MAYBE WE WERE winning. Not, of course, winning in the sense that the end of the war was nigh. That fantasy burned brightly in many hearts and would not willingly be given up. But the hideous sequence of colossal artillery bombardments and troop offensives were starting to exert a cumulative effect.
On 26th September, the Allies captured Combles and Thiepval, taking stores and prisoners. The British stormed Gueudecourt where the cavalry was particularly heavily engaged in the attempt to rout the Germans out of their deep hiding place. One of those was Gefreiter Heinemann of the 165th Infantrie Regiment. He described what he saw at Mouquet Farm:
Suddenly, at half past two, the enemy let loose with devastating drumfire on the position lying in front of us. Facing the oncoming wave, we could not think of getting up to run to the rear. We would have been shot down like rabbits. And staying to defend the place was as good as committing suicide.
But there were always other ways to die. Shortly afterwards a shell exploded outside his dugout and he and most of his company found themselves buried alive. After a short and presumably terrifying period, they were exhumed — only to discover that ownership of the trench had changed:
Two soldiers wearing khaki stood waiting with their rifles levelled. Several of our men ignored the weapons upon seeing some grass growing from the wall of the trench. They ripped clumps out and immediately stuffed as much as possible into their mouths. Watching this, one of the enemy soldiers removed his water bottle and passed it around. I will never forget this gesture as long as I live.
Those troops now occupying our position turned out to be Canadians. After being searched for weapons and documents we were led away. Passing through the enemy’s lines we saw an enormous number of artillery pieces, collected and lined up in unending rows. But at the same time we saw evidence of the work of our own guns — dead Englishmen were lying everywhere.
So marched into captivity all that was left of the 2nd Company of the 165th Infantrie Regiment: two officers and twelve men.
Another German soldier, Karl Gorzel, a law student from Breslau, wrote home on 1st October about his recent experiences near Thiepval after an earlier English attack:
At dawn I looked around me: what a ghastly picture! Not a trace of a trench left; nothing but shell-holes as far as the eye could reach — holes which had been filled by fresh explosions, blown up again and again filled… The wounded lie helplessly groaning. The supply of water runs out… The fire increases to such bewildering intensity that it is no longer possible to distinguish between the crashes. Our mouths and ears are full of earth; three times buried and three times dug up again, we wait — wait for night or the enemy! …And the bursting shells’ dance-of-death becomes ever madder — one can see nothing for smoke, fire, and spurting earth
We sink down, dazed, upon the tortured earth, and tie up the wounded as well as we can, while awaiting the coming of a second attack or of the night… I light a cigarette, and try to think — to think of our dead and wounded; of the sufferings of humanity; to think back to — home! But away with such thoughts! The present demands its rights — it requires a real man, not a dreamer… Reinforcements arrive, things are cleared up and the dead buried, and a new day breaks, more horrible than the last!
Such is the battle of the Somme — Germany’s bloody struggle for victory. This week represents the utmost limits of human endurance — it was hell!
German morale began now to be seriously undermined. Rain and foul mud, a big feature from the middle of the month, added to the general malaise. When the 180th (Wurttemberg) Regiment was finally driven back from Thiepval by the British 18th Division on 27th September, a sense of fatalism seems to have pervaded. One soldier described the moment as
[To me] every German soldier from the highest general to the most lowly private had the feeling that now Germany had lost the first great battle.
It wasn’t just him. Germany’s losses in September were the heaviest of the whole battle: over 220,000 killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner. Crown Prince Rupprecht noted that replacements amounted to a mere ten per cent of what was needed. Not merely were German troops exhausted, but they wereforced to summon a desperate resilience as they endured endless artillery bombardments and assaults from the Allies.
We know, of course, that the British and French had suffered desperately in recent months. Verdun, in reality the greater battle, had now contracted into some kind of ghostly diminuendo. Paul Truffau, a French captain, twice wounded, a survivor of the Marne and other battles, had just arrived at Froideterre, Verdun. His diary of these days testifies to the fact that, while the scale of fighting there had contracted, it was not over:
27 September Yesterday evening, at 8.30 p.m., the day’s bombardments over, we went on reconnaissance to our position, P.C. Maroc, near Fleury. A lunar landscape, pitted with shell-holes, with one solitary tree, burnt and mangled. We reach the trench, dug out by joining up the shell-holes and it stinks of bogs and decaying corpses. Stagnant water.
28 September At 10.30 p.m. I go to survey position P.C.119 near Thiaumont. These plateaux are pounded by shells dropped during the day, but at night they are full of stretcher-bearers bringing back the day’s casualties. We walk through battery C. We wade through mud. Craters filled with water reflect the light every time a rocket is fired. The smell of corpses everywhere.
