WHERE WAS GOD this week? Skulking? Or just lying low, and ashamed?
The usual horrors of the times — stalemate and bloodiness in the West; anarchy and apparent madness in the East — ought to have been enough to satisfy a vengeful God. The humiliations of the Ottoman Turks, usurped by the British in Jerusalem, might have been considered enough to pacify a jealous one. But what kind of cruel God could ever have tolerated the massacre of 2000 lives in the town of Halifax in Nova Scotia? It was a horribly random business.
On 6th December, two ships collided in the harbour, generating the largest manmade explosion before the nuclear era. One, the SS Mont-Blanc, was a 3,121-ton freighter, owned by the French. Fully loaded with military explosives of different types, it was scheduled to cross to France and had only entered Halifax harbour to join a convoy for the trans-Atlantic voyage. The other was a Norwegian steamship, Imo. The night before the tragedy, on 5th December, a harbour pilot, Francis Mackey, had gone aboard the Mont-Blanc. Apprised of its highly volatile cargo (TNT, picric acid, guncotton and high-octane benzole), he had requested “special protections” from the port authorities, but to no avail. No doubt, they were overwhelmed by pressure of business and confident that their usual procedures and protocols were fit for purpose.
The next morning, the anti-submarine nets were raised and Mackey guided the Mont-Blanc towards Bedford Basin to join the convoy. Suddenly, to his horror, he found the Norwegian steamship Imo heading straight towards him. Imo had no business being there — she had been forced onto the wrong side of the harbour by a tramp steamer and then a tugboat. Both ships took evasive action. Mackey swung to port, nearing the shore, and Imo attempted to reverse, but it was too late. The ships collided, then drew apart. As they did so, sparks flew, igniting benzole which had spilled from barrels during the collision. A fire began and, given the nature of the cargo, unless it could be brought under control at once, catastrophe beckoned.
The order to abandon the ships was given, but these were big ships with big crews and, even on a good day, emergency disembarkation was not the work of a moment. The much bigger problem was that the ship was packed full of explosives and perilously near the shore. Twenty minutes elapsed between the time of the collision and the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of explosives, and the huge body count which resulted was overwhelmingly that of civilians on land. One thousand six hundred people were killed instantly and a further 350 would die from their injuries. The temperature at its epicentre exceeded 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Onlookers were appalled. There were plenty to witness the massive pall of smoke, the 50 foot-high tidal wave and the immediate destruction of 12,000 buildings within a 1.6 mile radius that followed. Of these, many would themselves be killed or maimed. Around 9,000 were wounded by fires, debris and falling masonry. People who had rushed to windows to watch the fire were now seriously injured by the force of the explosion or by flying fragments of glass. In the days which followed, 5,900 eye injuries would be treated and 41 people were permanently blinded. All windows in the town were broken and some in other places up to 50 miles away.
Save for the supreme bravery of one man, it might have been a lot worse. The railway despatcher, Vincent Coleman remembered that an overnight train would shortly be arriving at a terminus just opposite the burning ship. Rather than beat a retreat to safety, he settled down and composed a telegram:
Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 — will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.
The train, with 300 souls on board, was halted in time. Other trains, alerted to the danger by this message, stayed away. By then, Colemen was beyond the reach of anyone’s thanks, however heartfelt. So — maybe God was lurking, somewhere. Explanations were demanded, of course. A court of inquiry followed and litigation would last into the 1920s. The final verdict found, somewhat anticlimactically, that both ships were guilty of navigational errors.
The usual horrors of war were no less terrible, of course, but seem — to the historian, at least — less capricious. The week’s casualties included the 19-year-old future sculptor, Henry Moore, then serving as a Private with the Civil Service Rifles. Poor sap, he had been one of those ordered into Bourlon Wood on 28th November, just in time to face the German counter-attack two days later.
That meant facing gas. A survivor described the phosgene used by the Germans which
hung in the trees and bushes so thickly that all ranks had to wear their respirators continuously if they were to escape the effects of the gas. But men cannot dig for long without removing them… there was a steady stream of gassed and wounded men coming through the regimental aid posts. Their clothes were full of gas.
Moore was repatriated. He survived, which was more than many, but gas affected his voice for the rest of his life.
