Living Without Regret

NEVER FORGET THE EMPIRE. Under General Smuts, South African and British troops were still in pursuit of the elusive and brilliant Lettow-Vorbeck and had occupied the Usumbara highland. On 15 June, Allied forces advanced west of Tanga, securing a bridge at Korogwe and occupying an island in Lake Victoria.

But, as the old swashbuckler Richard Meinertzhagen despairingly noted: “The enemy always manages to slip away. The reason is not far to seek. Over-cautiousness …”

Meinertzhagen was not exactly a barometer of anything normal. He had eaten eaten human flesh at least twice, and considered the violent despatch of Germans, preferably in large numbers, as both patriotic and sporting. History does not relate what, in his own singular reckoning, constituted “over-cautiousness”, but it is unlikely to have been found in a modern military manual.

He may, nonetheless, have had a point. Virtually the whole land war was conditioned by the attempt to make artillery do the work once done by men — clear a path. Hand to hand fighting was the war of Last Resort — but it still happened.

News now emerged of the defence of Fort Vaux, which the Germans had finally captured on 6 June. The 600 French defenders had been attacked with German flame-throwers, driven back into galleries inside the fort with hand-to-hand fighting with guns, grenades and bayonets. Crown Prince Wilhelm, commander of the German attackers, presented Captain Raynal with a French officer’s sword as a sign of respect for the extraordinary heroism shown. Of 5,200 German assault troops, 2,740 were killed or wounded.

One of the Germans wounded while fighting with his regiment at Verdun was the future Nazi Rudolf Hess. He wrote to his parents on 15 June from Bad Homburg:

None of us thought I would be back in Germany so quickly. I hadn’t been in the trench for five minutes when I received my wound. I was furious of course. I have been waiting to join an attack since the beginning if the war. That’s the only reason I went into the infantry. When I finally get to see some action, after enduring all that artillery fire, I get wounded. People are saying it was the finest moment of their whole war. We moved forward 700 metres. My wound is not serious and it does not hurt.

After a time, most men feared death far less than the manner of their dying. No.3 Company of the French 137th Infantry Regiment held a trench at Verdun under heavy shelling which, by 12 June, had ceased to exist. Sticking out of the buried trench was a row of bayonets. That prompted a breathless tale in which the French had fought to the last man. The more likely and terrible probability was that the trench had simply caved in or that Germans had buried the dead and left bayonets in lieu of crosses.

For those still left, the slogging match persisted. Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux, of the French 2nd Infantry Regiment at Verdun, had been transported via Issoncourt to Nixeville, and left to wait in the torrential rain and thick mud, without a single hut or shelter.

His diary for the week recreates the powerful sense of the unreality of what he and his men were enduring, as well as of its horror:

Wednesday, 14 June: The guns are thundering over there. It’s a real furnace. Everyone realises that perhaps tomorrow death will come. Numerous rumours are circulating …What is certain, nothing good lies in store for us.

Thursday, 15 June: We spend the day in the Citadel waiting…a real underground town, with narrow-gauge railway, dormitories, and rooms of every type ….At 1a.m. we arrive at the Bras-Ravin Quarries, where we remain in reserve. No shelter, nothing, we are in open fields at the mercy of the first shell.

Friday, 16 June: Superb weather, but not far from us, it’s a furnace of artillery fire. The Boches pump their shells at us, and our guns reply… Up in the sky, their planes search for us…We haven’t eaten for twenty-four hours and don’t know if supplies can arrive tonight.

Saturday, 17 June: The wounded from this morning’s attack are beginning to arrive, we learn what happened: our artillery fired too short and demolished our front line trench (evacuated for the attack), instead of firing on the Boches…

Sunday, 18 June: My company is all in a line in this trench which collapsed yesterday under the bombardment following our attack. A squad of machine-gunners of the 5th Battalion is buried in it.

Monday, 19 June: We are expecting an attack at any moment…We try to make ourselves as comfortable as possible but the more we dig, the more bodies we find…No sleep, no water, impossible to move out of one’s hole, to even show your head above the trench. We are filthy dirty and have only cold tinned food to eat….

The British, in strictly relative terms, were having an easier time. With the 3rd Grenadier Guards some miles away, Raymond Asquith wrote to his wife, Katharine:

17 June: A terrific reciprocal bombardment began at about 10 and lasted 3 or 4 hours. It turned out that we were in a very safe place, the shells being directed at trenches in front or in rear of us … It was really a magnificent sight. The lake without a ripple with a full yellow moon above the poplars and all around the horizon a ring of flame, the flashes of the guns and the bursting of the shells, bangs and screams and crumps and coughs and whistles in every key and from every direction.

His letters are a masterclass in the use of the upper-class demotic of the time. The only primary emotion he willingly acknowledged was that of boredom, and the metaphors deployed most willingly are those of the aristocratic sportsman. This one continued:

But like everything that happens, it went on too long and before it was over I was heartily sick of the noise. Specially as in the middle of it all a gas attack began and we had to put on our gas helmets and stumble about spitting and slobbering and swearing … Some people said they could smell the gas, but I never did and after a time we took off our helmets and went to bed, and then in the morning the bloody noise began again and gave me quite a headache.

However the Boches never attacked, and I don’t believe they ever will now. I should think they are hustling back to Russia as fast as the trains can carry them. My brigade had about 50 casualties from shell fire including an officer (whom I knew but did not particularly like) killed and 2 wounded — really a very small bag considering the intensity and duration of the bombardment.