The fortunes of war elsewhere felt more mixed. In the East, the recently-sacked Falkenhayn was now in charge of the 9th Army and doing rather well, recording successes in Transylvania including an attack at the Roter Turm pass on 30th September. The Romanians retreated but rallied two days later, as well as throwing back General Mackensen in Dobruja. The Russians had claimed 1,000 prisoners during the week, but the Front remained mainly unchanged even so, as the momentum built up by the Brusilov offensive faded.
In what now seems a miscellaneous development, Bulgaria declared war on Romania on 1st October. In reality, both sides were staking their claims to the rapidly imploding Habsburg Empire, as well as indulging longstanding and arcane ethnic rivalries. On 30th September the Serb army captured Mount Kaymakchlan, 25 miles east of the target, Monastir. While Serb bile focused on Austria-Hungary, the gaze of various neighbours rested on Constantinople and their hopes on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
This also explains some of the recent ruptures in Greece, whose strategic position in the Aegean and Mediterranean had ensured the attentions of the British, on and off, for centuries. On 30th September, the former Prime Minister, Venizelos, declared a Provisional Greek government from his exile in Crete. This was a clear attempt to swing the Greek war effort in a resolutely anglophile direction and, not exactly incidentally, to lay claims to the other disintegrating empire in the region — the Ottoman.
Such geopolitical machinations seem to have been far from the mind of the Minister for War, David Lloyd George, who gave an extraordinary interview on 28th September, published in The Times the following day. It was a masterpiece of vagueness — no hints concerning specifics were dropped — but the tenor and tone is fascinating:
The British soldier is a good sportsman. He enlisted in this war in a sporting spirit in the best sense of that term. He went in to see fair play for a small nation trampled upon by a bully. He is fighting for fair play. He has fought as a good sportsman. By the thousands he has died a good sportsman.
He has never asked for more than a sporting chance. He has not always had that. When he couldn’t get it, he didn’t quit. He played the game. He didn’t squeal, and he has certainly never asked anyone to squeal for him. Under the circumstances the British, now that the fortunes of the game have turned a bit, are not disposed to stop because of the squealing done by Germans or done for Germans by probably well-meaning but misguided sympathizers and humanitarians.
During these months when it seemed the finish of the British Army might come quickly, Germany elected to make this a fight to the finish with England. The British soldier was ridiculed and held in contempt. Now we intend to see that Germany has her way. The fight must be to the finish — to a knock-out.
It is almost as if P.G.Wodehouse has stepped on to the set. But this is, presumably, an authentic insight into how this canniest of politicians believed the British wanted to understand themselves.
The inhumanity, the pitilessness of the fighting that must come before a lasting peace is possible, is not comparable with the cruelty that would be involved in stopping the war while there remains a possibility of civilization again being menaced from the same quarter. Peace now, or at any time before the final complete elimination of this menace, is unthinkable.
This ghastliness must never be re-enacted on this earth, and one method at least of assuring that end is the infliction of such punishment upon the perpetrators of the outrage against humanity that the temptation to emulate their exploits will be eliminated from the hearts of the evil-minded amongst the rulers of men.
Et cetera. There is a pathos to these ideas — mainly, of course, because of what happened in 1939. But the need for the British to continue to believe in themselves as decent tells one a great deal about the sensibilities of servicemen and their families after more than two years of war.
The evidence supporting fair play is inevitably a bit mixed. Edith Appleton’s diary this week shows the conflicting claims of decency and propriety which assailed her as this appallingly overworked woman tended in Etretat to the wounded of both sides:
October 1. We had a convoy of 347 in yesterday — badly wounded with only a dozen walking cases among them. I only took 43 patients — German prisoners. They always fall to my share. Six were slight cases, but the rest were shot to rags and putrid! Really the smell of gangrene, added to the always unpleasant German smell, was a trial to one’s stomach. Most of them are Prussian infantry, with some Wurttemburgers and some from Saxony. One poor Saxony youngster got wounds from his own bomb — he’d held it too long after the pin was out.
As before when I had the German patients, the whole population of Etretat turned out to see them carried in (37 were on stretchers) and they made themselves such a nuisance that I closed the ground-floor shutters. The youth of Etretat have been parading in front of the house, whistling and singing the ‘Marseillaise’ for the benefit of the Germans, and our own people are as bad. I find bunches of strange orderlies gazing at them, and I make myself thoroughly unpleasant and banish the lot.
I’m not going to keep a peep-show. If they want to see Germans, I tell them to join an infantry regiment and they will get all the Germans they want… Our boys do their work very thoroughly judging by the Germans’ wounds. They are not at all a brave set this time, they whimper and cry over their dressings before they are even touched.
