ENTER LORD FLASHEART. The extraordinary career of Manfred von Richthofen, the twenty-four-year-old son of a Silesian nobleman now — well — took off.
Allied airmen learned quickly to fear him. They had gradually acquired dominance of the skies above the western front and it was in an attempt to challenge this that the Kaiser had reluctantly relented and allowed his outstanding ace, Oswald Boelcke, to return to combat duty. Boelcke had used his time away from active service to talent-spot and now rejoined his Jasta 2 squadron with some promising young pilots in tow.
One of these was the young Richthofen, who had begun his wartime service in the cavalry and then switched to flying with his first duty on the Russian front. It is worth remembering that he began very much in the shadow as well as under the command of Boelcke who, by mid-September, had increased his tally by four to a total of twenty-six victories. The squadron was now flying over the Somme in the superb Albatros B1, which had twin fixed machine-guns, and was faster and more manoeuvrable than the Fokker which it replaced.
On 17 September Richtofen scored his first kill. During a bombing raid on Marcoing Station he hunted down an RAF FE2b plane piloted by Second Lieutenant Lionel Morris with Captain Tom Rees as observer. Having manoeuvred himself into an ideal position to return the fire which Morris had levelled at him, he managed to injure grievously both Rees and the plane, which was forced to land at the German airfield at Flequieres.
Richthofen followed him down:
The Englishman landed close to the flying ground of one of our squadrons. I was so excited that I landed also and my eagerness was so great that I nearly smashed up my machine. The English flying machine and my own stood close together. I rushed to the English machine and saw that a lot of soldiers were running towards my enemy. When I arrived I discovered that my assumption had been correct. I had shot the engine to pieces and both the pilot and observer were severely wounded. The observer died at once and the pilot while being transported to the nearest dressing station. I honoured the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.
That morning’s kill would be the first of a tally which, ultimately, would total eighty. On this particular day Richthofen returned to his squadron for a late breakfast at Bertincourt, announcing cheerily ‘One Englishman shot down!’ He sounds to have been a frightful show-off, but he was indisputably a genius — and very brave.
Bravery wore, of course, many different guises. After a public campaign led by the Daily Sketch, news came this week that John Cornwell, who had died of his wounds after Jutland, had been awarded the Victoria Cross. Gazetted on 15 September, the citation read:
The King has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N. 42563 (died 2 June 1916)… Mortally wounded early in the action…[he] remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun crew dead and wounded all round him. His age was under sixteen and a half years.
Cornwell, known as Jack, became the First World War’s youngest recipient of the VC. The famous likeness of him belongs certainly to his brother, but it still gives a feel of the tough working-class boy, born in Essex and who had moved with his family to the East End of London — a very different feel to that of Richtofen.
The British were proud of their heroes and needed encouragement.The previous day, a fire at the Fields factory at Rainham in Essex, where TNT was manufactured, had cost the lives of seven workers and injured another 72. A huge explosion followed the fire and much masonry fell into the Thames. Two of the Romford firefighters who attended the scene won an OBE, but — for security reasons — the location of the factory was not disclosed.
After over two years of war, some civilian gaucheries were being edged out. The practice of some women to present white feathers to apparently able-bodied young men because they were not in uniform was causing great offence, particularly as these were often handed out to soldiers on leave in mufti and to those invalided home. The authorities decided to issue the Silver War Badge which was introduced on 12 September. Known also as the Discharge Badge, Wound Badge or Services Rendered Badge, Army Order 316 stated: ‘His Majesty the King had approved the issue of a silver war badge to officers and men of the British, Indian, and Overseas Forces, who have served at home or abroad since the 4 August, 1914, and who on account of age or physical infirmity arising from wounds or sickness caused by military service, in the case of officers retired or relinquished their commissions, or, in the case of men, being discharged from the Army’.
The badges were stamped with the royal cypher of GRI and an identifying number. There were twenty-nine different reasons for being discharged and obviously ‘misconduct’ would not qualify anyone for a badge which had to be claimed and then approved. Approximately 1,150,000 badges would be issued — an elaborate and presumably costly way to shut noisy civilians up, but it appeared to work. One recipient was future Oscar-winning heartthrob, Ronald Colman, invalided out of the army in 1915, after being injured in 1914 serving with the London Scottish. He was permanently left with a limp which he tried to disguise in his acting career.
New horrors unfolded meanwhile on the Somme. Public attention has for so long focused on the carnage of the first days that it is often forgotten this was a long campaign, and marked out by distinct phases.
On 15 September, after the usual artillery bombardment which preceded an advance, the Coldstream and Grenadier Guards advanced at 6.20am from Ginchy towards Lesboeufs. Seventeen of the twenty-two officers in Raymond Asquith’s battalion were either killed or wounded. Indeed, the whole of The Guards suffered catastrophically with 359 Grenadiers in the 2nd Battalion killed, wounded or missing — well over half of those who had set out. One was the young Harold Macmillan, who had rolled into a shell-hole with a badly injured thigh. He lay doggo for over twelve hours, occasionally reading his pocket Aeschylus in Greek, until he was rescued by Sergeant-Major Norton.
