THE PARTICULAR HORROR this week wasn’t an act of war, but a ghastly accident, a bit of a mystery – and cruel beyond any words.
On 9th July, HMS Vanguard, a dreadnought battleship, was anchored at the fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow. A Jutland veteran, she had been used in recent months for more prosaic duties – routine patrols and training in the North Sea. At about 11.30 p.m., there was no hint of trouble or disturbance of any kind, and most of the 800-plus crew on board were either asleep or intending shortly to be so.
Then, out of nowhere, a huge explosion ripped her apart. Able Seaman Ernest “Mick” Moroney witnessed the incident from HMAS Melbourne and noted in his diary:
A terrible detonation took place lighting the whole fleet as if it were daylight — a trawler which was close by got smothered in blood and pieces of human flesh, and afterwards picked up half the body of a marine, the only body recovered up to date.
It was that bad. HMS Vanguard sank instantly and only two souls survived. Insofar as superlatives teach us anything, this remains the most catastrophic accidental explosion in the history of the UK.
Almost three years had passed since the war had begun, and relentless killing had become the motif of everyday. Yet the spirit still rails against the sheer randomness of this moment. There followed, of course, an enquiry – although it failed singularly to cast much light upon what had happened. Its lame conclusions centred around cordite: perhaps some had ignited due to an “avoidable cause”, or it had “deteriorated having been subjected to abnormal treatment during its life”.
There was no comfort to be drawn here. A memorial to the victims has been erected in the Naval Cemetery at Lyness. In the usual roll call of those randomly caught up in disaster, the name of Commander Kyosuke Eto stands out. A military attaché of the Imperial Japanese Navy, he had been assigned as a military observer on board Vanguard.
Less randomly, destruction continued to rain down from the skies. The escalation of aerial war was incontrovertible evidence of the shifting textures of war. In their earliest iterations, Zeppelin and even Gotha raids had been sources of spectatorial fascination. Now, as the murder they unleashed increased, so did public wariness. Another daylight air-raid hit London on 7th July when 22 Gothas flew over the city, killing 57 people and injuring 193.
These were big numbers, and there was an edge of panic in the wash-up. Coming so soon after the devastating raid of 13th June, the latest attack left the public sceptical that any serious thought had been given to their protection. True, increasing number of aeroplanes were now on Home Defence duties – over 100 sorties had been made by British pilots in pursuit of the bombers – but to what effect? One Gotha was shot down and three others suffered damage. Two of the defending aircraft were also shot down. Big deal.
Truth was, aerial reconnaissance was primitive, and there was no way to warn civilians of danger until bombers were overhead. In London, their appearance resulted in crowds making a mad dash for the Underground.
That in itself was a distressing and dangerous business. The journalist Michael MacDonagh reported on the day of the Gotha raid on 7th July:
I heard the weird swish of a bomb as it plunged downwards through the air and the roaring, rending explosion of its fall. Instantly the scene in the streets was wholly transformed… Everybody ran hither and thither for shelter. I joined the rush for the Blackfriars station of the Underground. We tumbled down the stairs to the platform of the trains going west, and ran along it to its end, some distance under the roadway. A second terrific explosion had given added swiftness to our feet.
The girls of the Lyon’s and ABC teashops at the station were our wake, some of them being helped down, screaming hysterically. For my part, I felt that I had been plunged suddenly into a confused phantasmal state of being encompassed with dangers as in a nightmare. ‘The raiders have London at their mercy,’ I kept saying to myself’; ‘there are no defences against them.’
For the first time, children began to be evacuated from the most threatened areas and the House of Commons met in secret session two days later. Despite public scepticism, the Royal Flying Corps was capable of inflicting punishment: they had raided Belgian towns on 3rd July, but aerial warfare tended to invite reprisal. The Germans had raided Harwich on 4th July and 17 people died in consequence. Above all, because Germany occupied large swathes of France and Belgium, it could bomb Britain easily. Most aeroplanes lacked the range to fly all the way across the Channel and western Europe to repay the Germans in kind.
