ONE WOULD NOT have called Sir Douglas Haig a slave to the media. Even so – this week saw him faced with what looked like a classic celebrity blunder. He had talked to the press, and hated the results.
How on earth had that happened? He was a man for whom the job came first. He sought neither fame nor adulation, and devoted every waking hour to fulfilling the immense task which had been bestowed upon him. Especially among those who knew their military onions, his reputation was formidable. But, as a Commander-in-Chief, he had not merely to defeat the enemy, but also pacify his political masters and reassure his allies. And it was in the effort to bring off the last of these that he now faced acute embarrassment.
Keen to push the idea that the British were utterly committed to the task in hand, he had given a press conference on 1st February. The exact origins of this are a little oblique – some French journalists had apparently turned up at GHQ. In the wake of Verdun and the Somme, there were undercurrents of scepticism in France. Had the British army the stomach for the tasks which lay ahead on the Western Front? Nobody put it to him quite so baldly (certainly not the French journalists), but this was the question he set out to answer.
The printed version of the conference, which appeared in the British press on 15th February, horrified him. Deliberately generalised reassurances of “confidence in victory” and so forth had been skewed by sensation-hungry journalists into wildly sanguine predictions of early success: “This year will be decisive… we shall see the event after which Germany will appear as beaten in the military sense. It is possible that the year of decision will also be the year of peace…”
And so on. GHQ was appalled. Repington noted that
Haig is reported to have given some bombastic assurances to the French journalists that we shall break the German lines this year and defeat the enemy… My own impression is that Haig will disown a good deal of the supposed interview which appears in different forms in different French papers. I hope so.
He added later, “Everybody much down on the Haig interview.”
Haig was embarrassed but stalwart. He later wrote:
As a matter of fact, I gave no ‘interviews’, but from time to time I received eminent French journalists who have visited our front. On these occasions I merely talked platitudes and stated my confidence in a victorious termination of the war. By some mistake a summary of one of these talks has slipped past the Censor. I am much annoyed, as I hold that it is quite wrong for the Commander-in-Chief’s views to be published in the press at all. The Government at home should give out all such reports.
That last point seemed to be a case of stable doors being closed well after horses had bolted.
Lloyd George was incandescent. The British public was evidently wearying of the war and the opinions attributed to Haig could very easily have fed false hopes which could redound to the discredit of the government. On 18th February, Haig received a telegram from Lord Derby, Secretary of State for War, pointedly asking what the government should reply to a question on the subject about to be tabled in the House of Commons.
Haig, almost certainly, didn’t give a fig for Lloyd George’s discomfiture. Keeping the public sweet was the business of a politician, not a C-in-C. The two men distrusted each other already – Haig continued to believe the war would be won or lost on the Western Front, and the Prime Minister both distrusted his judgement and feared its implications. And, bombastic and misquoted as he may have been, the words attributed to Haig fortified both French confidence in Britain’s continued resolve, and gave a pep to the Alliance as a whole. Lloyd George’s hand, in other words, had been forced.
The Entente was certainly in need of bolstering. The Allied Conference in Petrograd ended on 13th February with the predictable platitudes, in the form of a declaration by Lord Milner, that much good had been done in achieving closer co-operation between Entente countries. Beneath the fluff, Lloyd George knew how fractured the Entente powers very often were.
Just now, the “unity of purpose” claimed by Milner amounted to not much more than a shared, reluctant recognition that Russia was in crisis. She certainly needed copious supplies of every kind but, even if a way to contrive these could be fashioned, how could they be distributed? Her allies knew all about the inadequate port facilities at Murmansk and Archangel, both frozen for several months of the year, and poor railway infrastructure. What the delegates had not guessed, however, was how rapidly the political situation would implode.
