THE IRONIES abound in a world bent upon its own destruction. Among these was the unflinching maintenance of military discipline, even if that meant shooting one of your own.
The flexing of authority, even brutal authority, was not something the British sidestepped. Captain T.H. Westmacott of the First Indian Cavalry Division recorded the unpleasant task of supervising another execution, this time for murder. According to his June diary entry:
A Sowar in the 29th Lancers shot the Wordi Major (native Adjutant) of the Regiment dead. He then threw away his rifle, tore off most of his clothes, and rushed off to the HQ of the Lucknow Brigade, where he happened to catch General Morton Gage, the Brigadier, in the street. He told the General a long story, but as the General was British service he could not understand a word. The man was a Delhi policeman, and a Jat, who enlisted for the period of the war. He is a sulky kind of fellow but there is no doubt that the Wordi Major, who was an absolute rotter, goaded the wretched fellow to desperation.
19 July Had a long ride of about 28 miles to Villers Chatel, north of Aubigny, Yadram, the murderer, riding with me under escort the whole way. On arrival, orders came for his execution.
20 July Rode over to the Lucknow Brigade HQ and to the 29th Lancers and arranged everything including the place of execution. Sent Yadram to the Regiment under escort to have the sentence promulgated. Gibbon, the Divisional Chaplain, was a great nuisance, as he obtained leave from the Divisional Commander to visit Yadram during the night. As Yadram was a Jat and not a Christian we all considered it a great piece of impertinence on Gibbon’s part.
21 July Got up at 2.45 a.m…The Regiment was drawn up dismounted in hollow square with the firing party and the chair in front. The firing party consisted of twenty men, five from each squadron. They grounded arms and faced about and moved 3 paces to the rear, while I mixed up the rifles and unloaded some of them. Then they marched back and picked up their arms. The prisoner was then brought up under escort blindfolded with a white disc pinned over his heart, and he sat down in the chair. As Sergeant Walsh, my provost sergeant was tying him to the chair, he shouted in Hindustani, ‘Salaam, O Sahibs! and Salaam, all Hindus and Mahometans of this regiment! There is no justice in the British Sirkar. I did this deed because I was abused. Those of you who have been abused as I was go and do the same, but eat your own bullet and do not be shot as I shall be’.
Then the OC firing party gave the signal, and the party came to the present, and on the word ‘Fire’ they fired a volley. The regiment and the firing party then faced about and marched off. Five bullets had gone through the disc, but the man still breathed, and I had to shoot him through the heart with my revolver, a horrid job. The grave had already been dug at the firing point, and Yadram was put straight into it and the grave was filled in and levelled by a fatigue party from the regiment.
The Germans were no slouches when it came to punishment, either. Yves Congar, the schoolboy diarist, testified to this while continuing to inveigh at the behaviour of those occupying Sedan. On 13 July, they had shot Monsieur Busson behind the station, accusing him of espionage. He had used a carrier pigeon to send a message to his wife in non-occupied France and died crying out “Vive la France”. The punishments did not end there. Congar also recorded this week how two women, who had reproached others for working for the Germans in factories in the town, had been sentenced to two months’ imprisonment for “insulting the German army and those who worked for it”.
Sideshows, one might consider, but there were many of these in a world at war.
The eye of the storm, however, remained the battle of the Somme. In an effort to draw German troops away from the Somme, Haig planned a diversionary attack forty miles north where the First Army and Second Army sectors met near Laventie. The aim was to take Aubers Ridge and the German-held villages of Aubers and Fromelles.
The 6th Bavarian Reserve Division of around 12,000 men had held these since spring 1915 and had reinforced their defences with concrete machine-gun emplacements and deep trenches. The British now planned a major bombardment before the infantry attack, using an even greater density of ordnance per mile than that used on 1 July.
Then — as is the way with wars — confusion intruded. A message from Headquarters suggested there was ‘no urgent need’ after all for the operation to proceed and bad weather also caused a postponement of a couple of days even though the bombardment had commenced.
Commanders’ faith that artillery bombardment could scythe barbed wire and kill troops cowering in dugouts was a much bigger problem. It was a cruel illusion, of course, and one to which they adhered unreasonably long. But they were men who had been schooled to translate the will of the nation’s leaders into military action.
Sir Richard Haking, commander of IX Corps, was confident that “the narrow depth of the attack should make it possible, with the ammunition available, to reduce the defenders to a state of collapse before the assault”. Some witnesses agreed:
We had only to peer over the top to be filled with an unholy joy at the sight of the German trenches. Our ‘stuff’ was churning up the German lines into mere mounds of earth and their losses must have been terrible.
However, night patrols brought back a different message from No-Man’s-Land, suggesting very little barbed-wire had been broken and that it was still intact around the Sugar Loaf.
