My Brother’s Keeper

CYNTHIA HAD BEEN right, after all. The ringing of church bells, for the first time since war had begun, to celebrate Cambrai, had been a bad idea. There was something about the battle, or at least about its reportage, which had suggested to her that, while it made for a good moment, it fell way short of a great victory.

Now the Germans mounted a ferocious counter-attack: having secretly rushed three divisions to the Cambrai sector, they had been surprised that the increased military traffic had gone apparently undetected. Certainly, no British trench raids materialised. The new German troops travelled relatively light — grenades, machine-guns, mortars and flamethrowers came with them. Their brief was to infiltrate the British positions swiftly, and move on.

The new battle ran along more traditional lines than the last — no tanks for one thing. It began at 6 a.m. on 30th November when German guns opened a bombardment with gas and high explosive shells. Once the mist had lifted and the sun rose, the British were horrified to find the sky filled by enemy aeroplanes, busily bombing and strafing their positions. One hour later, at 7 a.m., the German infantry attacked the salient at Vendhuille, Bourlon Wood and Moeuvres and penetrated British positions as far as La Vacquerie and Gonzeaucourt. According to Leutnant Ernst Junger of the 73rd Hanoverian Fusilier Regiment:

At 7 sharp we advanced in single file and found Dragon Alley unoccupied… We then entered the trench on the right. It was full of arms and equipment and English dead. It was the Siegfried line…

Same old, same old, one might say. The Germans enjoyed the advantage of surprise, and cleared up, just as the British had done a week earlier. That was to be expected.

Equally predictably, the British fought back. Junger recalled:

Going further we met with resolute resistance… and we were driven back… Then we took part in another assault… The English resisted valiantly. Every traverse was contested. Mills bombs and stick grenades crossed and recrossed. Behind each we found dead or still quivering bodies. We killed each other out of sight…

Ernst Junger. In later life, he became a celebrated entomologist and died aged 102.

The tussle was pretty murderous. The British recovered themselves enough to counter-attack and regain La Vaquerie and ground south-west of Cambrai, but were forced to retire from the Masnieres salient. Then the Germans hit back at Bourlon Wood and claimed 4,000 prisoners and 60 guns.

Ludendorff was proud of his troops’ success, considering it “all the more remarkable because it was in the main achieved by half-tired troops who had not been specially trained for attack”.

Fighting around Cambrai would continue until 5th December. By that time, both sides had swallowed up large numbers of men — about 45,000 Germans were killed, missing, wounded or captured, and just over 44,000 British. In terms of ground gained or lost, the British might be forgiven for wondering why they had bothered in the first place: the line reverted, more or less, to what it had been on 20th November, and they had also to reckon the damage or destruction sustained by 179 of the 376 tanks. It was not a cheering conclusion.

Like all battles, it threw up human stories. On 1st December, Captain Frido von Senger und Etterlin set off to find the body of his brother, a fighter pilot, downed during battle the previous day:

In the clear winter sunshine I had spent a long time searching for the exact spot… With a couple of helpers I dug for hours in the mass grave while the German counter-attack swept past us… The English artillery fired on the advancing infantry and we had to seek shelter in the grave. On one occasion, we were buried up to the thighs. We managed to free [my brother’s] body, which lay in the lowest of three layers of corpses. But the stretcher-bearers rightly refused to carry it back through that intense artillery fire. So I seized the legs of the body under my arms and dragged it towards my car, finally propping it up in the seat next to mine.

Lieutenant Colonel Rowland Feilding’s Connaught Rangers had also been active in Cambrai, attacking on one of the flanks. His letter home on 27th November is particularly interesting in its casual allusion to some of the tricks of the military trade. He explained that it had been customary to fire gas shells into enemy lines just before an attack, to alarm troops and thereby assist swift passage. On this occasion, however, the shells fired by the British contained no gas — deliberately so. The enemy had donned gas masks — always a harbinger of terror — while the advancing troops enjoyed their discomfiture, safe in the knowledge that they had no need to worry about gas themselves.

Germans in gas masks

Many Germans, he reported, had been

found wearing gas masks. They appeared to be in a very dazed condition. There were a few sentries in the saps, and a number of men grouped in the tunnel entrances, who were shot or bayoneted.

He was now out of danger, he was able to reassure his wife. The battalion “is cleaning up, and refitting, and having baths. This afternoon we had a football match — Officers v Sergeants”.