Bourlon Wood had also been the intended destination for the Connaught Rangers. But, as Lieutenant Colonel Feilding’s letter to his wife on 10th December made clear, they had a stroke of good luck:
December 10, 1917 The Divisional General called this morning. He was full of praise and compliments and told me —what we had imagined — that when we left Ervillers on Sunday, December 2, we were destined for Bourlon Wood, but were switched off, owing to contingencies which intervened, to come to the area in which we now find ourselves.
Thus, though all ranks were nerved up and ready for the worst that might happen —indeed were almost eager for it — we were spared what was at that time probably the most damnable spot on God’s earth; — a veritable hell; so drenched with gas that the troops holding it had practically to live in their box respirators…
Haig, of course, was not exposed to these dangers as directly as his troops. Just now, however, he bore the brunt of opprobrium — less deadly, perhaps, but still grievous. The battle of Cambrai petered out by 7th December, with the British having evacuated Bourlon Wood three days earlier. Why was it, politicians and amateur pundits demanded, that the Army could move so rapidly from its triumphant opening day at Cambrai a few weeks earlier to its present ignominy? All the ground taken by the tanks had been recaptured.
The authors of such questions had usually claimed to have the answers: the British did not have a plan for capitalising on initial successes! There were too few troops available! The gap in the line was not exploited and the Germans were able to regroup! Ever the populist, Lloyd George minded bitterly when he was unable to deliver the kind of success which would buttress his own popularity. Lloyd George had long distrusted Haig and, indubitably, Haig had in some ways not helped himself. He had chosen to accept the assessment of Charteris, his Director of Military Intelligence, that Germany was on the very edge of collapse — and Charteris was proved too sanguine.
Haig wanted to stay in post, but he was not the kind of man to beg. On 9th December, he wrote to Robertson:
I gather the P.M. is dissatisfied. If that means I have lost his confidence, then in the interests of the cause let him replace me at once. But if he still wishes me to remain, then all carping criticism should cease, and I should be both supported and trusted… Whatever happens, however, you must remain as C.I.G.S. as it would be the height of folly to make any change at this crisis on the head of the General Staff. We must be prepared in wartime for ups and downs, and should do our best to go on an even keel.
Nor, rather attractively, did he seek to lay blame on others. The following day he wrote:
I cannot agree that Charteris should be made ‘whipping-boy’ for the charge of undue optimism brought against myself… The responsibility… rests on me and not on him…
The bigger questions raised by Cambrai concerned tanks. It was clear that, when there were enough of them, they could make mincemeat of the apparently impregnable Hindenburg Line. But, as the German Lieutenant Miles Reinke, 2nd Guards Dragoons, remembered , their vulnerabilities were starting to become apparent:
When the first tanks passed the first line, we thought we would be compelled to retreat towards Berlin. I remember one tank, by the name of Hyena, which advanced very far then suddenly stopped about 1,000 yards from my little dugout. Some of the boys soon discovered they could stop the tanks by throwing a hand grenade into the manhole on the top…
Then the approaching infantry behind the tanks still had to overcome the machine-guns of our infantry. These were still effective because the British artillery had to stop shooting as the tanks were advancing, and naturally some of our machine-gun nests were still in full action.
Thus, while tanks certainly intimated that a new phase of mobile warfare could be contemplated, there was no easy route to victory. This is what Haig understood and Lloyd George probably chose not to. All week, the Germans kept up attacks in the Verdun sector, including intense artillery bombardments, which the French continued, most impressively, to resist.
The psychological strain of frontline service in Cambrai had, of course, been immense. Second Lieutenant Parkin was an “Officer just out” and the battle of Cambrai was his first engagement. He later described the return from the front line:
Although we passed the terrible sights of the results of the German shelling — although dead men fearfully disfigured were on the route — nothing was said. We passed with a reverent look and a prayer of gratitude and a desire to run away like Hell…
Airmen felt it too. Aircraft had played a significant role for both sides, not just for reconnaissance and to direct artillery fire, but also for bombing raids and low-level strafing of the opposition’s trenches. Arthur Gould Lee described:
To make sure of your target you have to expose yourself to the concentrated fire of dozens of machine-guns and hundreds of rifles… I’ve got to admit it gives me the shakes. With so many guns firing you feel every time you dive that it’s bound to be your last.
