THERE IS AN awkward and irreducible truth at work here: wars tend to favour not the gallant and the good, but those with the greatest stomach for the fight.
That, of course, is splendid when the man with spirit is also one in whom virtue abounds. In Russia, there were an infinite number of good reasons to cheer the demise of the Romanovs, or to cavil at the ineptitudes of the Provisional Government. But it’s hard, at this distance in time, to love Lenin. In these last days and weeks of 1917, he and his lieutenants seem to have been nothing so much as mad and bad. And they were incontestably dangerous to know.
The domestic drama now unfolding in Petrograd was the fate of the Constituent Assembly. The Socialist Revolutionaries had won the elections hands down, by any conventional reckoning, but these were not conventional times. The Bolsheviks had at their disposal all the contorted logic so beloved of ideologues and, far more to the point, a formidable coercive apparatus.
The stage was set for conflict. On 11th December, in advance of 7the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, a big crowd marched in Petrograd bearing flags with slogans proclaiming, “All Power to the Constituent Assembly”.
Fat chance of that happening, however. As one observer noted, the marchers were met by “Hooting Red Guards, rifles at the ready, flinging themselves at any and every crowd: ‘Disperse!’…”
Lenin had obviously prepared for this moment, even to the extent of selecting slogans for use in demonstrations:
The working people demand that the Constituent Assembly recognise the Soviet power and the Soviet Government! Long live the nationalisation of the banks! Down with the saboteurs and striking officials! Boycott them, use counter-revolutionary terrorism against them!
One can only assume they sounded punchier in Russian, or else everyone would have lain down and died of boredom. More pertinently, he succeeded in getting a decree voted through which allowed for the arrest of the Constitutional Democrats, and for their trial before revolutionary tribunals.
On 14th December, he confirmed that “we shall convene the Constituent Assembly as soon as 400 delegates have arrived” but also insisted that the Bolsheviks
shall crush the resistance of the propertied classes, using the same means as they used to crush the proletariat — no other means have been invented.
He had the Kadets especially in mind, but Lenin’s capacity for suspicion and appetite for vengeance were always distributed generously. Zinaida Gippius commented:
The systematic arrest of the arriving Constitutional Democrats continues… They arrested so many, that I don’t know where they are being taken… In the streets a deafening silence, darkness, no words. The winter is black and white, it is terror.
And that surely is the point. Cold and fear prevailed. The temperature had dropped to minus 13 degrees in Petrograd, minus 9 in Moscow. In bleak reality, there was startlingly little readiness to oppose the Bolsheviks. The tsarist Carl Mannerheim, writing on 12th December, recorded a lunchtime discussion on armed resistance:
I argued that such resistance was necessary… Better death with a sword in hand than to get a bullet in the back or to be executed. My table neighbours were of a different opinion and considered the prospect of armed struggle against the Bolsheviks to be a futile one. I was profoundly disappointed by the fact that public opinion was the same both in the capital and in Odessa.
A few days later his visit ended:
I spent a week in Petrograd and in that time saw many of my old friends. It was perfectly obvious that they were all in a terribly depressed state. Fear ruled over people, and they did not display the slightest hint of struggle against the new regime.
The prevalence of lawlessness and violence was only superficially at odds with the new government’s determination to sue for peace. On 15th December, the Russians and Germans signed their armistice, initially set for 28 days. The enemies, hereon in, were to be found within Russia’s highly fluid borders. Cossacks under General Kaledin took on the Bolsheviks near Rostov by the river Don, and after a few days of fighting, entered Rostov, provoking the local Bolshevik chiefs to beat a hasty retreat to the Black Sea fleet. That was about the sum of the good news to those who later became known as the Whites, however. On 13th December, General Kornilov’s troops were worsted by the Bolsheviks near Bielgorod in southern Russia.
Given that violence was the order of the day, all kinds of opportunists got in on the act. Felix Yusupov, living very much from hour to hour in the Crimea, encountered on 17th December:
a new band [which] descended from mountains — horse marines, thugs, whom even the Bolsheviks feared. Bandits armed to the teeth, atop stolen horses, flew into our yard with red flags. On the flags the promising ‘Death to the bourgeoisie!’ ‘Death to the counter-revolutionaries!’ ‘Death to property owners!’
They were not, one might have thought, natural chums for this bisexual nobleman — a stratospherically rich one at that. But then came a surprise:
Suddenly one of them asked if it were true that I killed Rasputin. When I said that it was true, they drank to my health and announced that of it indeed were so, neither I nor my family had anything to fear.
