Marked down for the gallows

French soldiers in Paris, 1917

THE FALLOUT FOLLOWING the collapse of the Nivelle Offensive was far-reaching and grave.

Militarily, the extent to which it had all gone wrong was, even now, obscured. The Germans were taking a whack: all week their counter-attacks were successfully thrown back. For the Allies, this was far from easy work, and frequently happened only after first conceding ground which they re-took hours, or days, later. Still, at week’s end, the British had installed themselves in Roeux and advanced further north of Gavrelle. The French had earlier captured German trenches beyond Chevreux, near Craonne, and taken 200 prisoners. They also repulsed German counter-attacks in sections of the Chemin des Dames.

The trouble was that these limited successes could not disguise the strategic collapse of Nivelle’s grand design. It had been billed as the ultimate in rapid breakthroughs – but nothing of the sort had occurred. The impact had been one of unfolding calamity. Casualties were mind-bogglingly high: 187,000 for the French and 163,000 for the Germans.

Many would say that these terrible days snapped the spine of the French army. Numbers of French soldiers began to refuse any offensive action, remaining in their trenches when ordered forward, or even baaing like lambs to the slaughter if they did advance. Many deserted. Others still, doubtless influenced by rumours of the spread of “soviet”-style authority in the Russian army, organised committees to represent the infantry units to the authorities.

As any wise officer or NCO knew, there was always an element of bluff when maintaining discipline in the ranks: one must never betray fear or dubiety. The trouble was, the farcical hopelessness of the recent offensive (and one must factor in, always, the searing memory of Verdun the previous year) had made that seemingly impossible. A mood of resentful fatalism seemed to pervade the lines over the French sector, articulated exquisitely in the soldiers’ popular “Song of Craonne”:

Adieu, life

Adieu, love,

Adieu, all the women.

It’s all over

It’s for good

This ghastly war.

At Craonne

On the plateau

We had to lose our hides

Because we are condemned.

We are the sacrificed.

French soldier of 1917 saluting a barrel of Pinard

Poor Nivelle – talk about a bubble reputation. His descent from being the darling of the politicians to pariah, and sole architect of the latest catastrophe, had taken a matter of days. Rather listlessly, he hung onto power (or at least his position) even now.

His British counterpart, Haig, continued the planning for his longed-for offensive in Flanders – what would become known as Passchendaele or the Third Battle of Ypres. He had been planning for this for months – only now, of course, there were worries over the French commitment to this offensive. Sir Henry Wilson, the Liaison Officer between the French and British, had already heard from Pétain that “He is opposed to Haig’s plans of attack.”

Brigadier Charteris

It was not Haig’s style to fret. He had now dropped his earlier idea for General Plumer to lead the offensive and opted for his protégé General Gough of the 5th Army, who took up his appointment on 13th May. He was also buoyed up in his preparations by “information” that Germany was on the brink of collapse. The source for this was his Intelligence Officer, Brigadier-General John Charteris. The intelligence seems to have been gleaned by only a very selective tour d’horizon: Germany had proposed peace the previous December as too, more recently, had Austria; her sudden withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line looked suspiciously like weakness. Charteris also emphasised the success of the British blockade in bringing Germany’s civilians to very brink of starvation.

That was not, of course, the whole story. Not by a long chalk. After Arras, Charteris admitted

The morale of the Germans is still rather puzzling… On the whole, I think there is a lowering of their morale, but there were very marked exceptions, and one cannot draw definite conclusions.

The trouble was, commanders tended to want certainties. So Charteris kept shtum.

The Connaught Rangers knew only too well that the Germans were not spent. Lieutenant Colonel Feilding at Butterfly Farm near Locre wrote to his wife on 8th May:

The German artillery continues to be very aggressive, shelling our back areas, roads, and billets, at intervals during the nights… Last night, the Germans got a bit of their own back. At 8.45, by pre-arranged order, practically every gun and howitzer in the 2nd Army opened fire simultaneously, and continued at top blast for exactly five minutes, bombarding their back areas, roads and billets.

It was an impressive sight to watch the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of guns in action together, flashing intermittently in the darkness. And each time the enemy ventured to retaliate upon any area, he got a double dose. From eleven o’clock till five minutes past the operation was repeated. After that the enemy was as quiet as a mouse for the rest of the night.