Thomson, another young pilot in his squadron, was also feeling it:
…nobody in the squadron had more guts than him. He lives in the next cubicle to me, and last night, about midnight, I was awakened by awful screeching noises. It was Tommy. I took a torch and went in to him. He was struggling and sweating and shouting in the throes of a nightmare… and we awakened him. He was very shamefaced. He’d just been shot down in flames, he said.
God knows Thomson had no reason to be ashamed.
Depending on how you looked at it, the Russians, however, had. On 5th December, Russian and German negotiators agreed a ten-day armistice, beginning on 7th December. Even though, as far as most Russian soldiers were concerned, this was somewhat post factum, it had an immediate impact on Russia’s fighting partners. The Romanians were now left helpless as Russian troops surrendered trenches or deserted. Queen Marie remained defiant, writing in her diary that, “Above all we must show those Russian bullies that the much despised little Romanians are not afraid of their threats.”
She could talk like Boudicca as much as she wished, but Romania had no choice but to surrender. On 6th December, she began parleying with the Germans. The Russians, meanwhile, now devoted their attentions to their enemies, perceived or real, within.
The American Red Cross delegate, Raymond Robins had been initially excited by the revolution, rather in the wide-eyed way Charles James Fox had, in 1789, extolled the revolution in France. Now, like Fox’s old adversary, Edmund Burke, he had become more apprehensive, finding:
the most extreme Socialist-Peace-Semi-Anarchist Government in all the world maintaining its control by the bayonet, proscribing all publications except those that favor their program, arresting persons without warrant and holding them for weeks without trial and without charge.
The newspaper Russkoe Sovo reported on 9th December:
Today the first bands of the Latvian gunmen arrived in Petrograd from the battlefront. Further bands will follow them. These are the forces whom, so the news is leading us to believe, the Bolsheviks intend to rely on in the case of a conflict with the constitutional assembly…
Lenin had no intention of allowing the newly elected Constituent Assembly to meet. The Bolsheviks had only secured a fraction of the votes declared, an awkwardness which would be enough for him to declare it an illegal body. Meanwhile, the Military Revolutionary Tribunal had replaced ordinary courts and dealt ruthlessly with “counter revolutionists”, “speculators” and other declared enemies of the state.
All the approximations and rough justice of revolution left Lenin unmoved. Just now, he was working on his “Theses for a Law on Confiscation of Apartment and Tenement Houses”. The key idea was simple:
All land (urban) shall become the property of the nation; houses which are systematically let to tenants shall be confiscated and become the property of the nation.
The Petrograd Soviet was hunting for useful properties, particularly for troops returning from the front. Alexandra Kollontai recorded, on 5th December, the discovery of an “amazingly well equipped building” with plentiful food supplies. It turned out to be an Orthodox monastery
big enough to house a thousand people. And at the moment, there are only about 60 monks living there, with a few dozen novices. Above all, it would be perfect for soldiers. There are beds, enough firewood for two years, flour, vegetable oil, and barrels of herring… in short, everything you could ask for!
Only they weren’t asking. Just taking. The spirit of compromise lay very thin on the ground, and thinner still when news spread that General Kornilov and other generals had escaped from imprisonment. Trotsky, fearful that the erstwhile Tsarist commander would become a focus of counter-revolution, did not feel the need to moderate his language. He ordered the new Commander-in-Chief, Krylenko, to send a force which
would suffice to wipe quickly from the face of the earth the counter-revolutionary insurrection of Cossack generals and bourgeois Kadets.
On 10th December, a Kornilov force was defeated by a Bolshevik one at Tamarovka, north of Kharkov, although the man himself still eluded capture. This, of course, fed into Bolshevik paranoia — always perilously near the surface.
Britain’s Ambassador, George Buchanan, had to run the gamut of all this in his efforts to negotiate a safe passage home for those British nationals anxious to leave. Trotsky declined to let them, citing the continued incarceration in Britain of two Russian pacifists, and Buchanan acknowledged the justice of his concern. The Foreign Office in London gave way, presumably having decided that the Bolshevik government was not bluffing. The interned Russians were rapidly repatriated, and the British got to go home.
