EVEN BY THE standards of the time – a dramatic week. For the first time since the Somme, a new British offensive was launched. The risks, and the complexities, were scarcely to be imagined.
1916 had been a terrible truth-teller. The starkest lesson had been that prolonged artillery barrages did not reliably kill off those left in the front line. That left Haig with a problem. The British had to advance if they were ever to defeat the Germans.
Haig and his colleagues were better learners than their critics have often allowed. In the Battle of Messines, which was launched on 7th June, artillery would have a subordinate role. The necessary element of surprise would come from the detonation of a series of mines laid underneath the German trenches. Shock and awe would, it was fervently hoped, buy British troops precious seconds and minutes to race across open ground from which they could attack an enemy, still dazed and still in their trenches.
It was a good plan. Mindful of the vast destruction the detonations would wreak, General Plumer, in command of the Second Army, is reputed to have said on the evening of 6th June: “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.” Very, very early on the following morning, 19 mines were fired in the space of 27 seconds. The noise, both of the explosions and the accompanying barrage, was heard in London and even in Dublin.
The surprise was absolute – an astonishing achievement: British sappers frequently plied their desperate trade only inches away from an enemy trying to do exactly the same. At least 10,000 men were killed in the initial explosions.
The man in charge of the detonation was Captain Oliver Woodward of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. He recalled:
At 2 a.m. all troops were withdrawn from the dug-out and mine systems, and posed in their position for attack. At 2.25 a.m., I made the last resistance test, and then made the final connection for firing the mines. This was rather a nerve-racking task as one began to feel the strain, and wonder whether the leads were properly connected up. Just before 3 a.m. General Lambert took up his position in the firing dug-out. It was his responsibility to give the order ‘FIRE’. Watch in hand he stood there and in a silence that could almost be felt he said, ‘Five minutes to go’. I again finally checked the leads, and Lieutenants Royle and Bowy stood with an exploder at their feet ready to fire should the dynamo fail.
“Nerve-wracking”? The pressures placed on him at this moment must have been mind-boggling.
Then the General, in what seemed interminable periods, called out, ‘Three minutes to go, Two to go — -One to go — -45 seconds to go — -20 seconds to go’ — -and then ‘9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, — -FIRE!!’ over went the firing switch and with a dull roar, accompanied by a heaving of the ground, the mines exploded. We had not failed in our duty.
Another one waiting was Lieutenant A.G. May, of the Machine-Gun Corps.
When I heard the first deep rumble, I turned to the men and shouted, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ A fraction of a second later a terrific roar and the whole earth seemed to rock and sway. The concussion was terrible, several of the men and myself being blown down violently. It seemed to be several minutes before the earth stood still again though it may not really have been more than a few seconds. Flames rose to a great height — -silhouetted against the flame I saw huge blocks of earth that seemed to be as big as houses falling back to the ground. Small chunks and dirt fell all around. I saw a man flung out from behind a huge block of debris silhouetted against a sheet of flame. Presumably some poor devil of a Boche. It was awful, a sort of inferno.
Awful, but incontrovertibly a success. Messines and Wytschaete had a profound strategic importance – so much so that Crown Prince Rupprecht had stated on 1st June,
These strong-points must not fall even temporarily into the enemy’s hands… They must be held to the last man even if the enemy has cut them off on both sides, and threatens them from the rear.
Commanders tended to favour phrases like “must not”, “the last man” and so forth. Perhaps they helped, but not now. General Ludendorff wrote later:
We should have succeeded in maintaining the position [on Messines Ridge] but for the exceptionally powerful mines used by the British which paved the way for the attack. The result of these successful mining operations was that the enemy broke through on the 7th of June. The morale effect of the explosions was simply staggering.
Covered by a concentrated bombardment, which overwhelmed the enemy’s trenches and to a great extent neutralised the enemy’s batteries, our troops swept over the German foremost defences all along the line.
That was a sight to gladden the hearts of British commanders. To those in the thick of the mêlée, however, memories of battle almost invariably focused upon individuals or very small groups. Lieutenant May remembered that:
There was confusion on all sides, many men lost to sight… At the time the mines went off the artillery let loose, the heaviest group artillery ever known. The noise was impossible and it is impossible for anyone who was not there to imagine what it was like. Shells were bursting overhead and for no known reason I thought they were some of our shorts and then I realized the Boche was putting up a barrage on our front line and no man’s land. I had forgotten it was not necessarily going to be all our own show. Not far in advance of our front parapet I saw a couple of lads who had gone completely goofy, perhaps from the concussion. It was pitiful, one of them welcomed me like a long lost friend and asked me to give him his baby. I picked up a tin hat from the ground and gave it to him. He cradled the hat as if it were a child, smiling and laughing without a care in the world despite the fact that shells were exploding all around. I have no idea what happened to the poor chap but if he stayed there very long he must have been killed…
Another witness to the explosion was Lieutenant Colonel Feilding of the Connaught Rangers. He, like May, also took part in the mopping-up operations which followed. These were described vividly in a letter to his wife later in the week:
Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines — some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion — containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees. For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.