The reference to German aeroplanes is a reminder that the war in the air was assuming a greater prominence. The German public was deeply shocked by the death of one of its heroes, the twenty-five-year-old air ace, Max Immelmann, who, when he was shot down near Lens on 18 June, had at least fifteen “kills” to his name. Back in January he had received Germany’s highest military honour, Pour Le Mérite — a decoration thereafter nicknamed the Blue Max.

His death happened at the hands of the British pilot McCubbin with Gunner Waller — a act which many Germans preferred not to believe, alleging instead mechanical failure, friendly anti-aircraft fire and so forth. He had been famous for perfecting a manoeuvre in dogfights to facilitate a quick repositioning for attack; this loop-and-roll became known as the Immelmann Turn and would be used throughout the war. While Immelmann was accorded a state funeral in Dresden, the Kaiser grounded the other great German ace, Oswald Boelke, for a month.

The extent to which the war had by now assumed the status of a moral imperative can be seen in the growing involvement of citizens of neutral countries. To those American medical volunteers, and pilots in the Escadrille Americaine fighting in the skies above Verdun, were now added hundreds of others — some joining the French Foreign Legion. One such was the poet, Alan Seeger, born in New York, a classmate of T.S. Eliot at Harvard. He had exchanged the comforts of a bohemian life in Paris when war broke out and was now stationed in the Somme area awaiting the “Big Push”.

Seeger seems to have faced the prospect of death with remarkable equanimity, and hoped his poem, Rendezvous, would stand in memory of those who “did not pursue worldly rewards” and “wanted nothing more than to live without regret”:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air —
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath —
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I have a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

The prospect of that rendezvous was, incidentally, much in the mind of Nurse Edith Appleton. Her hospital had just been officially recognised as a 950- instead of a 750-bedded hospital, in preparation for “the Push” expected by all.

Her diary for 18 June recorded that:

The air is vibrant with awe and excitement of the great advance. The well men are being hurried back to duty and the others sent to England, so all along the lines, the hospitals, from base generals to clearing stations, are prepared to receive any number of the poor fellows who must inevitably suffer. We are all waiting, breathless …

Just then, the war was proceeding for the Allies rather more satisfactorily in the east. Thousands more prisoners had been captured by the Russians as they advanced towards Czernowitz and which they occupied on 17 June.

At the end of the week, heavy fighting continued near Lutsk as German reinforcements arrived to support the desperately weakened Austrian forces. The whole campaign in Galicia was a brilliant success for General Brusilov that sustained Russian morale for a while longer. Allied spirits were also raised when, following a bad week for the Austrians, the Italians launched a counter-offensive on the Asiago plateau, taking Monte Isdoro on 18 June, having repulsed Austrian counter-attacks at Monfalcone the previous day.

Russia’s vulnerabilities were, nonetheless, gargantuan — most immediately those concerning supplies, fuel and transportation. Nicholas II had been relying on Kitchener’s intervention to prompt his allies into making a yet more substantial contribution to alleviate shortages. The Head of the British Military Mission in Russia, Major-General Hanbury-Williams, wrote in his diary on 13 June:

New railway lines are not much use without rolling stock, but something will have to be done, because even with victorious armies you must have a more or less contented population behind you, and should the war drag on after next winter the danger will become very great. Had Lord Kitchener of Khartoum been with us just now his wide experience of these matters would have been invaluable.

But Kitchener was, of course, no more. The Tsar allegedly received the news ‘like a thunderclap’. Less melodramatically, Raymond Asquith had told his wife that he could not help still suspecting that Kitchener will stroll into the House of Lords combing the seaweed out of his hair as strong and silent as ever. Perhaps it was as well that he did not — it would have badly disrupted the brisk sale of memorial cards, supplements and souvenirs commemorating his life.

On 13 June, a memorial service was held for him at St Paul’s Cathedral, attended by the King, (whose fifty-first birthday had been a week earlier), and the Queen. It was a muted affair, lacking state ceremonial, as hopes still remained that his body would be recovered and a state funeral held. The restrained tone of the event was hailed in the press as a suitable expression of national resolve, although the Prime Minister’s wife saw no reason to suppress her millinery enthusiasms. Questioned as to whether she was going to wear her hat with ostrich feathers for the occasion, she replied “How can you ask me? Dear Kitchener saw me in that hat twice!”

Less feted but quite as significant were the machinations of the British to stir up Arab nationalist sentiment in the Middle East. The archaeologist Gertrude Bell had been commissioned by Lord Hardinge, Viceroy of India, to use her vast experience of the Arab world, gained in her extensive travels, to compile information on Arab tribes around Basrah in Iraq.

She had been delighted by Sharif Hussein’s recent actions, a prelude to a full Arab revolt, writing now to her father that “the revolt of the Holy Places is an immense moral and political asset”. The British Government was supporting the revolt, having voted in March to supply Sharif Hussein a subsidy of £125,000 per month in gold sovereigns, which they would continue for more than a year. They also planned to send 5,000 rifles and a quarter of a million rounds of ammunition.

Bell’s experience and brilliance were not enough to protect her from the jealousies and prejudices of either military or civilian personnel. She had worked with T.E. Lawrence, based in Cairo at the renamed Arab Bureau — he wanted her back with her invaluable local knowledge and linguistic expertise — but as she wrote to a friend on 17 June, “You don’t know how difficult my job is here”. The Viceroy’s letter recommending Bell to the experienced Chief Political Officer, Sir Percy Cox, was a masterpiece of high patronage, describing her as “a remarkably clever woman with the brains of a man”.