The result was terrible. The 2/1st Bucks War Diary described the attack at 18.00 hours on 19 July:
With a cheer the two waves leapt up and assaulted the enemy trenches. The enemy machine-guns had become busy and at 6.00 p.m. they mowed down our advancing waves so that only a few men reached the German parapet. These men did not return.
This was the first time men of the Australian Imperial Force had actually been committed to an attack on the Western Front — a terrifying baptism of fire. One Aussie survivor, W.H. Downing, recalled “the air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat, criss-crossed lattice of death. Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb”. Corporal Hugh Knyvette recalled the devastation: “If you had gathered the stock of a thousand butcher-shops, cut it into small pieces and strewn it about, it would give you a faint conception of the shambles those trenches were”.
By 8 a.m. on 20 July it was all over — and the catastrophic scale of the failure clear. Small sections of German trenches had been captured by the 8th and 14th Australian Brigades but, owing to a lack of flanking support and to fierce German counter-attacks, they had been forced to withdraw.
In the worst-ever twenty-four hour period in the history of the Australian Army, 5,533 were dead, wounded or missing. The British lost 1,500 men, killed or wounded. The disaster contributed to Australian doubts about the competency of the British High Command.
A few days later, three Australian Divisions of 1 Anzac attached to Lieutenant General Gough’s Reserve Army took part in the attack on Pozieres. According to Australian correspondent, Charles Bean:
On Saturday afternoon our heavy shells were tearing at regular intervals into the rear of the brick heaps which once were houses, and flinging up branches of trees and great clouds of black earth from the woods. A German letter was found next day dated ‘In Hell’s Trenches’. It added: ‘It is not really a trench, but a little ditch, shattered with shells — not the slightest cover and no protection. We have lost 50 men in two days, and life is unendurable’.
By 24 July, the Australians had taken the village after fierce fighting. The German responded with a ferocious bombardment, as Bean chronicled:
Hour after hour — day and night — with increasing intensity as the days went on, he rained heavy shell into the area. It was the sight of the battlefield for miles around — that reeking village. Now he would send them crashing in on a line south of the road — eight heavy shells at a time, minute after minute, followed up by burst upon burst of shrapnel. Now he would place a curtain, straight across this valley or that, till the sky and landscape were blotted out, except for fleeting glimpses seen as through a lift of fog. Gas shell, musty with chloroform; sweet-scented tear shell that made your eyes run with water; high bursting shrapnel with black smoke and a vicious high explosive rattle behind its heavy pellets; ugly green bursts the colour of a fat silkworm; huge black clouds from the high explosive of his 5.9s. Day and night the men worked through it … as if they were fighting Germans hand-to-hand.
Public disquiet never coalesced into open opposition. From a civilian perspective, too much had been invested in the battle already, never mind in the previous two years of warfare, to contemplate a withdrawal. National sensibilities, deeply affronted by rebellion in Ireland, by defeat at Kut-al-Amara and by withdrawal from Gallipoli, had inflicted deep scars on the usually phlegmatic British people. They, as much as their political masters, sought reassurance only in victory.
In Parliament this week, Asquith made himself look — not exactly ridiculous, but sharply defensive. He had promised to publish official papers on the Mesopotamian and Dardanelles campaigns only to renege, claiming the interests of national security precluded such a publication. On 20 July, both Houses rose in revolt. The Earl of Wemyss urged a full inquiry into the whole conduct of the campaign, the transport arrangements and the provision for the wounded.
He spoke for soldiers still in Mesopotamia who
… at the end of their tether almost, maddened by the monotony of their existence, withered by the heat, tortured by torments which we cannot conceive, their memories haunted by recollections of what they have gone through, and to which their friends have succumbed.
Wemyss reported that soldiers had read in the press that the Prime Minister acknowledged that medical provision “had not been fully successful” and the Government spokesman in the Lords had commented there had been “a slight hitch” in transport arrangements. Such vacuities were too much for the noble Lord, also a bereaved father who had lost two sons in action. He said soldiers felt the government cared more for its Parliamentary position than men’s lives.
In the Commons, the Prime Minister confirmed public inquiries would occur for both the Mesopotamian and Dardanelles campaigns — but he wanted the present debate to be dropped, anxious not to “give the world the impression that we were divided amongst ourselves”.
In fact, at this moment, the Russians and Italians were doing markedly better than their British and French allies. The Italians had achieved considerable success in the Dolomites, advancing on the Asiago Plateau and Trentino border by 24 July. Apart from one setback in Persia, Russian progress looked spectacular: they had advanced near Erzerum in Armenia by 18 July and driven the Austro-German force back over the River Styr on 21 July, thus forcing the Germans back south-east of Riga.
