It Helps A Lot

THAT FIRST DAY - 6th April - had been spectacular. The Canadians completed the capture of the whole of Vimy Ridge. It was, perhaps, their crowning achievement of the entire war, but it came at great cost: 3,598 were killed and 7,004 wounded.

Given the enormity of what had been asked of them, these figures might have been worse still. General Horne, the First Army commander, summarised reasons for the Canadian success:

The Vimy Ridge has been considered as a position of great strength; the Germans have considered it to be impregnable. To have carried this position with so little loss testifies to the soundness of the plan, thoroughness of preparation, dash and determination in execution, and devotion to duty on the part of all concerned.

Lieutenant Colonel Feilding of the Connaught Rangers took a keen interest in all that was going on:

April 10 The firing on our right which I spoke of yesterday was of course the huge battle raging on the Vimy Ridge, of which I then knew nothing.

The enemy seems to be catching it on all sides, hot and strong. What a mess he has made of the diplomatic side of the war! To have brought in the U.S.A. — quite unnecessarily; — what a blunder from his point of view! Surely, the nation must have gone mad!

German captured by Canadians at Vimy Ridge passing through a French Village in 1917

The British were pretty satisfied too. The Germans were pushed back four miles in 48 hours during the Battle of Arras. By 11th April, Allenby’s “diversionary” attack had soaked up three miles of the Hindenburg Line, and the British had bagged 13,000 prisoners and 200 guns. Beb Asquith, a Forward Observation Officer with the Royal Field Artillery, remembered:

Suddenly, without any warning, away to our left and then on our own front the Germans rose from their trenches and began to surrender: at first two or three grey figures seemed to emerge from the earth, then tens, and then hundreds, and they came pacing slowly towards us over the thin powdery snow. Some of our walking wounded began to go back over the field; our men in the lane, suddenly released from their tension, rested on their rifles, and an officer near me lit a cigarette.

Surrender came only after extremes of trauma - or, maybe, out of sheer opportunism. Robert Fitzgerald sent this account of the week’s events to his old school, Gresham’s, in Norfolk:

…an officer came out of a dug-out after we had been there for a couple of hours, calmly smoking a cigar, and was very much astonished to find British Tommies in possession of his sector of the trench. This same officer, seeing an officer in our Company walking towards him, shot him point blank, killing him instantly, and then had the cheek to hold up his hands in surrender.

Summary justice followed:

He did not hold them up for long though, being shot dead by the officer’s servant. I have related this small incident just to show the true character of the Bosche officers. They are simply out to kill, and when they have done that, they are satisfied.

Helping a wounded comrade at Vimy Ridge, April 1917

The poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen, was a radically tougher specimen now than when he had first arrived at the front six months earlier. In a letter to his mother, he described an action on 12th April when the Manchesters assisted the French in an attack on St Quentin:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced into the open. The Colonel sent round this message the next day: ‘I was filled with admiration at the conduct of the Battalion under the heavy shell-fire… The leadership of the officers was excellent, and the conduct of the men beyond praise.’

Beyond praise, maybe, but not beyond the reach of trauma. There were vicious hand-to-hand encounters and, when the British attempted to use tanks in the offensive against the village of Bullecourt, a particularly traumatic fiasco followed. Heavy snow had already delayed the attack by a full day and, since news of the postponement somehow failed to get news through to the 62nd Division, they moved ahead unsupported.

The following day, 11th April, General Gough insisted the attack go ahead. Australian commanders, hardly a timorous species, were unhappy, but Gough was adamant. The Australian Divisions duly pressed ahead and seized two lines of German trenches but, without artillery support, it was a doomed enterprise. After holding them for several hours, they were driven back, suffering very heavy losses.

Eleven tanks accompanied the attack. A couple penetrated to the German lines and, in one of them, Second Lieutenant Morris cruised along German trenches for 1,000 yards, destroying numerous machine-gun emplacements before returning to the British lines.

Alas for the other nine. Most became entangled in wire, or were disabled by shells. Ammunition and petrol tanks exploded when hit by bullets and some crews were burnt to death; Bernstein’s tank was hit by a shell which decapitated the driver and wounded the corporal. Some of those who had managed to bale out were shot. We might despise commanders for testing out this new technology in the heat of battle. But how else could the true value of these behemoths be learned?

29th Infantry Batallion advancing over No Man’s Land through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917

Meanwhile, another poet-soldier, Siegfried Sassoon, was ordered on 14th April to take command of a hundred bombers to act as reserve for the First Cameronians in an attack the following day. That night, he noted in his diary:

… I have seen the most ghastly sights since we came up here. The dead bodies lying about the trenches and in the open are beyond description — especially after the rain. (A lot of the Germans killed by our bombardment last week are awful.) Our shelling of the line — and subsequent bombing etc — has left a number of mangled Germans — they will haunt me till I die. And everywhere one sees the British Tommy in various states of dismemberment –most of them are shot through the head — so not so fearful as the shell-twisted Germans. Written at 9.30 sitting in the Hindenburg underground tunnel on Sunday night, fully expecting to get killed on Monday morning.