On the ground, Allied commanders experienced these days before the summer offensive as a time of waiting. For Front Line soldiers, it was nothing of the sort. On 3rd July, the Germans launched an offensive of their own, along an eleven-mile Front north of the Aisne, but it proved costly and ineffective. Both the French and British made modest gains, the former on the Aisne while the latter advanced slightly south of Ypres and on the Messines Front.
For every square foot gained, of course, there was a trail of bodies. Cynthia Asquith, now in Worthing, received a letter on 3rd July from her admirer, Lord Basil Blackwood, heir presumptive to the 2nd Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, fighting with the Grenadier Guards in France.
I have got a rather disagreeable and dangerous little bit of patrol and reconnaissance to do on a certain night this week. I hope it will be over when you get this letter… I think it will be all right, but it is no good blinding oneself to the risks.
It was not alright at all. Three days later came a telegram from his brother:
Very sorry to tell you Basil missing after trench raid on the 3rd. No further news.
Loss. Hers was no greater than others, she knew. And, like so many others, it was far from the first. Her two brothers and brother-in-law had all been killed in action. Her diary records her jumbled thoughts:
I think I quite hopelessly accepted the worst at once and felt utterly smashed and as though the world were emptied of a vitality.
Got through to Brenda on the telephone. She told me the raiding party had been divided into two. The ten men of one party had returned without their officer, whom they said they had lost in the dark. Basil and his ten men had none of them returned — all missing… I sometimes thought I must have paid my war-toll, but there is no limit.
There was always the chance that he might have been taken a prisoner. In the rarefied world to which she belonged, she could badger people for information more easily than lesser mortals.
8 July A great many steps have been taken to get news of them, supposing they are prisoners. The other officer is a Roman Catholic, so they have wired to the Vatican; also the Queen of Spain has been applied to, as well as Princess Pless and a German who knew Basil. Beyond that there is nothing to do but wait…
She waited in vain. Blackwood had been killed. Her diary continued:
After each bludgeoning I feel there is going to be no escape — that it’s going to be just everyone that matters — but then hope revives and one re-invests in the survivors… Would it be easier if one hated the Germans? I feel them — poor devils — to be our wretched allies fighting against some third thing.
Colonel Feilding of the Connaughts, the supreme example of just about everything which was good, had so far escaped without serious injury. In his weekly round-up to his wife, however, he now wrote from hospital:
July 3 To-day I should be one of a party with General Plumer, making a presentation of the bell of Wytschaete Church (which has been dug out of the ruins) to the King of the Belgians; but, instead, I am in bed in the hospital at St. Omer, enduring the torments of the damned each time I am obliged to make the smallest movement.
Briefly, I turned somersault with my mare over the sandbag wall at the Royal Munster Sports yesterday, at Zeggers Cappel, straining or tearing some muscles in my back, and breaking a bone or two in my left hand. The last I remember was crawling away from the course, and the soldiers clapping as I picked myself up from the ground. They are always like that.
I came here on an ambulance — 19 miles — and arrived after eleven o’clock, last night. I am glad I have had the experience. I think I understand now in a small degree how the wounded must suffer when they are carried back over the bumpy roads.
While one never likes to think of anyone being in grave pain, it is hard not to draw a sigh of relief. For now, at least, this splendid man was apparently out of serious danger.
Edwin Vaughan, the 19-year-old subaltern of the Royal Warwickshires, sounds to have been having an altogether miserable time:
July 8 Sunday. At 2p.m. after a final stroll around the grounds, we fell in on the road outside the walls in pouring rain. ‘B’ Company was very late at the rendezvous, which started us off in a bad temper. We marched straight up to Fremicourt where we turned to the left along the great Route Nationale to Bapaume. It was a horribly dreary march; the shelling had torn up the cobbles and thrown them all over the road, the poplars were splintered and blown down beside their ragged stumps and the rain continued to pour off our glistening oilsheets…
Military morale had been given a pep by the arrival of the King and Queen in France five days earlier, but royal benediction did not apparently extend to improving the awful weather. Their tour of the Western Front continued until 14th July and, once Their Majesties were safely back in England, The Times carried a full report of the visit.