Equally, the British attacks in the Arras area had entailed hundreds of casualties. Dr Henry Potter of the 3rd Harvard Medical Unit dealt with the first wave:

The big push has started. For two days the convoys have been coming in. On the 9th [April] we took in fifteen hundred in twenty-four hours. Every ward is full and the D lines are crowded. The B line has forty-three pretty bad cases in it. Working day and night. The operating room starts about 8.30 am, and four tables are going steadily till 2 o’clock next morning. I don’t see how the Op. room nurses stand it. 273 operations in four days…

As the fighting resumed after a brief lull, he wrote on 26th April:

Hustling again. The fight has been on again for three days in front of Arras. The Germans are fighting hard and giving ground very slowly. The convoys are mostly very badly wounded men.

He reported that the wounded had a poor opinion of tanks: they seemed more an exercise in agonising self-immolation than a weapon of war:

The opinion, among them, seems to be that the tanks have had their day. The Germans have a short, easily handled anti-tank howitzer that is very effective. One man in A7 — face and hands burned, compound fractures of both legs — told me that his tank was completely riddled. The gasoline tank exploded and all on board were killed but him. He is going to die. He said that of ten tanks that started out from Froiselles yesterday not one came back.

Mark 1 tank, 1917, with all its battlegear

The month of May was due to be Potter’s last, much though he wished otherwise.

… if there were really an American force coming over here soon, I think I’d consider it my duty to stay here and join them when they arrived. But that doesn’t seem at all likely. I don’t believe any American troops will be over here inside of a year.

One takes away from this a sense of something greater even than weariness – more an absolute depletion, perhaps of both moral and material resources.

Wilfred Owen was now at Gailly at the renamed №41 Stationary Hospital under the care of Captain W. Brown of the RAMC, a neurologist and specialist in neurasthenia. Owen wrote to his sister on 8th May, explaining what he saw as the real cause of his stressed state:

…it was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call 2/Lt Gaukroger), who lay not only nearby, but in various places around and about…

Not niceEven in extremis, soldiers feared anything which smacked of weakness above almost everything. Yet the sight of mutilated young bodies tortured the minds of those who had had no choice but to set eyes upon them.

Those in authority were keenly aware of the fact. Some of the expedients which they contrived to minimise the problem were not, in fact, terribly helpful. Captain J.M. MacQueen, RAMC, Sanitation Officer, 15th (Highland) Division, testified to that:

I got a wire to send up four men to assist the Sanitary Section at St Nicholas in the spraying of dead bodies over the top of the line. I thought to myself when I read this telegram. ‘How long are we to suffer from Sanitary Lunatics from home?’ I did not believe that there would be more than two gallons of the wretched stuff to spray with, concocted by some silly fool in a laboratory at home and pressed upon more silly asses going by the name of a Sanitary Commission.

It is a brutal business, is war. To spray dead bodies with disinfectants is no assistance in wartime. After lying in positions where it is not safe to go out and bury them, the best that can be hoped is that nature should not be retarded in its process of bacterial dissolution, and nothing should ever be placed on a dead body to prevent a rat eating it. If it cannot be buried, get it down to the state of bleached bones. Disinfectants sprayed on dead bodies by men going over the top after a battle is the height of folly. However, an order is an order, so I chose for this job four unmarried men. If they themselves were left behind with the dead bodies they were spraying, they would not leave a widow, and perhaps children, desolate.

Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich

Russia, having now ejected its Tsar, seemed hourly to be losing interest in the war. The President of the Duma, Rodzianko, “reaffirmed” commitment to the war effort on 10th May. The fact that he troubled to do so was obviously indicative of vacillating determination on the part of others. Many (perhaps most) civilians and soldiers were increasingly indifferent to any external enemy: they hated the ruling classes far more than the Germans and, in recent months, the blood they longed most earnestly to spill was that of their erstwhile rulers. On 8th May, the outgoing French Ambassador, Maurice Paléologue, asked Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich why he was so gloomy. The reply rather bore out this idea: “How can you expect me to forget that I’m marked down for the gallows?”