The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery;-such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy — such of them as were not killed — were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself.
It was true: the explosion of mines and the speed of the Allied attack had stunned the Germans. In total, 7,200 Germans, 67 artillery pieces, 94 trench mortars and 294 machine-guns were seized. Indeed, matters had rather gone to plan. The rarity of that did not really communicate itself in Haig’s dispassionate account:
The attack proceeded from the commencement in almost exact concordance with the time-table. The enemy’s first trench system offered little resistance to our advance, and the attacking brigades — English, Irish, Australian and New Zealand — -pressed on up the slopes of the ridge to the assault of the crest line.
In all, nine divisions assaulted Messines. Unlike those at the Somme, they enjoyed the protection of advancing behind a creeping barrage, and were supported by tanks, and gas. All the initial objectives were taken within three hours. The reserves brought forward from Gough’s Fifth Army, and the French First Army under General Anthoine, reached their own targets by mid-afternoon.
Feilding’s letter to his wife ranged, as ever, beyond the immediate moment:
Willie Redmond is also dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go out with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go — on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.
This was a human tragedy. Redmond was an Irish Nationalist, and he had been killed during an engagement in which
the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side.
…How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison — all three, MEN — Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to believe as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder.
And then, this gentle adieu:
….Willie Redmond is buried in the nuns’ garden, [at Locre], on almost the spot I had chosen for myself.
Feilding was enough a child of his time, and also of his class, to interpret the demands of war as his patriotic duty. His feelings towards individual human beings, of any nationality, were always imbued with fellow-feeling and compassion. He went on to tell his wife that:
…My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:-whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly.
To read his letters can be an overwhelming experience. He may have been one of the victors of the Messines Ridge, but hubris played no part in his feelings.
Rather the reverse. He noted the following extract from German correspondence which had been captured:
Today the alarm was given. Terrible drum fire was heard all during the night… A terrible firing has driven us under cover. To the right and left of me my friends are all drenched with blood. A drum fire which no one could ever describe. I pray the Lord will get me out of this sap. I swear to it I will be the next. While I am writing He still gives us power and loves us. My trousers and tunic are drenched in blood, all from my poor mates. I have prayed to God He might save me, not for my sake but for my poor parents. I feel I could cry out, my thoughts are all the time with them… I have already twelve months on the Western Front; have been through hard fighting, but never such slaughter.
Civilians often recoiled from such an intensity of despair. The poet and novelist Robert Vernede, who had died of wounds on 9th April, had a particular aversion to those civilian war correspondents who tried to gloss over the ghastliness:
…To read in the papers you might suppose the wounded were whisked from the battlefield in a motor ambulance. I get rather tired of all that false and breezy representation of a battle… Here again the breezy reporter is revolting. The Push itself is done in hot blood: but the rest is horrible, digging in when you are tired to death, short rations, no water to speak of, hardly any sleep, and men being killed by shell-fire most of the time.
War, he insisted, changed everything:
What I mean is that for us there can be no real forgetting. We have seen too much of it, known too many people’s sorrow, felt it too much, to return to an existence in which it has no part.
The British Government could not dwell in sorrow. Their job was to win. The successful opening of the battle of Messines was a good portent for their drive to impress the Americans. Britain needed not just American troops and arms, but masses of fresh credit. If she was going to be able to step up the production of munitions and goods, Uncle Sam was going to have to dig into his deep pockets.
Arthur Balfour had just returned from what was billed a highly successful visit both to the States and Canada. Getting the cash had been his brief. Lloyd George was aware that the Foreign Secretary might – to some – have seemed a bit of an old stick. Fastidious, intellectual, dressed invariably in a frock coat, he was not really cut out of the cloth of the New World.
Lloyd George was looking for a new Head of the British Mission and now hit upon Lord Northcliffe. Buccaneer par excellence, Northcliffe could hardly have represented a greater contrast. News of his appointment provoked a confidential and frank letter to the Prime Minister from his Parliamentary Private Secretary, Major David Davies, who had served at the Front until 1916.
