dead, but before the OC firing party could finish him with his revolver he was dead, having felt nothing. The company was then marched off. The body was wrapped in a blanket [and] buried in a grave which had been dug close by, unmarked and unconsecrated.
The unhappy soldier in this instance was Private Edward Bolton. He was one of 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers found guilty of offences carrying the death penalty, of whom 3,000 were sentenced to death; 346 of these were actually executed, usually for desertion.
The British were proud of their ability to shoulder dirty jobs, but generally pleased when they found a reason to show clemency. The death penalty was less controversial when meted out upon spies. At the trial of Carl Lody, 18 months earlier, the public feasted on gloating detail of both his trial and last moments. Lody’s calm fortitude had, however, elicited a degree of public sympathy which HMG found disconcerting. No longer, however. The Daily Telegraph on 12th April carried this announcement under the heading “Spy Executed”:
Yesterday the Secretary of the War Office made the following announcement: ‘A prisoner who was charged with espionage, and tried by General Court-Martial at the Westminster Guildhall on March 20 and following days, was found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentences was duly confirmed and carried out yesterday.
While unnamed in Press reports, the departed was actually the Peruvian-born, Ludovico Hurwitz-y-Zender, accused of spying on the movements of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and sending the information in coded telegrams to a German agent in Bergen, Norway. He had been arrested in July 1915. The Peruvian representative made a plaintive appeal following his conviction, but to no avail. Zender was executed on 11th April and became the eleventh and last spy to be shot at the Tower of London during the Great War.
The international outcry following Edith Cavell’s execution in 1915 had also provoked the Germans into greater circumspection – but news of executions, those of women in particular, always leaked. This same week, via a tip-off in the New York Times, the British learned that another woman, Gabrielle Petit, had been shot by the enemy for espionage in occupied Belgium. Having offered her services to British Intelligence, Mlle Petit had trained in Britain and returned to Belgium where she ran agents and also smuggled military information to the Netherlands. In February, her luck had run out. Sentenced to death at a court-martial on 12th March, she wore a red, yellow and black rosette to her execution, refused to be blindfolded as she faced a firing squad on 1st April, coolly observing that “A Belgian woman knows how to die for her country.” She was only 23.
One wonders whether those condemned to die had – through terror or exhaustion – finally grown weary of life. Verdun offered only mayhem for the living, as well as depressing discomfort. The rains poured down all week. The German Official History records: “Water in the trenches came above the knees. The men had not a dry thread on their bodies; there was not a dug-out that could provide dry accommodation. The numbers of sick rose alarmingly.”
Lorna Neill, the young British volunteer helping to run the Cantine Anglaise at Revigny, recalled later:
In that sort of atmosphere it was very difficult to feel much sympathy for the Germans, and we ourselves heard all sorts of horror stories. Revigny had been invaded by the Germans in the early part of the war before they were pushed back. The town was almost in ruins, and every civilian and peasant had a tale to tell about terrible things they said the Germans had done.
In the battle for survival, there was no time for equivocation, and people latched on to pleasures which came their way, even if these were callous. Lorna Neill remembered:
There was a lake not far away and it iced over that winter. They said that there was a quantity of German corpses under the ice, killed in the fighting in 1914. I don’t know if it was true, but we believed it. And we used to go there to skate. It didn’t bother us a bit… Whether we were heartless, or just very young, or whether it was the circumstances under which we were living and the excitement of it all, we really managed to enjoy ourselves. And it was exciting. To be there near Verdun, when it was all anyone could talk about—Verdun, Verdun, Verdun—was immensely exciting.
Now removed from front line action, Raymond Asquith found himself reflecting from GHQ in Montreuil to which he had moved from St Omer at the end of March on the contrast between his old and new lives – and about the immeasurable toughness endured by soldiers in the West.
12 April — Here on the whole I think that time passes more swiftly than in the trenches, owing to the greater sameness of the days and weeks. The Boche continues to pour new troops into Belgium—including Austrian guns — I suppose for Verdun — which I still think may fall in the end. It seems (from prisoners’ statements) that there is considerable rivalry and feeling between the armies of the East and West. A Bavarian Divn. arrived at Verdun some weeks ago from the Balkans singing this elfin rhyme:
‘Im Osten Steht das wahre Heer’ (In the East stands the true army)
‘Im Westen nur die Fenerwehr’ (In the West only the false)
But after one day’s fighting those of them who were not killed either went mad or ran away or both. I’m told that our troops from Gallipoli also arrived here with the idea that they were the only men who knew anything about real war. But the famous 29th Divn. were bombed out of the line the first night they entered it and their illusions are rapidly fading
15 April — I have got to the stage now in which I would rather beat Harmsworth [Lord Harmsworth, the press baron, and a great foe of H.H. Asquith, Raymond’s father] than beat the Germans. He seems to me just as aggressively stupid and stupidly aggressive as they are, and much less brave and efficient.
The Germans were efficient enough, however, to keep the Russians at bay on the Eastern Front. They lost two lines of trenches near Lake Naroch on 12th April, but in the process the Russians lost far more men than they, and the attack seemed devoid of strategic usefulness. Russia did better against the Turks however, forcing them back against Bitlis (now eastern Turkey) on 15th April. Above all, General Shvartz’s army now moved on Trebizon (also known as Trabzon), occasioning massive destruction. With unsophisticated ethnic chauvinism, the occupiers banned mosques, and drove the Turks out of the city. Trebizon was no stranger to recent horrors, however, having been a major extermination centre during the Armenian Genocide.