His expectations were, happily, unfulfilled.

The big diplomatic focus of the Allies was upon their newest ally, the United States. On 12th April, Lloyd George delivered a speech at the American Club in London, saluting “the American Nation as comrades-in-arms” and railing against Prussian militarism and despotism which had created this war. Anticipating a rhetorical device favoured by another Prime Minister some 80 years later, he stressed that

The road to victory, the guarantee of victory, the absolute assurance of victory is to be found in one word — ships; and in a second word — ships; and in a third word — ships.

Lloyd George — always up for a speech

He was particularly pleased the USA was already building a thousand 3,000-tonners for the Atlantic - as well he might: Britain lost 50 ships this week to German submarines, and other powers sacrificed a further 52. On 13th April alone, 101 British sailors were drowned.

One reporter at The Savoy was dewy-eyed:

Gathered for lunch between the twined flags of America and Britain, we seemed to have recaught the glad, early spirit of the war. Youth was everywhere… an incubus of doubt was lifted. Even through the tobacco smoke, America’s clear young eyes shone with that utter faith in a just cause which is the assurance of victory.

Such words would not have been to the taste of Lieutenant Colonel Feilding who, in the same letter alluded to above, had noted – perhaps a little testily:

I think most of us here are sorry that America has come in. We feel we are capable of finishing the job, and we would prefer to do so by ourselves.

But Feilding saw the war in terms of the Western Front while Lloyd George had the cares of a world statesman. It could only help the allies when countries rallied to support the USA or, at least, tilted their neutrality in the direction of the Entente. Bolivia and Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany; Argentina sent Notes approving the American declaration of war; Costa Rica placed its territorial waters and ports at the USA’s disposal and Panama had already offered the US help in defending the Panama Canal. More practically, the USA War Bill, calling for a loan of 400 million dollars was passed in the House of Representatives on 14th April.

For the USA, the good news ended there. An explosion on 10th April at an artillery shell plant in Eddystone, Pennsylvania had killed 139 people. The workforce was almost exclusively female, with women and girls working in the loading room, packing shells with black powder. Somehow, powder ignited and set off a series of detonations which led to a huge fire. Fifty bodies were unrecognisable and would be buried in a mass grave. Others were found in the nearby Delaware river, suggesting that they had been blown there by the explosion or belonged to victims who had drowned as they sought refuge from the heat.

German saboteurs were initially blamed - it was early enough in the war for the Americans for that kind of smear to have some currency. Malfunctioning equipment was a more likely cause. Thousands attended the massive funeral service held on 13th April at Chester Rural Cemetery. America, like all combatants, was forced to face tragedy which emanated from anywhere at any time, and to live with the bitter truth that sorrow was limitless.

Certainly, as the U-Boat war escalated to a terrifying climax, Britain experienced the full force of it. On 10th April, another hospital ship - HMHS Salta - fell victim to a mine laid by UC-26 at the mouth of the port of Le Havre. A huge explosion smashed the hull and the ship sank in under ten minutes. Of 205 on board, 130 perished.

Worse lay ahead. Sailing in the Sea of Crete, off Milos, HMS Arcadia was torpedoed and sunk on 15th April by UC-74 and 277 men died. That same day, another troopship, Cameronia, was torpedoed and sunk by SM U-33 while en route from Marseille to Alexandria. Since there were 2,650 people on board and the ship sank in 40 minutes, the potential was there for a grand catastrophe. In fact, lifeboats were successfully launched, but even then 210 were drowned. Such gargantuan losses of men and materiel could not be sustained - certainly not in Britain where food supplies dwindled alarmingly. A meaningful answer to the submarine menace had to be found, and at once. Discussions regarding the introduction of a convoy system assumed a new momentum.

Crew members of U-96

National crisis in Russia seemed endemic. In February and March, it had been less about the fortunes of war than about the abdication of the Tsar and urban revolution.

The full potential of rising political extremism had, in recent weeks, been shrouded in the fog of so many dramatic events. However, political exiles and former prisoners now flooded back into Moscow and Petrograd, following the recent amnesty - and few of these were troubling to show much gratitude to the Provisional Government. On 12th April, the renowned socialist revolutionary Catherine Breshkovskaya, known as “Babushka”, the “Grandmother of the Revolution”, was given a rapturous reception when she returned from exile in Siberia. She had spent 44 of her 73 years in prison or exile. Professor Morozoff, another activist, was there to greet her. He told a reporter:

Tell your people the revolution this time has achieved a final and irrevocable triumph. A new era has come which will transfigure Russia and irradiate the whole world.

The words were a little previous, but he was not far wrong. From the moment that news of the Tsar’s abdication had reached him, Lenin, Bolshevik leader-in-exile, had been desperate to return to Russia. Steeped in Marxist dogma, he interpreted what had happened as the enactment of Marx’s prophecy of a capitalist revolution overturning a feudal order. His great terror was that the Provisional Government would colonise popular energies and persist in the war.

According to Romain Rolland in Switzerland, Lenin was not just another socialist émigré, but a man with a significant reputation:

…an exceptionally energetic man, the only one of all the socialist leaders to exert an enormous influence with the people, due to the clarity of his aims and the infectious power of his will.