If Northcliffe is to go to the U.S.A. as head of the British Mission you will be making a damn bad appointment and you will raise the devil of a storm in the Liberal Party, which is just what you want to avoid just now. Northcliffe is one of the biggest intriguers and most unscrupulous people in this country. It is a gratuitous insult to the Americans to send him there — he will do more harm in a week than Balfour has done good in a month…
President Wilson was also unenthusiastic, telling his advisor, Colonel House, a frequent visitor to London, that creating such a position was “most unwise and still more unwise the choice of the person named”.
Buccaneers work by different rules and it was hard to write off someone totally who showed considerable personal bravery. By the time the State Department had registered its disapproval, Northcliffe was on his way, braving submarine-infested waters, and arriving in New York on 11th June. In a magnificent display of Anglo-Saxon snobbery for the arriviste, no one from the British Embassy turned up to greet him.
The experience of General John Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, could hardly have been more different. Having left New York with his staff on 28th, his days on board The Baltic were filled by meetings and lectures delivered by British military personnel. The subject matter was various: hand grenades, mining, and trench fighting all featured, as did venereal disease. His arrival in Liverpool on 8th June was filmed by the British Intelligence Department and, having been greeted by an array of military and civic dignitaries, he left for London by special train, “the Royal Coach having been turned over to my use by the authorities”, he confided, maybe a little smugly, to his diary.
The British were certainly out to give him a good time. More dignitaries greeted him at Euston including Lord Derby, Secretary of State for War, and Lord French, and he was then driven to the Savoy Hotel. The next day, 9th June, he was off to Buckingham Palace for a chat with the King who, Pershing recorded, said:
I am very glad to welcome you. It has always been my dream that the two English-speaking nations should some day fight side by side, and today my dream is realised. We are fighting for the greatest cause that any nation could fight for, namely, civilization.
At least they were fighting. The Russians appeared to have given up on war and replaced it by meetings. Dmitri Oskin, now an elected deputy for the army at the All Union Congress of Peasant Deputies in Petrograd, records screeds of them in his diary. On 8th June, his own contribution was somewhat overshadowed by a distinguished visitor:
Leader of the party of Social Democrat Bolsheviks Mr Lenin …came up to the rostrum with swift steps. He was short, stocky and balding with a high forehead and sparkling eyes. The hall resounded with applause. He waited for it to die down. Then he began, speaking in plain language that we, simple peasants, could relate to. He said: ‘The main point is that land should be taken immediately from the landowners and given to the peasants without compensation. All ownership of land is to be eliminated.’
…I couldn’t concentrate on the words of Lenin’s speech but sat staring at him, trying to figure out whether the rumours going round about him being a German spy could be true.
Lenin’s links to the Germans were a matter of speculation. By contrast, those of King Constantine of Greece were an established fact. For at least two years, the perfidy of this monarch had rankled with the Allies, but it had been a difficult boil to lance.
Now, however, the Southern Front was a theatre in which Allied confidence had grown. The menace posed by Turkey had subsided and, even though Austria claimed to have taken 10,000 Italian prisoners in recent days, the Italians were proving doughty adversaries. On 6th June, M. Jonnart, High Commissioner of the Protecting Powers, appeared at Athens with a powerful naval squadron. Five days later, Constantine abdicated.
Jonnart’s suggestion that the now ex-King should relocate to the Isle of Wight provoked a less than enthusiastic response back in Blighty. George V’s china blue eyes reputedly froze over when the idea was mooted. Having already given the thumbs down to the Romanovs, who had, after all, been fighting the Germans, it would have been highly inflammatory to have given the big welcome to Constantine, a well-known chum of the Kaiser. Anyway, the Isle of Wight was inextricably associated with all things maritime and these, just now, continued to be a source of acute unhappiness to the British. Another 107 vessels were sunk or incapacitated this week, with the loss of at least 345 lives.
Yet, dismal as the war at sea continued to be, there were those prepared to celebrate Jolly Boating Weather. Captain Maurice Baring, an ADC to Sir Hugh Trenchard, wrote on 5th June from the RFC Headquarters in France to Lady Juliet Duff, that he had attended an Old Etonian Dinner the previous evening:
There were three hundred Old Etonians present. I knew about 5 by sight. All my contemporaries were Lieutenant Generals. They sang accompanied by the Coldstream Band and after dinner everything was broken all the plates all the glass all the tables the chandeliers the windows the doors the people. A bomb raid was nothing to it.
Upper-class rowdyism should not detract from the enormity of sacrifice. 1,157 Etonians died in the war – the greatest number of any public school.
Baring also observed:
There was not one representative of the Julian and Billy [Grenfell] generation. They have been all killed.