One of the delights of Feilding’s letters is the extent to which they reveal his calm professionalism. Two days later, this is again made clear in another letter home:

…Among the loot we collected some fine suits of steel body-armour, a specimen of which I have sent you; numerous letters(of no value); a machine-gun or two; granatenwerfers (aerial dart-throwers); a big trench-mortar, with a pile of shells — 2 feet long — beside it; also photographs taken from the ground and from the air; and finally, maps. The maps show not only all the enemy’s private arrangements behind his line, but our own as well, our trenches in many instances being actually described by the names under which we know them!

This, I must say, interests me very much. It means either that they have secured some of our secret trench maps, or else have extracted the information from prisoners. It is well known that they have all sorts of dodges. The most stoical and loyal of prisoners may be bamboozled into giving away information. For example, the enemy will dress up an English-speaking German as an English soldier and put him among the prisoners — who think he is one of themselves — to pick up snatches of conversation… my own Headquarters were well marked out, in their true position.

For Haig, Cambrai had briefly served as recompense for the horrors of Passchendaele. Now, as its gains began to dissipate, he faced the full reality of how little he had to show his country for their exertions during the previous year. But he was never one for histrionics. On 3rd December, he wrote to his wife:

…whatever happens, the responsibility is mine. However, with that HELP which has never failed me yet, I hope we may get through this critical time.

What indeed would happen? Passchendaele had officially ended, but there was artillery action all week in the Ypres sector with the British gaining some ground south-west of Polygon Wood on 3rd December. Beb Asquith, still around Messines, later described the situation:

Though the last big attack was made on 10th November, there was no sudden dying of the storm: for several weeks the guns and machine guns of both sides were extremely alert and active and I rarely went to the observation post without seeing fresh casualties lying by the side of the narrow duck-board track that led there. The Germans made very accurate shooting at the duck-boards…

It would be difficult to exaggerate the hardships of the infantry near our observation post, who sometimes had to lie out all night under heavy fire without any cover except the lips of the poisonous shell-holes. The horse lines, some miles behind us, were bombed at night, often for many hours on end and there were many casualties among the horses: in one battery over fifty horses were hit in a single night.

One wonders what British troops in France made of snippets of news reaching them, presumably via the press and letters home, about other fronts. The immense burdens of the everyday, the sheer struggle they faced for survival, probably dulled their curiosity. If so, that was a mercy. Although their confreres in the Middle East were now just a few miles outside Jerusalem, most news elsewhere was unrelievedly dire.

Jerusalem, 1917

Until a few months earlier, it had still been possible to believe that fighting along the Eastern Front might yet prove decisive. With the failure of the Brusilov Offensive and Russia’s slide into revolution and anarchy, that notion had become preposterous. Lenin and his Bolsheviks were clinging on to power with implacable determination, and literally everything was changing by the minute.

The new masters of Russia had long declared themselves opposed to the war. Allied governments, deeply as they deplored the policy and detested its authors, were forced to be pragmatic. Trotsky now announced that Russia was not especially looking for a separate peace with Germany and the other Central Powers, but a general peace — one in which all nations would lay down arms.

This was incendiary, and a formidable propaganda tool, assuming word of it reached the ears of disconsolate troops in other theatres of war. Clearly the other Entente powers were having none of it, but they did not wish to burn their boats with the new Russian government. The British Ambassador, George Buchanan, wired the Foreign Office on 27th November:

…one cannot force an exhausted nation to fight against its will… There is evidence to show that Germany is trying to make an irreparable breach between us and Russia, so as to pave the way for a German directorate which she hopes eventually to establish over the latter.

Sir George Buchanan: a game old bird

For us to hold to our pound of flesh and to insist on Russia fulfilling her obligations… is to play Germany’s game. Every day that we keep Russia in the war against her will does but embitter her people against us. If we release her from those obligations, the national resentment will turn against Germany if peace is delayed or purchased on too onerous terms…

I am not advocating any transaction with the Bolshevik Government. On the contrary, I believe that the adoption of the course which I have suggested will take the winds out of their sails, as they will no longer be able to reproach the Allies for driving Russian soldiers to the slaughter for their imperialistic aims.