The King’s first whole day at the front was spent with the Army of General Sir Herbert Plumer, which has so recently covered itself in glory, and the first steps which he took on the battlefield were along that dreadful road up to the Messines Ridge and the ruins of Wytschaete so recently wrung from the enemy. It is still an unpleasant and dangerous place enough to visit. On the day before the King was there the enemy had very heavily shelled the area over which he walked…
Reading this now feels odd. What passed then for deference sounds, to modern eyes, unctuous – a bit ridiculous, frankly. At Messines Ridge:
The King visited the heap which was once the red chateau and walked nearly to the hospice, then skirted the acres of blackened stumps which we still call Wytschaete Wood, and so to the Messines road and the great mine crater at Maedelstede Farm. Thence he went on to the even larger crater at Peckham, with its huge mouth not less than a hundred yards across and its brown depth littered with great masses upheaved by the explosion from the clay layer below. For more than a mile the King walked over the battlefield, and one mile of such walking is more than five miles on a road. On the way he met working parties and talked to them, and spoke with single soldiers who passed, and as he went some more German guns woke up and began rhythmically pounding the poor dust-heaps of Wytschaete itself.
But now is not then. The visit emphasised military progress, perceived or actual.
The King passed his days chiefly with the fighting men. He explored not merely the old battle grounds of the Somme, at which last year he could look only though his field-glasses, but also the newly-won Vimy and Messines Ridges, whence, from among the waste of shell-holes and the uncleaned litter of battlefields, he gazed down upon the enemy’s lines. Besides coming in contact with every branch of the British Armies in the field, and conversing with an immense number of the men in each branch and of every grade, the King has been able to meet representatives of the Allies…
And the morale-giving qualities extended to civilians:
The King, accompanied by the Prince of Wales, motored across the region of desolation which fringes the battlefield, through ruined villages, where the inhabitants, largely refugees from areas which the Germans have occupied, made pathetic efforts to give him greeting. Such few flags as they could muster fluttered from ruined houses, and little knots of children in the charge of nuns, or small clusters of elderly inhabitants, congregated here and there to cheer the car with the Royal Standard as it slipped by.
For some, the accumulated grief of war lay well beyond the reach of morale-building, however wholesome and well-intentioned. The poet-soldier Siegfried Sassoon now wrote to his Commanding Officer:
I must inform you that it is my intention to refuse to perform any further military duties. I am doing this as a protest against the policy of the Government in prolonging the War by failing to state their conditions of peace.
This, from a soldier with an unblemished record for personal bravery, as well as a distinctly awkward Christian name, ensured that whatever happened next was unlikely to happen out of the public eye.
What had happened? He had been in England, recovering from his latest wounds, and appears to have brooded on what, ultimately, the war was about. He had been particularly inflamed by men, typically above military age, who were especially gung-ho:
Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy. They regard the progress of war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance…
I am revolting against the war being continued indefinitely; I believe that Carson, Milner, Lloyd George and Northcliffe intend the war to continue at least two more years. To carry out the scheme of ‘crushing Kaiserism and Prussianism’ by means of brute force, the war must go on two more years… It is obvious that nothing could be worse than the present conditions under which humanity is suffering and dying.
How will the wastage and misery of the next two years be repaired? Will Englishmen be any happier because they have added more colonies to their Empire? The agony of France! The agony of Austria-Hungary and Germany! Are not these equal before God?