Macmillan, like many public schoolboys, drew inspiration from the classics. Those of a less rarefied disposition turned often to their brothers-in-arms. Lieutenant-Colonel John Campbell of the Coldstream Guards was part of the attack at Ginchy on 15 September. The first two waves of his battalion had been scythed down by enemy fire, but now he rallied his men, leading them against the machine guns, and capturing and killing the gun teams. Those who survived the onslaught he then led through a heavy barrage. It was a dizzying display of sangfroid.
The fate of a whole action could turn quite quickly when confronted by this kind of courage. That day, the men in his battalion had been told that the arrival of the tank, the new wonder-weapon, would make for easy pickings.
One soldier later recorded:
The tank never came. It was split-second timing, we couldn’t wait for it, we had to go over the top. Well, we went over the top and we got cut to pieces because the plan had failed. Eventually the tank got going and went past us. The Germans ran for their lives — couldn’t make out what was firing at them. We didn’t know anything at all about tanks, they didn’t know anything at all about tanks, so the tank went on, knocked brick walls, houses down, did what it was supposed to have done — but too late! We lost thousands and thousands and what was left of us Coldstreams, we didn’t know what to do, so we got into shell holes and bits of wall where there was cover.
Colonel Campbell of the 1st Battalion, Coldstreams, got up on the trench and he got a hunting horn and he blew the hunting horn and got us together and he stood on top of the trench. They say God was in the trenches … and if God was ever in the trenches he was there looking after Colonel Campbell … He got us together and we dug ourselves in and consolidated our position.
Campbell won the VC for his performance that day and survived the war, becoming ADC to George V from 1919.
Haig had insisted on waiting until 15 September to join Joffre in the offensive, mainly because he wanted to take the chance to trial tanks in sufficient numbers in order to achieve a breakthrough before the bad autumnal weather set in.
For every great innovation in weaponry, there was a score of duds. Instead of massing the tanks for maximum impact, Haig had ordered them to be used in twos and threes to support the infantry — a misjudgement, in the light of experience, but hardly his fault.
The attack took place on the German positions south of the Albert-Bapaume road, and aimed to break the enemy’s third line of defences centred on the village of Flers. The tanks left thirty-five minutes ahead of the infantry and with specific objectives; British soldiers recorded the effect:
It was marvellous. That tank went on rolling and bobbing and swaying in and out of shell-holes, climbing over trees as easy as kiss-your-hand! We were awed!…The tank waddled on with its guns blazing and we could see Jerry popping up and down, not knowing what to do, whether to stay or to run…The Jerries waited until our tank was only a few yards away and then fled — or hoped to! The tank just shot them down and the machine-gun post, the gun itself, the dead and the wounded who hadn’t been able to run, just disappeared. The tank went right over them.
Despite various failures, nine of the tanks stayed ahead of the infantry and Haig reputedly claimed that ‘wherever the tanks advanced we took our objectives and where they did not advance we did not take our objectives’. 49 had been made available, of which only 32 got off the mark, and others broke down almost as soon as they moved off, so only 18 were effective in action. But they were a total surprise to the Germans and created a sensation.
Major H.E. Trevor, Brigade Major, 37th Infantry Brigade, wrote to his parents from the Somme on 16 September:
We have had great news this morning which I suppose you will see in tomorrow’s papers. We seem to be doing splendidly and our new implement of war seems to have thoroughly frightened the Hun. I do hope we shall break through and am beginning to feel quite confident.
He continued his letter later that day:
The news continues to be good, the Tanks seem to have done good work and fairly put the wind up the Hun who was seen to run like Hell in front of them shouting ‘This isn’t war, this is murder’. For once in the war we come into the field with a new engine of war and not second-hand copied from the Hun.
Colonel Swinton, one of the chief architects of the tanks’ production, who visited Haig on 15 September — the day the offensive was launched — took away a very credible impression of Haig’s relief and cautious optimism:
He received me almost at once and very cordially. He thanked me for what I had done, and said that though the Tanks had not achieved all that had been hoped, they had saved many lives and had fully justified themselves; that he wanted five times as many.
So far, so good — at least in the eyes of the Commander. It did not seem thus for many on the ground. Sister Edith Appleton nursing in Etretat noted now in her diary:
The tales the men from the Somme tell are terrible — how some poor fellows go mad, and some die from fright or shock and all swear terribly. One very quiet man told me swearing was not his habit, or any joy to him, but he swore as much as any man when shells were coming over. ‘It helps one to bear it quite wonderfully,’ he said. One time they were following the 1st Warwicks and the Black Watch and had to advance over No-Man’s-Land, strewn thick with our own dead and not a square yard without a dead body on it. The Warwicks had been almost entirely wiped out and the Black Watch nearly as bad. And they always say, ‘We took what we had to’.