As exegesis in the 19th century school of diplomatic checks and balances, Buchanan was talking good sense. But he had not really grasped the immensity of the changes if the Bolsheviks consolidated their hold on power. On 2nd December, the US Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, submitted a prophetic assessment to President Wilson:

The especial characteristics of the idealists who are masters in Petrograd are lack of any sentiment of nationality and a determination, frankly avowed, to overthrow all existing governments in every country… They are avowedly opposed to every government on earth; they openly are as hostile to democracy as they are to autocracy. If we should recognise them in Russia, we would encourage them and their followers in other lands. That would be a serious error…

‘Do nothing’ should be our policy until the black period of terrorism comes to an end and the rising tide of blood has run its course. It cannot last forever, but Russia will sink low before better days come.

Sinking low: Brest-Litovsk, November 1917.

The war, so far as Russia was concerned, was over. On 29th November, Germany accepted Lenin’s offer of an armistice; Count Hertling agreed to treat with the Bolsheviks and Russian delegates crossed German lines. Partial cessation of hostilities began on 1st December and Russian delegates were welcomed by Prince Leopold of Bavaria when they arrived in Brest-Litovsk the following day to begin preliminary discussions. Lenin had already ordered his intransigent Commander-in-Chief, General Dukhonin, to step down and had sent his replacement, Krylenko, to the headquarters at Moghilev where the Russian General Staff surrendered.

The next part was not pretty. The American journalist, John Reed, reported that:

The garrison of Moghilev rose and seized the city, arresting Dukhonin and the Army Committee, and going out with victorious red banners to meet the new Supreme Commander. Krylenko entered Moghilev next morning, [3rd December] to find a hostile mob gathered about the railway car in which Dukhonin was imprisoned.

Krylenko made a speech in which he implored the soldiers not to harm Dukhonin, as he was to be taken to Petrograd and judged by the Revolutionary Tribunal. When he had finished, suddenly Dukhonin himself appeared at the window, as if to address the throng. But with a savage roar the people rushed the car, and falling upon the old General, dragged him out and beat him to death on the platform…

General Dukhonin

And this was what they meant by peace? Russia seemed bent only on spilling the blood of anyone associated with the ancien régime. The wind blew very chill indeed for the extended Romanov family. Most of the Grand Dukes were now under house arrest and forbidden from leaving the country. Queen Alexandra’s sister, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, was in Ai Todor in the Crimea with the Tsar’s niece Irina and her husband, Felix Yusupov, who had just managed to rejoin them. On 27th November, the Dowager noted:

It’s my birthday, which brings me no comfort and nobody else any happiness. At 12 o’clock they gathered in my room for prayers… including Irina and Felix — he finally arrived during the night. It was so scary to hear his stories about the events in Petersburg, especially about how cruelly they treated the unlucky cadets; they gouged out their eyes, cut off their ears and noses, and then drowned them in the river.

This bloodlust elicited no concern from Lenin. Compassion and self-doubt were conditions of being by which he was forever untroubled. Instead, he spewed edicts, including one on 1st December aimed at curbing the salaries of high-ranking office employees and officials of state, and ordering extra taxes to be imposed. From now on, pay would be 500 roubles a month, with 100 more roubles permitted per child. Housing was to be confined to one room per family member. Vasily Rozanov in Sergiev Posad felt that:

Russia has disappeared in two days. In three days at most… It’s astonishing that it fell to pieces all at once. The world has never experienced anything similar… There was no Tsardom left, no Church, no army, no working class. What is left, then? Almost nothing.

Of Lenin as of Angelo: ‘his urine is congealed ice’

Results were beginning to come in from the ballots for the Constituent Assembly — the very Assembly whose creation had been the raison d’etre of the ill-fated Provisional Government. It was clear that most votes had gone to the peasant party, the Socialist Revolutionaries — which, despite its name, was a relatively tame affair. Not that it made any difference whoever won, however. As Sorokin observed, the Bolsheviks were “not intending to accept this result… they will be trying to forbid it and break it up”.

Definitely time to go — to get the hell out while it was still possible. The British Military Attaché, Sir Alfred Knox, suggested as much to the Ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, suggesting they would thereby “escape the massacre that will take place when the northern armies descend in hunger on Petrograd to loot and murder”.

His Excellency gave him short shrift, however:

…the old man said… that it bored him to be told constantly that his throat was going to be cut; if it was, it was, and that was an end of it!

The drive for peace was not one in which the Bolsheviks possessed an exclusive interest. On 29th November, Lord Lansdowne published a letter in the Daily Telegraph, demanding the start of peace negotiations.