There was no such swift exit for those called Romanov. The Tsarina wrote from her captivity in Tobolsk to her friend, Anna Vyrubova, on 7th December:
Lessons continue as usual. Mother and daughters work and knit a great deal, making Christmas presents… On the whole we are all well since I do not count chills and colds. Alexei’s knee and arm swell from time to time, but happily without any pain. My heart has not been behaving very well. I read much, and live in the past, which is so full of rich memories.
She was a rum one. For the past 30 years, she seemed to have made a career of gloom, always hearkening back to a better past. Fortunately, her faith was strong:
I have full trust in a brighter future. He will never forsake those who love and trust in His infinite mercy, and when we least expect it He will send help and save our unhappy country.
Not yet, he wouldn’t. For the Romanovs in the Crimea, life had become particularly frightening with violent raids on European jewellers in Yalta and other disturbances on the Black Sea, as Felix Yusupov recorded on 10th December:
The fighting has started. The Black Sea fleet took the Bolsheviks’ side. In Sevastopol they’ve been killing officers. The whole of Crimea has become a slaughterhouse. Sailors broke into houses, raping women and children in front of their families. They tortured the men to death.
I had to see them: pearl and diamond necklaces on hairy chests, hands covered in bracelets and rings. There were 15 year-olds among them. Many of them were crudely made up in red. It’s a masquerade from hell. In Yalta, rebelling sailors tied rocks to the legs of their casualties and threw them in the sea. Whenever we go to sleep, we don’t know if we’ll wake up tomorrow.
The alchemy of unbridled power, moral certitude and crude violence must have been terrifying to witness. It had a knack of breaking down into crude farce at times, nonetheless. The Military Revolutionary Committee in Petrograd, with admirable revolutionary fervour, now decided to destroy the collection of priceless wine, champagne and brandy stored in the cellars of the Winter Palace, rather than to sell them. A contingent of Red Guards “whose revolutionary spirit was sufficiently strong to withstand the temptation of the liquor” was sent on the night of 6th December to smash the bottles and pump out all the alcohol from the cellars before the mob could get at it.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Puritan zeal quailed before the sight of vintage Tokay, some of it dating from the reign of Catherine the Great, and soldiers began drinking away “the inheritance of Nicholas Romanov”. Armed sailors were sent in to restore discipline but fighting and shooting broke out as inebriated men floundered ankle-deep in wine. Fire engines arrived to flood the cellars which led to several drunks being drowned or frozen to death by the freezing water from the hoses.
Having swum deep in the arms of Bacchus, the military was now largely out for the count. It was the turn of the civilians. Meriel Buchanan recorded that,
Crowds, eager for a little booty, arrived on the scene. Soldiers in motor lorries drove up, and went away again with cases full of priceless wine. Men and women, with their bags and baskets heavy with bottles, could be seen selling them to passers-by in the streets. Even the children had their share of the booty, and could be met staggering under the weight of a magnum of champagne, or a bottle of valuable liqueur.
On 8th December, Alexandre Benois found barricades up by the Winter Palace:
The path along the fence of the Tsar’s garden is littered with broken bottles. There is no wind and the air around the palace reeks of alcohol.
The newly appointed People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, had to admit in frustration that, “The whole of Petrograd is drunk.”
It can be made to sound vaguely funny. Really, it was squalid — a snapshot of a society horribly maimed.
It was during these same days that the Egypt Expeditionary Force was edging its way towards Jerusalem — an altogether more conventional campaign. Its commander, Sir Edward Allenby, was conscious of the symbolic importance of the city and, desperate to avoid damaging sacred sites in any fighting, had determined accordingly to encircle the city rather than occupy it. On the night of 8th December, Lieutenant Colonel Bayley of the Royal Field Artillery suddenly spotted a white flag.
He later remembered:
… and to my utter astonishment it appeared through my glasses that numbers of persons surrounded it and that three were coming towards me… Well, I beckoned the leading one and he came up to me… He said the Turks… had bolted in the night and that the mayor of the town was at the flag… the mayor formally said he wished to hand over the city to the British authorities as the Turks had fled, so I accepted the city.