The British in Mesopotamia also did well, insofar as they made advances on the Tigris and occupied the Kharga Oasis. The trouble was that the Turks had a knack of holding out well where it mattered – notably at Kut-al-Amara where besieged British forces were confronted by advancing malnutrition and rampant disease. General Townshend kept varying his estimate of how much longer their supplies would last – but, as the relief force was still held up, an airlift commenced on 15th April.
This was an excellent idea, but foundered horribly in practice. Major Anderson recalled that “it was only in the morning that the aeroplanes could fly owing to the heat which overheated their engines and the number of trips per day seemed fearfully disappointing”. The garrison required a minimum of 5,000 lbs of supplies per day and drops included “salt, saccharine, opium, drugs and surgical dressings, mails, spare parts for wireless plant, money, and a millstone weighing seventy pounds, which was dropped by means of a parachute”. However, it was hard to attach the cargoes or to land the sacks accurately and “The loads were strung below the fuselage and, when released at a height of 6,000 feet, fell turning over and leaving an aerial trail of flour till they plunged with dull thuds on to the plain near the brick kilns.” The besieged troops had the agony of watching much-needed supplies falling into the Tigris.
Many besieged soldiers felt bitter and abandoned. The British authorities were not callous, however, so much as distracted, not least because Intelligence operatives now learned that Sir Roger Casement was en route to Ireland, courtesy of a German submarine, the U-19.
While he proceeded underwater, an old German cargo vessel (the Libau) now re-vamped in the colours of a Norwegian neutral (the Aud), headed for the west coast of Ireland. It was packed with 20,000 rifles dating from 1891 which the Germans had – slightly unenthusiastically – donated. It was evident that a rising of some kind was imminent. The Aud’s progress was hampered by lacking a radio, and by having also to brave hurricane-force winds while dodging British patrol ships.
Back in New York, John Devoy, the leader of the Irish-American co-conspirators received a startling message on 14th April from the Military Committee in Dublin: “Arms must not be landed before midnight of Sunday, 23rd.”
Since Spindler, Captain of the Aud, had no radio, it looked increasingly probable that the contents of the ship, human and materiel, were destined to pass straight into the hands of the British. Casement had recently written to a friend that “the impending action in Ireland rests on very justifiable grounds. I will happily go to Ireland with the arms and do all I can to sustain and support a resistance based on these grounds.” These were brave words, but while his submarine contained Zeiss binoculars, Mauser pistols, flashlights and cyanide capsules, these were hardly sufficient to occasion the break-up of the Union.
Irish rebels were the enemy at the gate, but there was also an enemy within. For the precarious Liberal-led coalition, this might well be the Tories. The need to extend conscription to married men, despite earlier assurances to the contrary, forced the government to come out in favour of a move which, only weeks earlier, would have seemed inconceivable. There was a vital Cabinet meeting on Monday 17th April in which Asquith worked hard to keep his colleagues on side.
For the moment, he succeeded – but a day of reckoning seemed to have grown ever closer in the eyes of his right-wing critics, especially following what they perceived as his irresolute response to the recent strike at an engineering and munitions works in Glasgow. The factory produced “a particular heavy gun and gun-mountings, for which we are receiving the most urgent demands” and, although production had now been resumed, the interruption had been widely condemned. Socialist activities in Glasgow – evidenced in a rash of local stoppages and the bitter rent strike of 1915 – had been a thorn in the government’s side for many months.
Asquith’s critics wished he would resort more freely to The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which, introduced at the start of the war, laid opponents open to the charge of sedition. Indeed, the previous month he had done so, with the result that some trade union leaders had been “deported” from Glasgow to Edinburgh. This had earned the warm approval of The Spectator, which considered that “Clear and strong action was all that was needed, and for our part we cannot understand why it was not taken sooner.”
There were signs that Asquith now thought the same. On 11th April, another trial was held, in which more left-wing activists were variously accused of “intending to cause sedition”. All were sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment. Their socialist newspapers, Forward and Vanguard, were suppressed.
The particular focus of official anger was the Marxist schoolteacher, John Maclean, arrested in February on four charges of sedition, including for giving anti-conscription speeches at open-air meetings in Glasgow. He was sentenced to four years’ penal servitude. Although seen as draconian, even at the time, his fate left most soldiers unmoved. Viewed from France, strike action seemed often no more than radical pay bargaining undertaken by those already well-paid and in safe occupations.
Where possible, however, the British still preferred to hate the Germans. A chance item in the Daily Telegraph on 12th April reminds us that, under a veneer of portentousness, the opportunity for needling the Kaiser was one never willingly passed up.
Reports from Berlin, arriving through Switzerland, state that the Kaiser is at present at Potsdam, where he receives no one but members of his family and a few official personages.
When on the French front, before Verdun, where he addressed his troops, the Kaiser had a narrow escape from being killed by a French shell, which exploded near him, killing several officers and destroying the imperial motor-car. The German official communique announced that the Emperor was unhurt.
His unexpected departure for Potsdam, however, and the mystery with which he surrounds himself, lead to the supposition that in reality the Kaiser was struck by a fragment of the shell, or that the violence of the explosion dangerously affected his nervous system.