There were clear signs of desperation too:
September 14 We had a sudden hurried order to clear the hospital yesterday, so we have. I have only 20 patients left — it should have been 19, but a sergeant threw himself into the water and is now a prisoner patient.
And there was also evidence that the ‘big push’ needed men of all kinds — so-called ‘cannon fodder’:
It was sad to send so many to convalescent camp who have only been in four days, they were not well, but just too ‘nearly well’ to go to England, and they will be wanted back up the line as soon as possible.
September 15: Hospital now reduced to 13 patients as we are awaiting the big push …
The German Sergeant, Paul Hub, was also now on the Somme where his had the dangerous task for collecting food from a position behind the lines and distributing in the trenches, usually under fire. His letters at this time touched on a number of highly pregnant issues. One was the chronic exhaustion of the troops- on all sides. To his fiancée, Maria, he wrote on September 12:
I went with my company to collect our rations. We waited there till 2 a.m. for the porters to bring it up to us. This was the first and last time we had something warm to eat. We carried the soup back in four big pans. But most of the men were so exhausted by the relentless firing that they couldn’t be bothered to eat it. They just tried to get some sleep.
He appeared to have been dismissive of British infantry, if not of their firepower. In a letter to his parents that same day, he commented:
Six days of fighting on the Somme and there’s still no end to it. The artillery thumps down on our positions, shattering the ground and our nerves with it. I wish the next twelve days were over and I had survived them. So far I’ve been OK. Thankfully the enemy infantry is useless. We can repel their attack with the help of just a single machine gun and a few rifles. But their artillery never stops. They keep pounding us day and night.
Life was austere as well as frightening:
We have only our coats, tarpaulin and cooking gear with us. We live like pigs. The cold food doesn’t help. My trench coat is several sizes too big now.
Hunger wasn’t the worst they had to fear. He told Maria, again on September 12:
Only two of the four soup pans got eaten, the other two went begging, then they were shot to pieces. The men just left them and took cover as quickly as they could. My luck was in: I was in the trench when a shell exploded right beside me, wounding three infantrymen. I got away with shock. Even the shells that came after didn’t wound me. But today I can still hear the sound of shells whistling in my ears.
Hub also touches on an issue which is too easily glossed over, for fear of embarrassment or incrimination, perhaps: in the heat of battle, the usual chains of command and habits of obedience could become strained to breaking point. He wrote on September 14:
We must have lost 40 per cent of our company today. Many of my men were so exhausted that I couldn’t get them to do anything. I ordered an NCO to follow me but he threatened to shoot me. I had him arrested. We were then ordered to defend Combles and dig trenches in the open, but it was impossible to persuade even a few of the men to come with me. As soon as I got them out of one ditch, they simply disappeared into another. We had managed to collect a few men when the firing restarted and they all disappeared again.
That was what happened in companies which lacked good training and high calibre leadership. In Britain, the regiments of the royal Household (the Guards) combined grotesque social snobbery with ferocious military discipline and unrivalled courage. Early in the morning on 15 September, at the outset of the Flers offensive, that brilliant man of letters, Raymond Asquith, was leading his 4 Company, 3rd Bn. Grenadiers when he was shot in the chest at the outset. To deceive his men about his wound he lit a cigarette after he fell, was taken away on a stretcher, but died soon after.
Here was another death, another name to be chalked up, belonging to the Lost Generation. There was much about the Prime Minister’s son which can jar modern sensibilities — endlessly mannered and superior — but he was also charismatic, intellectually accomplished and, incidentally, a scintillating letter-writer.
Three days before his death, he had written to his wife Katharine, nicknamed Fawnia, making reference to the unhappy young soldier he was defending in a court-martial on charges of having engaged in homosexual activity:
My client … was an unfortunate fellow…He was convicted on 4 out of 5 charges and sentenced not only to be cashiered but to serve one year’s imprisonment — most barbarous I call it. His buttons were cut off in the Orderly room yesterday and he was taken off to Rouen by the military police, poor devil.
This is all very de haut en bas, as was his way, but human sympathy shines through. He continues:
Tomorrow we shall move forward again, probably into the line. Angel, I send you all my love. Remember me to Trim. [his son, aged nearly 5 months]
The diary of his stepmother, Margot, recorded that news of his death reached them late on the evening of Sunday 17 September as the Prime Minister with his family and guests were enjoying a happy evening. They were all devastated and when the guests had left, she went back to her husband:
He was sitting just where he had sat two hours before, his poor face set with tears, but quite simple and natural — a wonderful exhibition of emotion, self-mastery, and un-self-consciousness. I was never more struck by the size and depth of his nature, the absence of bitterness and rebuke, the nobility and largeness of his heart and purpose.
Raymond’s servant, Needham, wrote to his widow that, ‘such coolness under fire as Mr Asquith displayed would be difficult to equal’. A private in his platoon wrote to his old schoolmaster: ‘There is not one of us who would not have changed places with him if we thought that he would have lived, for he was one of the finest men who ever wore the King’s uniform, and he did not know what fear was’.