The Marquess of Lansdowne, coming out of Downing Street, 1916

Lansdowne was no nutjob. As a former Viceroy of India, Governor-General of Canada and Foreign Secretary, he could not simply be swatted away. On the other hand, to those who moved in exalted circles, his scepticism about the war was hardly news. Twelve months earlier, when he had been still a member of Asquith’s coalition government, he had circulated a memorandum to the Cabinet, asking:

What does the prolongation of the war mean? Our own casualties already amount to over 1,100,000. We have had 15,000 officers killed… We are slowly but surely killing off the best of the male population of these islands… The financial burden which we have already accumulated is almost incalculable. We are adding to it at the rate of £5,000,000 a day. Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss… Can we afford to go on paying the same price for the same sort of gain?

By then, his political star was already on the wane. When Asquith’s government fell shortly afterwards, his services were not sought by Lloyd George. There is no reason to believe that his public demand for peace, however, was because he was fed up at being on the backbenches, and every reason to believe it was a consequence of his horror at the incessant tragedies which had unfolded in 1917. Landsdowne, who had lost a son on active service in 1914, now urged a fresh look at the Allies’ war aims in the light of reverses suffered in 1917: Passchendaele and Cambrai; mutinies in the French army; the Italian defeat at Caporetto and the Russian withdrawal from the war after the Bolshevik coup. He argued that:

We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation would spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it… We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power… We do not seek to impose upon her people any form of government other than that of their own choice… We have no desire to deny Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world.

The Times’ editor, Geoffrey Dawson, had refused to touch it, and so it had come finally to rest on the letters page of the Daily Telegraph. Most readers were repelled, however. Only an outright victory could make sense of the sacrifice of young lives — an austere conviction which united bereaved families up and down the land. HG Wells dismissed it as “a letter of a Peer who fears revolution more than national dishonour”.

Geoffrey Dawson: another unlovely man

Lloyd George was in Paris attending the Inter-Allied Conference. While unsurprised by the contents of the letter, he was furious at its publication at so inopportune a moment. The government immediately issued a statement:

Lord Lansdowne in his letter spoke only for himself… The views in the letter do not in any way represent the views of His Majesty’s Government, nor do they indicate in the slightest degree that there is any change or modification in the war policy of this country.

On 30th November, the Conservative party leader, Bonar Law, who had lost two sons on active service, made his response unequivocally clear when he addressed a party conference:

I disagree absolutely not only with the arguments, but with the whole tone of the letter. I think it is nothing less than a national misfortune that it should have been published, now of all times.

Princess Evelyn Blucher in ampler times

No peace then. Hunkering down for the fourth winter of the war, the Englishwoman, Princess Evelyn Blucher, yearned from her estate in Krieblowitz for something sweeter:

The difficulty of getting butter is increasing daily, and one has to use all one’s power of persuasion to be able to entice a miserable quarter of a pound of it, after having begged in vain at quite a number of small peasants’ houses. The fact is, the peasants have to hand over a certain amount of butter to the military authorities, who, if they do not get the proper quantity, keep back the peasant’s monthly supply of sugar.

And as everyone is longing for their sugar, and jam cannot be made without it, no one will sell their butter even for very high prices.

For the fortunate people who grow sugar-beet there can, of course, never be any dearth of sweet-stuffs, for the beet pressed produces the most delicious syrup which can easily be eaten for honey. But it is difficult to sweeten one’s lot at present, it is just as difficult to season one’s cooking, for the prices of pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg are enormous.

Either Cynthia Asquith was made of sterner stuff, or the rigours of her own life were less arduous than those of Princess Blucher. Her friendship with Brigadier Freyberg, full of contradictory feelings on both sides, seems to have absorbed a good deal of her time and emotional energy.

1 December  Went down to Brighton by 11.40 to spend the day with Freyberg. He met me at the station. He is staying at the Royal York, but we drove straight to the Metropole for luncheon. He was looking better and had a fine appetite. With his youthful face and the insignia of his anomalous rank (his medals and preposterous number of gold stripes), he is very conspicuous and much stared at — obsequious deference from the waiters… We went to the Kitchener Hospital to have his wound dressed….

He told me of his wonderful swimming exploit at Gallipoli, when he swam for four hours and landed naked and alone, and crawled quite close to the enemy’s trenches and lit torches. His eyes shine and he becomes poeticised talking of military adventures, and I was touched to see his eyes fill with tears once when he was talking about his men. I find him very, very attractive…

Brighton, 1917: wounded Indian soldiers recuperate.