There was, however, a growing possibility that the Entente might yet be bailed out by America. Relations between the USA and Germany had been in freefall since the announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare. On 13th February, President Wilson had declined to enter any negotiations with Germany unless the proclamation of ruthless submarine warfare were withdrawn. The following day the Ambassador, James Gerard, left Hobroken with his staff, aboard the SS Frederik VIII. At the American Legation in German-occupied Brussels, embassy staff were ordered to lower the stars and stripes. This kind of symbolic posturing can sound trivial, but it contained all the elements of a deadly game of poker. How far would either side be prepared to go?
Very far, in the case of Germany. On 15th February, Denmark, Norway and Sweden lodged an official protest against the German U-boat tactics, but this did nothing whatsoever to dissuade the Kaiser and his advisers from the desperate course they had opted to follow. Ships were sunk every single day of the week – and sometimes in places which must have seemed very remote from the heart of the conflict. SS Worcestershire was returning from Rangoon to London when she hit mines and sank off Sri Lanka on 19th February, albeit with the loss of only two lives. On the same day, the fishing trawler, Halcyon, struck mines off the coast of the Hebrides and ten men, including the skipper, were killed. The biggest scalp, if one can talk in these terms, was that of the Afric, 11,999 tons, lost off the Eddystone lighthouse. Travelling from Liverpool to Sydney, carrying general cargo, she was torpedoed without warning by U-66. Five men died in the initial explosion and a further 17 drowned as the ship sank.
The desperation of the Germans was, in many ways, the most significant development of the war in early 1917. Their rulers were not receptive to pleas for mitigation or compromise. This was a modus operandi which could not last indefinitely, but it made them, for the moment anyway, very dangerous indeed. A good example of this was the unsentimental decision, announced on 19th February, to requisition the commercial submarine Deutschland for the Imperial German Navy. Its two successful crossings of the Atlantic in 1916 had been greeted with exultation in Berlin, admiration in Washington, and fury in London. The Germans seemed no longer to take any trouble whatsoever to court the good opinion of America and, anyway, Deutschland was an excellent material resource: she was rapidly fitted with torpedo tubes and guns, renamed U-155 and put to war.
The diplomatic fallout had no especial impact upon war in the West, where raids continued all week. The British captured a strongpoint near Grandcourt on 13th February and followed this up four days later with an encroachment of 1,000 yards across a front of a mile-and-a-half near the Ancre river. The two operations netted them 773 prisoners, while the French launched large-scale raids near Compiègne and in Alsace. As ever, the Germans fought back, capturing on 15th February the French salient as well as 21 officers and 837 men.
The week’s fighting also threw up a hero – always a source of gratification. Lance Sergeant Frederick Palmer of the Royal Fusiliers, having suddenly found that all his officers had been cut down near Courcelette on 16th–17th February, assumed command of the company. He cut through wire entanglements under machine-gun fire and rushed the enemy’s trench with six of his men. He then dislodged a machine-gun and held his position for three hours against seven strong counter-attacks. An eighth attack was launched while he was collecting more bombs. Palmer simply rallied his men, drove back the enemy and saved the position. That was the kind of edifying example for which everyone was baying, and he duly won the VC.
There were no such garlands for Lieutenant Colonel Rowland Feilding of the Connaught Rangers. But his letters to his wife from near Spanbroekmolen and Kemmel illustrate again a calm belief that all life was precious, and that all men were to be valued – even those in the depths of despair.
February 15. Here we are, in the trenches again. This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s [sic] Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in tonight…
February 16. During the night we got in the German whom I spoke of in my last letter — -shot through the back by his own side. He deserved his fate, of course. But how fed up he must have been to do as he did! He was a fine fellow physically; about twenty years of age; and will be buried to-morrow in a corner of the cemetery. His pocket was stuffed with picture postcards of and from ladies, and photographs of himself and his family.