Thanks to the Germans providing him with a sealed train to take him across Europe, he and his acolytes had left Zurich on 9th April and spent much of the week travelling across enemy territory.

They moved in civilised style. His wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, noted on 12th April:

The Germans kept up a constant charade of abundance; the cook served us the most filling meals, which our fraternity, in its emigration, had long forgotten. As we looked out of the windows of our compartment, we were struck by the total lack of adult men: only women, teenagers and children were visible at the stations, in the fields, and on the streets.

Train journey over, the group travelled by steamer to Trelleborg in Sweden and thence to Stockholm where Radek had to work hard to persuade Lenin to discard his hobnailed boots and buy a decent suit - the ascetics of radical costume were something Lenin always took seriously. Moreover, he could not be sure, as he travelled through Sweden and Finland, that he would not face arrest when he arrived in Petrograd.

Far from it, the Finland Station was bedecked with flags when his train drew in late on 16th April, and a hero’s welcome awaited. Presented with flowers and welcomed by a representative of the Petrograd Soviet, his words were suitably uncompromising:

Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers, I am happy to greet in your persons the victorious Russian revolution, and greet you as the vanguard of the world-wide proletarian army… the piratical imperialist war is the beginning of civil war throughout Europe… world-wide socialism has dawned… any day now the whole of European capitalism may crash. The Russian revolution accomplished by you has prepared the way and opened a new epoch. Long live the world-wide socialist revolution.

Pavel Milyukov

Pity the unhappy Russian Foreign Minister, Pavel Milyukov. On 12th April he issued an appeal, reminding people that there was a war going on - one on the borders of Russia - that needed attention.

Russia, he said, remained…

exposed to the blows of a powerful enemy who has seized entire provinces of our country.

An exhortation followed, urging the:

defence of our own inheritance by every means, and the liberation of our country from the invading enemy… [these] constitute the foremost and most urgent task of our fighters, defending the nation’s liberty.

Concepts like “inheritance” and “liberty” however, were moot to many eyes and ears. So too was the identity of the “enemy”. The Provisional Government’s efforts to rekindle the war against the Germans had also been seriously undermined by Order №1 - one of the earliest edicts by the Petrograd Soviet after the revolution, which decreed that all authority in the Russian army was now invested in the hands of soldiers’ Soviets - that is, councils elected by the troops. It was great politics, but hardly conducive to the smooth management of a great army, let alone the prosecution of war.

Still, these were the times. Against the backdrop of events, the former Tsar and his family looked ever more hopeless and helpless. As the French Ambassador, Maurice Paleologue, reported on 12th April:

The Emperor still presents an extraordinary spectacle of indifference and imperturbability. He spends, in his calm and casual way, his day skimming the papers, smoking cigarettes, doing puzzles, playing with his children and sweeping up snow in the garden. He seems to find a kind of relief in being at length free of the burden of supreme power…

The Empress, on the other hand, has taken to mystical exaltation; she is always saying: ‘It is God who has sent us this ordeal; I accept it thankfully for my eternal salvation.’ But she cannot refrain from outbursts of indignation when she sees how strictly those orders are carried out which deprive the Emperor of all freedom of movement, even within the confines of the palace. Sometimes a sentry refuses to allow him to pass into a gallery; sometimes the officer on duty, at the end of a meal taken in common, gives him orders to retire to his room. Nicholas II always obeys, without a word of reproach. Alexandra Feodorovna rages and protests as if she had been insulted; but she soon recovers her self-control and calms down, murmuring: ‘We must submit to this too. Did not Christ drink the cup to the very dregs?’

The former Tsarina’s hold on any reality outside her immediate experience was jaw-droppingly bad. But - melodramatic tableaux notwithstanding - her courage shines out.

The Tsar and Tsarina under house arrest at Tsarskoye Selo

The fate of those who have fallen from prominence and power is endlessly fascinating. But the last words of this week properly belong to someone destined never to rise very far. Since February 1917, the Canadian teenager, Winnie McClare, had been with the 24th Victoria Rifles in France. On 16th April, he wrote home to his mother:

I can only write a short letter this time, but hope I will be able to do so soon. I have not written a letter for over a week and a half as I have been in the trenches for 9 days, and it is impossible to write up there.

You have no doubt heard before this of the big advance of the Canadians and the capture of Vimy Ridge. I was in the whole of that battle and it was Hell. I got a small splinter of shrapnel through the fleshy part of my shoulder. It was very slight and I went through it all with it. It was some battle and I am glad to say that I was through it, as it will be one of the biggest things in Canadian history.

We are out for a few days rest and, believe me, we need it… Well, Mother, if you can, please send some socks when you can, and anything else you care to send in the way of eats… Well, Mother Dear, please don’t do any worrying as it does no good. But remember me in your prayer. I know you do that and it helps me a lot.

Well, Mother, I will close now. Give my love to all.

I remain

As Ever

Your Loveing Son,


Bless the boy. It was his last letter home. A few days later, he was killed.

Private Percy Winthrop McClare RIP