Internecine strife continued to bedevil Russia’s government. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sazonov, had been encouraged to resign, being replaced by Sturmer on 23 July. The Empress Alexandra, acting as Regent in her husband’s absence as commander-in-chief, remained the focus of the dark suspicions — focused both on her German ancestry and her ongoing association with Grigory Rasputin.
General Sir John Hanbury-Williams, head of the British military mission in Russia, seems to have been more susceptible than many of the Tsarina’s own subjects. He recorded:
The Empress walked in tonight looking like a beautiful picture, with her daughters. Hers is the only sad face in the family but it lights up when she comes by and greets one … It is a very curious character … a devoted wife and mother, and yet acting under bad influences
Knowing, as we do, the ultimate destiny of the Romanovs, it is tempting to treat his words as prophetic. Yet he and his colleagues in London and Paris quietly envied the stoicism of Russian soldiers and civilians.
In the liberal democracies, people had opinions. Edward Brittain had been twice wounded on 1 July and had ended up at the London hospital where his sister Vera nursed. The siblings, who were close, were now presented with an unexpected chance to talk frankly. She recorded later that he had had to crawl back once the machine-gun fire died down:
I think it was that crawl back among the dead which aged him more than anything; he says what made more impression on him than anything was seeing the dead hand of a man whose flesh was beginning to turn green & yellow, though he had only been killed that morning.
That sort of intimate knowledge, in the hands of non-combatants, did not make the lives of ministers or generals any easier. Take Sister Edith Appleton, nursing at Etretat: having had 5,000 men through the hospital last week, she had no illusions whatsoever about what war did to bodies. She was particularly concerned this week about a young soldier, dying because
The lump of lead is in the diaphragm, causing an agony of pain with a poisonous abscess. He has general poisoning from it now and a temperature of 104 all the time.
Unsurprisingly, she reconciled herself to these horrors by the thought of what they might, eventually, buy. On 19 July she noted:
Excitement is growing among the people here and they think the war will end in or before September. Please may they be right!
Civilians in the western democracies especially often expiated their anxieties in fantasies about peace and victory. Those in the trenches tended to think in more pragmatic terms, from one hour to the next. But the tempo of recent months had bred a sense of futility among some, and that never made for good soldiering.
This was the week when, unsung, French suffering at Verdun proved to have counted. The German bid to take the town had been definitively thwarted by 14 July following Mangin’s successful counter-attacks. There was no time, not inclination, for the French to rejoice — the casualty statistics between 21 February and 15 July testified to the loss of over 275,000 French soldiers and 6,563 officers. German losses amounted to about one million.
Out of their total of ninety-six divisions on the Western Front, the French had sent seventy to Verdun — another reason why this battle became so etched in national consciousness. It had caught the imagination of the public in both Britain and America as well according to the census: of hundreds of babies born in Britain at this time with war-related names, by far the most popular was Verdun.
On 22 July, Colonel Crawshay of the Royal Welch Fusiliers wrote to the mother of the poet Robert Graves:
I very much regret to have to write and tell you that your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well, and is a great loss. He was hit by a shell and very badly wounded, and died on the way down to base I believe … we have lost a very gallant soldier.
Graves was not dead, however. He gave his own account later, describing wounds in his thigh, chest, finger and above his eye:
My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Dr Dunn came through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wounds, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood…The next morning, clearing away the dead, they found me still breathing and put me on an ambulance for Heilly, the nearest field hospital.
Another soldier-poet, Captain Richard Dennys, was less lucky. Part painter, actor and pianist as well as poet, Dennys, a commander in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment had been wounded near Contalmaison on 12 July, and died in Rouen on 24 July. For a nation, indeed for a whole society, his poems suggest an extraordinary degree of acceptance and equanimity — manna to the soul of a world sick with despair.
Better far to pass away
While the limbs are strong and young,
Ere the ending of the day,
Ere Youth’s lusty song be sung.
Hot blood pulsing through the veins,
Youth’s high hope a burning fire,
Young men needs must break the chains
That hold them from their heart’s desire.
My friends the hills, the sea, the sun,
The winds, the woods, the clouds, the trees-
How feebly, if my youth were done,
Could I, an old man, relish these!
With laughter, then, I’ll go to greet
What Fate has still in store for me,
And welcome Death if we should meet,
And bear him willing company.
My share of fourscore years and ten
I’ll gladly yield to any man,
And take no thought of ‘where’ or ‘when’,
Contented with my shorter span.
For I have learned what love may be,
And found a heart that understands,
And known a comrade’s constancy,
And felt the grip of friendly hands.
Come when it may, the stern decree
For me to leave the cheery throng
And quit the sturdy company
Of brothers that I work among.
No need for me to look askance,
Since no regret my prospect mars.
My day was happy — and perchance
The coming night is full of stars.