Talk about the devil’s own luck. But that was the critical quality of these exceptional times. How safe one was depended upon the place and also upon the moment.
There were also startling fluctuations in material comfort. On 13th December, the opera singer, Feodor Chaliapin, described his experiences:
performing in the People’s House, which is always packed to the rafters with an appreciative public… Groceries might be expensive, but everything’s still available, and I deny myself nothing. The only thing you can’t get is white bread…
Perhaps that was true of the opera-going classes. Many others remembered differently. However, the rarefied pleasures of the cultural elite were on the edge of becoming democratised. That same day, Lenin issued rules for the management of the Public Library in Petrograd:
Because tsarism had played havoc with public education over a period of many years, the library service in Petrograd is in a very bad state… The library’s reading-room must be open, as is the practice with private libraries and reading-rooms for the rich in civilised countries, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, not excluding Sunday and holidays.
Set against the full fury of revolution, banging on about library opening hours seems nickity-pickity nonsense. It is important to remember that this nonsense was authored by the same man who was simultaneously presiding over the ludicrously misnamed revolutionary justice.
It does not do to scorn Lenin. It is one of his distinctions, as well as of his acolytes, that they seemed to have shed terror and were interested in life, only to the extent that existence of any kind could be made conformable to revolutionary socialism. That certainty and audacity was something for which few of their countrymen had an answer.
Such a potent commodity was becoming more of a scarcity in the West as well. We get some sense of this in a speech made by Prime Minister David Lloyd George on 14th December at Gray’s Inn to the heads of the Air Services. It was billed as an occasion to praise the role played by aircraft in the war, but nobody in the audience could have been in much doubt that what was really on the PM’s mind was the recent letter of Lord Lansdowne to the press, demanding a negotiated peace with Germany.
The real danger is not the extreme pacifist. I warn the nation to watch the man who thinks that there is a half-way house between victory and defeat. No such house exists. There are men who think that you can end the war now by some sort of what they call ‘peace’ by setting up a league of nations with attendant conditions. That is the right policy for us after we have achieved victory, but without victory, it would be a farce… It means that ultimately the world will be intimidated by successful bandits.
Lloyd George was a practised polemicist: this wasn’t an argument, but an assertion. Its reasonableness depended on the extent to which the Germans were the out-and-out stinkers that he claimed.
German monstrousness was a matter which was also presently exercising Lieutenant Colonel Feilding in his letter home on 16th December. He was presently in the support lines at Ronssoy.
I was wandering about the ruins of this village this morning, looking for cellars into which to put my men in case of bombardment; — or rather I was being led by one of my Platoon Commanders to some which he had discovered, when we passed the old peace-time cemetery. It is a shocking sight. Practically every grave has been opened by the enemy; why, I cannot guess. Can it have been to look for supposed buried treasure, or just wanton insult and desecration? In one case the great stone slab covering a deep vault has been dropped on to three coffins which lie on the floor below, smashing them, and overturning two, which lie upon their sides, so that the crumbling contents are dribbling out. Into another vault a silvered crucifix has been thrown and lies broken at the bottom.
What can the enemy think is the good of all this? What result can he expect from it but the creation in the minds of the French of a furious desire for vengeance? I imagine they will stop at nothing if they ever get into Germany. Imagine, if we had experienced such things in England!
Feilding was ever a fair-minded observer. But it would be unjust to deduce any general truth from a particular incident.
Lloyd George, in his speech, was trying to stir the sinews of a very wearied and disillusioned people. He acknowledged Britain had been through some hard times, but predictably pushed the line that fortunes were on the up:
The deadly grip of the British navy is having its effect, and the valour of our troops is making an impression which, in the end, will tell. We are laying the foundations of a bridge which, when completed, will carry us into a new world.
There was all the difference in the world between wowing a civilian audience at one of the Inns of Court, and persuading those who braved the blood and the bullets in France. The reality was that some of these were becoming deeply sceptical as to what this war was all about. An army chaplain, Julian Bickersteth, testifies to this in an extraordinary letter home, reflecting upon the recent battle of Cambrai:
When will this senseless murder end? Is there nobody sufficiently Christian to back up Lord Lansdowne’s Peace Initiative? I have at present only just had the chance of glancing at his letter, but from what I saw it seems to be a wonderfully clear and statesmanlike effort to bring us back again to the right judgement. Under the conditions at present existing and with Russia out of it, and even in spite of the coming help of the USA, I do not see why the war should ever end, unless someone is big enough to lead the nation into a clearer view of the situation.