Sassoon had asked Lady Ottoline Morrell for an introduction to the prominent pacifist and intellectual, Bertrand Russell, whose help and encouragement proved (so far as Sassoon was concerned) invaluable. As his friends began to realise his opposition was in earnest, many urged him to draw back. He was playing for seriously high stakes: neither arrest nor court-martial, nor even death by firing squad, could be ruled out were he to persist.
Trouble at home was just what all politicians feared. Until now, the British had been let off relatively lightly, but food shortages threatened everyone’s equanimity. They were certainly worse in Germany. On 6th July, reforms in domestic policy were demanded in the Reichstag, but also – audaciously – a peace without annexations or indemnities. The diary of Princess Blucher, the Englishwomen living in Berlin, lends some contemporary perspective to this heresy:
A common soldier, now working in our harvest, just returned from the front, spoke so nicely of all the hardships they had to endure. He had no bitterness for the enemy. The English, he said, were fine men to fight against, and he personally had never witnessed any of the desperate cruelty and intense hatred he is always told of behind the lines.
‘We all do our best for our own country, and if we meet as prisoners or otherwise, we are perfectly friendly; but’, he added sadly, ‘there must be something wrong somewhere to make us so hated by all other nations, as well as by our own allies? Who is to blame for it? That is what my comrades and I are always trying to find out.’
He went on to say that the English army is in splendid condition, and always being reinforced by fresh and perfectly equipped troops, whilst the Germans have only a tired and worn-out army to meet them. Many of the men in the trenches, having been wounded three or four times, are now so exhausted that they can hardly lift a rifle.
In a literal sense, much here can be discounted – the English army was far more beleaguered than this suggests. The harvest hand was also taking a risk: to talk thus at a time of grave emergency invited admonition, even serious punishment. But his audience seems to have been more than ready to consider what they were hearing.
Real power was fluid – that was the point, as the Romanovs had learned. So too was the Russian Provisional Government, whose authority seemed filigree-thin. The Brusilov offensive was now days old, and was enjoying mixed fortunes. An attack on Brzezany in Galicia on 3rd July seemed to go nowhere, although artillery were busy, both in Volhynia and in the Brzezany region, where the infantry had also engaged. The political ground for this had also been laid to some extent by Kerensky in his morale-boosting tour of army units.“For the sake of the nation’s life,” he wrote later, “it was necessary to restore the army’s willingness to die.”
No doubt that was right. But evidence increasingly suggested that, in Russia anyway, fewer and fewer people set such store by the nation. In the five months which had passed since the ejection of the Tsar, too many shibboleths had been pricked, and too many cracks had appeared in the façade of a nation, for these lofty sentiments to be endorsed
To this time, however, belongs one quaint moment – impressive and pathetic. The doyenne of the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, was currently on a semi-official goodwill visit to Petrograd and Moscow, a visit which had been sanctioned by Lloyd George. The British government was working at being politically correct – sympathetic to the revolution and to women’s rights, as well as to Russian participation in the war.
Mrs Pankhurst now met the formidable Maria Botchkareva, a soldier who had previously gained the Tsar’s permission to fight at the Front, where she had been wounded. Now, with disaffection spreading in the Russian army, she had persuaded Kerensky to let her form a “Women’s Battalion of Death”. In a famous speech in May, she had appealed to her fellow citizens to save Mother Russia who was perishing:
I want women whose hearts are crystal, whose souls are pure, whose impulses are lofty. With such women setting an example of self-sacrifice, you men will realize your duty in this grave hour.
The great lady’s Spartan training routines were way, way too oppressive for swathes of her earlier recruits, many of whom dropped like flies. Nonetheless, Mrs Pankhurst championed this latter-day Boudicca, with whom she struck up a friendship, and visited the battalion. On 7th July, it paraded in the square of Kazan Cathedral in Petrograd, where blessings were bestowed upon it by the archbishop and by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. In an atmosphere thick with incense and self-deception, some 500 women then executed a smart left wheel and departed for the Front.