In Petrograd , the Foreign Minister, Miliukov, had also rather listlessly tried to assure foreign embassies that Russia supported the imperialistic war. He enunciated the ancient regime ideas that Russia wanted territorial gains at the end of it, and in so doing enraged the Petrograd Soviet which had offered that the war be supported only so long as it was “defensive”.

Soldiers and workers took to the streets in protest at his words. In the words of one observer:

A bevy of factory girls marching arm in arm; their shawl-enveloped heads tilted skywards; their placid Slav faces lighted with a look of perfect ecstasy, and they sang as if inspired the Hymn of the Revolution…  And then I saw it… a huge black banner, with a white skull and crossbones, which seemed to be grinning over the words: ‘Welcome Anarchy!’…There was something loathsome about it, as if it were a flaunting invitation to indulge in all sorts of beastliness.

Beastliness was everywhere. The revered Dowager Duchess Maria Feodorovna, mother of the Tsar, had in April been sent to Ai-Todor in the Crimea, but found she was not safe even there. On 9th May:

Dowager Duchess Maria Feodorovna

I was suddenly awoken at 5.30 in the morning by a knock at the door. In the terror of the twilight, I made out a man who loudly declared he had been sent on behalf of the government to search the house. Despite my firm protestations, they pulled back the canopy, and the lieutenant said that I had to get out of bed… They opened all my dressers, even those where the jewels were kept. He rummaged through everything… I watched what he was doing in the mirror and said that there were letters from 1894 and my New Testament… Thus my most precious, most holy relics disappeared. It was something truly unimaginable! Everyone in Ai-Todor was taken into custody, security was posted everywhere and searches were conducted.

In this lawless environment, those who claimed to be acting out of righteous indignation seem frequently to have been subsumed by uglier, more primitive urges. Maxim Gorky, in the editorial office of the newspaper New Life despaired about the crude propaganda about the old regime being circulated in “dirty pamphlets”, writing on 10th May:

We have to fight this poison — I don’t know how exactly — but we have to do it, especially seeing as there are too few publications on the book market (which we really need at the moment) next to these sadistic, afflictive fabrications of filthy so-called ‘literature’.

Maxim Gorky

The internal degeneration of Russia made a nonsense of coherent military endeavour. Some observed what they called “pacifism” on the part of the troops, and a readiness to “fraternise with the enemy”. These were grandiose terms for what, more often, was an utter disinclination to fight. Lieutenant General Anton Denikin reported:

Nine a.m. The first Company gradually begins to awaken. The trenches are incredibly defiled; in the narrow communication trenches and those of the second line the air is thick and close. The parapet is crumbling away. No one troubles to repair it; no one feels inclined to do so, and there are not enough men in the Company. There is a large number of deserters; more than fifty have been allowed to go. Old soldiers have been demobilized, others have gone on leave with the arbitrary permission of the Committee… Finally, by threats and violence, the soldiers have so terrorized the regimental surgeons that the latter have been issuing medical certificates even to the ‘thoroughly fit’.

He also noted the contents of a German newspaper, helpfully titled The Russian Messenger:

The English want the Russians to spread the last drop of their blood for the greater glory of England, who seeks her profit in everything… Dear soldiers, you must know that Russia would have concluded peace long ago had not England prevented her… We must turn away from her….

General Kornilov: not a fan of the new government

Guchkov, Minister of War, and General Kornilov, Commandant of Petrograd, resigned on 13th May. They were horrified by the incapacity of the Provisional Government to inject authority, let alone urgency, into the prosecution of war. Some, mainly in the Duma, believed that it should enter into a coalition with the Petrograd Soviet: political expertise would thus be allied to a popular mandate. It may have seemed to make sense at the time, but in hindsight it is risible. Western politicians were privately becoming increasingly resigned to the idea that Russia was a busted flush. Many feared that troops on the Western Front would succumb to the seditious ideas which now held such sway in the east. The rising unrest in French ranks held, for just this reason, an especial terror.

In Britain, the greatest anxiety, however, remained starvation. This week saw at least 64 vessels lost. The worst concerned yet another troopship when, on 11th May, the French boat Medjerda, en route from Oran to Port Vendres, was torpedoed and sunk by SM U-34 off Cape Tortosa, south-west of Barcelona. Over 388 soldiers and crew perished.