An assault had been planned, but Feilding was worried because he had lost two key officers – one to a wound, the other summoned on a course. And that wasn’t all:
… a one minute’s intense lightning Stokes mortar bombardment which I asked for at Zero has been vetoed, Pereira’s view being that this would alarm the Germans in the front line and bring them to their posts. It would doubtless bring him to his post, but he is apt to forget, I think, that all men are not like himself…
Feilding seems to have had no gêne in sharing with his wife both sensitive military details and forthright opinions. He emerges every time as an exceptionally self-disciplined character, so one is led to assume that his confidence was entirely well-founded. What shines out from his letters is a burning humanity. One ponders as to how far he might have acknowledged the mordant reflections that another considerable soldier, Siegfried Sassoon, committed to his diary this week.
15 February. Left Waterloo 12 noon [following convalescence, Sassoon was returning to active service]… feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel. People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.
Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear they begin to ‘buck themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles — -nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals.
But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market. Hence their happiness. They have no worries, because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight — of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.
This seems both over-sanguine and not especially kind. There was some truth to the idea that, once enlisted, a British soldier’s basic material well-being was assured – at least until such time as he was blown to bits. Even that, however, became more precarious as the U–boat war intensified.
The ability of the state to ensure that there remained means to feed both soldiers and civilians exercised the minds of many in power this week. The letters column in the Daily Mail of the British press testified to pungent views on the subject – and to the fertile minds of the public:
15 February, 1917:
Sir, In view of the general shortage of food, could not the London square gardens be used as chicken runs?
Hens could be kept easily there, as all the gardens are enclosed by high railings, and in most of them are some small building, shed or summer-house that could be easily converted into a hen-house… NINA COHEN 15 Gloucester Square
Sir,…I have a hospital, which, of course, I do not attempt to keep on the rations, as our wounded soldiers must be well fed, but there is a point to which I would like to draw attention. Most of my patients tell me that there is terrible waste of meat both at home and at the front at some of the military camps owing to the vileness of the cooking, whole joints being thrown away because, by the ignorance or inefficiency of the cooks, they are rendered uneatable. Stews are served with fat, and so greasy that the soldiers throw the food away in disgust in preference to eating it. Could not some good women cooks be supplied and so save this great waste? ECONOMIST
Sir, — If, as Lord Lytton stated in the House of Lords, the standard of food consumption as laid down by the Controller ‘is very far from being complied with by the whole country,’ would it not be advisable for Lord Devonport to issue a plain warning that those who fail to comply are actually assisting the enemy? Such a statement might be effective in the case of those with whom obligations of honour have apparently no weight at all. E.LOWNDES Royal Automobile Club
Sir, — My son, aged 24, was killed fighting the Huns. I am now asked to live on 4lb. of bread and 2.5 pounds of meat per week while we supply the Hun with 10.5 pounds of bread and 3.5 pounds of meat per week. I only ask one question, ‘Is this what my son died for?’ E.TURNER 23, Chandos Road, Cricklewood, N.W.
The last letter, an allusion to the rations prescribed for Germans prisoners of war, was an especially emotive issue. The accuracy of these figures is open to question – a case, perhaps, of high feelings generating “alternative facts”. But politicians were anxious not to alienate public sympathy: a debate in the Commons during the week elicited ministerial reassurances that the scale of rations allotted to German prisoners was being revised.
Signalman Eachus, at General Rawlinson’s Headquarters, found compensation for the lowering effects of bad weather (“Very dull with a misty sort of drizzle”) in the dramatic preparations for a Very Distinguished Visitor.
17 February …General Nivelle Commander in Chief of the French Armies visited our Headquarters at midday today… The band of the Royal Engineers headed the guard of honour, which was composed of picked men of the Grenadier Guards, and all were of the same height. It was quite a pleasing spectacle to witness the machine-like accuracy of all their movements… It is on such occasions that one is proud to be a British soldier and feel that there is strength and vigour in our poor country.
The guards presented arms upon the approach of the General and the band started off with Marseillaise, which brought every officer to the salute. ‘God Save the King’ followed the officers again standing at a salute.
The General himself is of a sturdy build, and extremely active in his movements, but his gait would appear to be affected from the habit of riding.