October 2. A rampant day yesterday, and I sent 16 of the least bad Germans to the Canadian hospital at Le Havre. Those remaining are stinking with gangrene and ought all to be operated on, but they must wait until our own Tommies have had their turn in the theatre.
This tension between hating the enemy and answering the claims of common humanity was known and understood by contemporaries, as the aftermath of another Zeppelin raid overnight on 1st–2nd October testified. Eleven airships had set off but only seven crossed the British coast to be met by fierce anti-aircraft fire and pursuit by RFC pilots.
One of these, Second Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest, managed to catch up with L.31, which was commanded by the legendary Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy. Tempest recorded:
The Zeppelin was now nearly 15,000 feet high and mounting rapidly.[I] dived straight at her, firing a burst straight into her as I came. I let her have another burst as I passed under her and then banking my machine over, sat under her tail, and flying along underneath her, pumped lead into her.
As I was firing, I noticed her begin to go red inside like an enormous Chinese lantern and then a flame shot out of the front part of her and I realized she was on fire. She then shot up about 200 feet, paused, and came roaring down straight on to me before I had time to get out of the way. I nose-dived for all I was worth, and just managed to corkscrew out of the way as she shot past me, roaring like a furnace.
A journalist, Michael MacDonagh, watched the spectacle from Blackfriars Bridge:
The Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky. A gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint even to the waters of the Thames.
The spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound — almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry. When at last the doomed airship vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before — a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy… It was London’s Te Deum for another crowning deliverance. Four Zeppelins destroyed in a month!
The next morning, MacDonagh’s editor sent him to Potters’ Bar, 13 miles from London, where, in heavy rain, he found the crash site:
One body was found in the field some distance from the wreckage. He must have jumped from the doomed airship from a considerable height. So great was the force with which he struck the ground that I saw the imprint of his body clearly defined in the stubbly grass.
There was a round hole for the head, then deep impressions of the trunk, with outstretched arms, and finally the widely separated legs. Life was in him when he was picked up, but the spark soon went out. He was, in fact, the Commander, who had been in one of the gondolas hanging from the airship.
Once the public drama had subsided, Mathy and his crew were quietly buried in a local churchyard.
So far, so very sporting. But generosity frequently did not extend to those already on the edges of British society. The recollections of Mary Brough-Robertson, a munitions worker, leave one in no doubt that a good many histories have a knack of airbrushing away some of the chronic unpleasantnesses of the time — what we would call sexism, but might just as easily be dubbed (as here) male greed and bullying.
Munitions workers were just about the lowest form of life in the eyes of the general public. We were supposed to make a great deal of money, and as other people didn’t make so much they called us all sorts of things, even shouted things after us. If they knew what you were they had all sorts of nasty things to say to you.
I can’t speak of what people made making shells, but I know the wage for filling them was only twenty-five shillings a week for a girl, which was not a great sum. In fact you couldn’t manage with that amount, as you had to pay for all your meals, you didn’t get any free.
The idea that war was a begetter of change and opportunity is potent. But its benefits were experienced as unfairly as everything else. If women were fair game for those too ignorant or cloddish to know better, it was very much worse for those who came under the yoke of empire. Dr Ludwig Deppe was a German settler who ran a mobile field hospital and struggled to keep up with the German commander Lettow-Vorbeck, whilst coping with the wounded and the daily communication, supply and discipline problems:
1 October — Looting is one of the necessary evils of the war in Africa. We have managed to teach our Askaris to behave more humanely, but not to desist from looting per se. All the troops, including the whites, have been directly dependent on plunder for munitions, clothing and food. All the blacks are mad on looting, whether it is the Askaris or the porters, man, woman or child. It is also difficult to stop the blacks from raping women, because they see them as property, like cows or huts. The women who come along with us usually don’t want to go back to their husbands, having tasted the freedom of soldiering life.
Our billeted men move into a village and seize the huts, placing rather more importance on getting what they want than on obtaining the owner’s consent. There were many arguments yesterday: one of my sick Askaris had taken three hens and promptly slit their throats. Their owner appeared and started complaining and trying to reclaim his hens. As a punishment, the hens were handed over to other Askaris. But this Askari couldn’t be punished with 25 lashes because he’s got worms
The indigenous populations, recruited by both sides in the conflict, suffered disproportionately. They acted as porters carting all the supplies and belongings through difficult terrain, with few serviceable roads. Thousands would perish — not least because they were considered so dispensable. Cynically, very few were ever vaccinated — but very many were malnourished, exhausted and worked to death. Their fate was another appalling legacy of war.