The country is hoodwinked. Facts are distorted or totally misrepresented by the press. Everyone seems to be on the make. My nostrils are filled with the smell of blood. My eyes are glutted with the sight of bleeding bodies and shattered limbs, my heart wrung with the agony of wounded and dying men. Splendid, finely-built lads come in an endless stream to your dressing-stations, many scarcely breathing, some mercifully unconscious, not a few to spend their last hours amid the stench of blood and noise of guns, too weak to reach the hospitals. It is pitiful to see the men suffering from gas. They lie, their eyes streaming, their bodies burnt and blistered and vomiting out their very souls — and but little can be done to relieve them.
The author of this pungent missive recognised he was hardly an impartial witness:
Of course you will say that my view is distorted by the sights and scenes of the past few days, and yet there is no one who has passed through a severe engagement who can help confessing that this endless flinging of metal against each other is really very foolish, and that the energy of the world today is misdirected; and yet how are we to get back to a saner view of things?
Bickersteth was one of six sons of a prominent Anglican clergyman, steeped in traditions of duty and of deference. In his letter, anger against the enemy scarcely figures. Spleen seems reserved for politicians, at least the war enthusiasts, and above all for profiteers:
Profiteers want the war to last for ever; aeroplane workers strike for higher wages so as to live in more comfort, while the Tommy earns a shilling a day with every prospect of being killed sooner or later. If he deserts he is shot. If an artisan strikes, the Government go down on their knees to him. Have we no strong men?
What constituted strength could no longer be measured using the metrics which would have worked back in earlier times. The subject was one which cropped up, acrimoniously, in conversation between Cynthia Asquith and Brigadier Bernard Freyberg. Both were guests at Mary Herbert’s house at Pixton at the time:
16 December …Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage.
Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation, and, with some justification, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’ — it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.
He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence…
There was no arguing with that:
‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quivered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
Perhaps this was the essence of Britain’s quiet revolution as 1917 drew to a close. People simply weren’t buying the old rationalisations for war — not this war anyway. Vera Brittain’s mother had just received a letter from her daughter, still nursing in Etaples, which pulled no punches:
I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war & the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts & what it may mean, could see a case — to say nothing of 10 cases — of mustard gas in its early stages — could see the poor things burnt & blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blinded eyes — sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently — all sticky and stuck together, & always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing & they know they will choke.
The temptation, at this time of terrible discouragement, was to imagine that everything bad in the world was the consequence of war. But, as the French discovered on 12th December, sometimes fate — and ordinary human folly — took a hand as well. A train, overladen with French soldiers returning on leave from the Italian Front, was involved in a catastrophic train derailment at St-Michel-de-Maurienne, near Modane. The accident took place late at night and was caused by excessive speed on the steep inclines of the track as it descended into the Maurienne valley. Over 1000 were on board; of these, 425 were killed and 207 injured.
The narrative along the Western Front just now was relatively anticlimactic. Sporadic fighting took place all week, west of Cambrai, and also at Ypres, Verdun and south of Lens, but snow had arrived which interfered with operations. For Haig, the biggest event was probably the loss of his Intelligence Officer, Brigadier Charteris. He noted on 11th December:
General Lawrence… arrived and stayed the night. I have arranged for him to take over charge of the Intelligence Branch in place of Charteris. The latter has made himself so unpopular with the authorities at the W.O. and with the War Committee, as well as with the Army and Corps commanders here that in order to avoid friction and to maintain confidence in our Intelligence, I am obliged to change him. I am sorry to lose him.
After the trauma of Passchendaele and Cambrai, there was an inevitable temptation to find a scalp, ideally among the top brass. Charteris’s crime had been an undue optimism that the Germans were on the verge of collapse — or, more particularly, his skill in persuading Haig of that.
Given the dearth of good news, the success of British forces in the Middle East was especially welcome. On 9th December, the Turks had abandoned Jerusalem without a fight. Allenby, the British commander, had the wit to eschew any show of triumphalism. He entered the city two days later and issued a Proclamation from the steps of David’s Tower:
…since your City is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind, and its soil has become consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of those three religions for many centuries, therefore… I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer, of whatsoever form of the three religions, will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faiths they are sacred.
One inevitably contrasts Allenby’s judicious restraint with the hubris of others who have laid claim to Jerusalem, most infamously the Crusaders in 1099. Five days later, on 16th December, he was awarded the GCMG. This was the highly prestigious Grand Cross of Saint Michael and St George — known, less reverently, as God Calls Me God.