The brazenness of the German navy had become a provocation in its own right. Eleven German destroyers had to be chased away to Zeebrugge on 10th May by a British scouting patrol from Harwich, under Commodore Tyrwhitt. A couple of days later, the navy undertook a heavy bombardment of Zeebrugge, the sound of which could be heard in Folkestone. Two German submarines did become victims: on 8th May, SM UC-26 was rammed and sunk by HMS Milne in the Channel off Calais, with the loss of all 26 crew. On 14th May, in the North Sea, SM U-59 struck a mine and sank with the loss of 33 of the 37 crew. That same day, Lloyd George reshuffled the Admiralty: Sir John Jellicoe, commander at Jutland, became the new Chief of Naval Staff and Sir Eric Geddes, formerly so successful with railways in France, became Controller.

Sir Eric Geddes

Lloyd George knew much more was needed than just a new broom. He convened a secret session of the House of Commons on 10th and 11th May to discuss the submarine peril. Westminster gossip being what it always has been, those who were sufficiently well-born and well-connected seem to have learned at once what had been discussed. Cynthia Asquith’s diary testifies to that:

May 11  Walked with Alex, [Lord Thynne, MP for Bath and a Major in the Royal Wilts Yeomanry] who is home for three days’ Parliamentary leave. We went as far as Victoria where I mounted a bus and he went off to the continuation of the Secret Session begun the night before. He said Lloyd George had made a most feather-brained speech, saying there was plenty of food in the country — no cause for alarm — with many of his statistics blatantly wrong.

Lord Alexander Thynne: blabbermouth

As daughter-in-law to Lloyd George’s predecessor, she was hardly an impartial witness. But anxieties about food were prominent in her diary just now:

May 9  Went to the hospital. They are taking rations very seriously now and we are not allowed to give the men more than three slices — it goes very much against the grain…

May 12  A dinner with Margot Howard de Walden who had planned an impromptu dance later as Prince Leo Battenberg had his excellent regimental band up to play for the entertainment of the Canadian officers Margot had had to tea… There was a good deal of dancing. The music teased my heart and it seemed a mockery of an old times dance. One looked for vanished faces and winced at the mushroom growth of strange men… What a mistake the ‘business as usual’ attitude is!… Margot’s patriotism was such that not one bite of food was given. People were holding their stomachs with hunger and there was a good deal of murmuring…

Vanished faces: a perfect epithet for the heart-hunger which three years of war had unleashed. One had belonged to Albert Ball, the brilliant young pilot, who had disappeared in thick cloud during a multi-plane dog-fight on 7th May. According to Ball’s colleague, Cecil Lewis:

I believe I was the last to see him in his red-nosed SE going east at eight thousand feet. He flew straight into the white face of an enormous cloud. I followed. But when I came out the other side, he was nowhere to be seen. All next day a feeling of depression hung over the squadron. We mooned about the sheds, still hoping for news. The day after that hope was given up.

One of the Germans who had been in the melée had been Lothar von Richthofen, brother of the Red Baron. Lothar would later claim he had downed Ball’s plane, but this was at odds with the testimony of the German authorities who, later in the month, confirmed Ball’s death. They said they had found no bullet wounds on his body – simply, he had crashed and been killed.

Ball in the cockpit of his SE5, April 1917

The idea that he had flown into turbulence, that the aeroplane had gone into a spin out of which he had been unable to wrest it, may have sounded improbable given that he had been an aviator of such exceptional talent. But he was also a profoundly tired man. His family had seen this for themselves and his brother Cyril maintained that,

Albert should never have gone back to France in April 1917. He may have looked all right, but he was mentally and physically spent.

The Germans honoured Ball with a full military funeral at the village of Annoeullin where he fell and, in June, he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his “most exceptional courage, determination and skill”.

Trenchard’s ADC, Maurice Baring, wrote in his diary that Ball’s death

cast a gloom through the whole Flying Corps. He was not only perhaps the most inspired pilot we have ever had, but the most modest and engaging character. His squadron, and indeed all the squadrons, will feel this terribly.

The original German marker erected at Ball’s grave in Annoeullin

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