No Jokes or Singing

Horses at Passchendaele, 1917

IF YOU — SOMEHOW — can ignore the Western Front, it wasn’t a bad week for the Brits.

They certainly whacked the Turks at Beershaba and also drove back the Germans in East Africa. The U-boat menace seemed, at least for now, to have been allayed.

The French were doing well too: on 2nd November, they achieved further success along the River Aisne, driving the Germans into retreat from the Chemin des Dames along a twelve-and-a-half-mile front.

Such selective snapshots remind us of the massive backdrop of the war, but they cannot disguise the grim reality of Third Ypres. Other partners in the Entente were in an even more parlous state — the Italians, for one, were attempting to shore up their front following their blistering defeat at Caporetto. As for the Russians, their military exertions had diminished to virtual nothingness, and the Provisional Government was in its last few days of existence — a tableau for preening and posturing, but more pantomime than politics.

There never was any way to ‘take out the Western Front’ from the calculus of war. It was, and ever would be, the central theatre of war. Whatever others claimed, right back to the time of Alfred von Schlieffen, the war would not be decided in the East — nor, even though Lloyd George tried to believe it, on the Italian Front.

The Western war was never more terrible than it was just now. The previous week’s attacks around Poelcappelle had horrified the officers responsible for leading men into impossible situations. The words of Second Lieutenant Robert Johnston of the 16th battalion, Royal Scots, are remarkable for their unrestrained bitterness:

The confusion and fog of war was never more marked due to the conditions of ground and weather. There was a complete absence of landmarks and communications while neither the Battalion Commander nor the Brigadier were able to control the battle. Just junior leaders, young officers and NCOs and men sticking it out without hope of survival.

We lost some 20 officers and 400 men in this shambles in conditions almost indescribable for their sheer misery and despair. The staff work was both inadequate and inept. We never saw a staff officer in the forward area. When the attack commenced we were all tired, dispirited and exhausted men with no thought of victory. Our morale was very low, no jokes or singing in the ranks, a feeling of dumb despair, strangely enough accepting our position without thought or questions, dumbly obedient, but certainly lacking the inward fire required to enthuse the spirit for success in the attack.

During the battle no-one had a hot meal nor were any rations brought forward. For four days we were never dry, our clothing down to our underclothes was soaking wet. I drank rum and water and strangely enough never felt really hungry — fear must have taken its place. The common denominator of infantry soldiers in this battle was misery. The Generals who ordered us forward for this attack should have been sacked. I look back in anger at those responsible. For once — and once only — we were unable to bury our dead and that in itself is proof of the impossible task we were ordered to carry out.

Guardsmen sitting in a captured German dugout at Passchendaele

Such ghastliness was far from over. Fresh raids and artillery actions took place all week around Ypres and Arras. On 30th October there was a British and Canadian attack, inevitably in bad weather, from Poelcappelle to Passchendaele. Equally inevitably, heavy casualties were sustained as the Germans attempted no fewer than five counter-attacks. These might have won the day, save for the extraordinary bravery of two Canadian soldiers who, between them, managed to knock out the heavily-manned German pillboxes which were blocking the path of the entire assault. Both men were awarded Victoria Crosses, although only one was still alive to enjoy it, but their gallantry meant that the Canadians reached the outskirts of Passchendaele village.

Some people seemed able to summon bravery, however discouraged they and their fellows found themselves. Despite the reservations of senior officers, the Fifth Army’s depleted units were ordered to support the Canadians’ left flank, and Oc Asquith was once more conspicuous for his bravery and ingenuity leading the Hood Battalion as part of the 58th Division.

Canadians at Passchendaele

For all his dash and élan, and for all the courage of the Canadians, the attack was a costly failure. Major General Cator’s later report made clear his anger at the pointless sacrifice of some 1,361 men of his 58th Division:

…the causes of failure being chiefly due to weather and conditions of the ground… Many messages sent back by runners who got bogged and were shot down. The majority of company signallers were hit… Pigeons were saturated in mud and water and couldn’t fly… No contact aeroplanes went out although those belonging to the Canadians and the enemy aeroplanes were out… To sum up the situation, neither FIRE NOR MOVEMENT was possible, and any prospects of success under these conditions were nil.

A century later, the reflex of any reader is to search out someone to blame. Cator’s indignation was clearly directed right to the top — to Haig, in other words, whose inflexibility was, of course, the stuff of legend. It has usually been evidenced by his refusal to close down the Somme offensive a year earlier. Yet his determination to persist in the attack on Passchendaele may be the single moment when his judgement may fairly be called into question.

Devastation of spirit was eloquently described in a letter home this week by Major C.E.L. Lyne, of the Royal Field Artillery:

Think what it means, weeks of it, weeks which are eternities, when the days are terrible but the nights beyond belief. Through it all the horror of continual shell fire, rain and mud.

Nor was that all:

Gas is one of the most potent components of this particular inferno. Nights are absolutely without rest, and gas at night is the crowning limit of horrors… They shot us up in style last night, hardly got 30 minutes’ sleep and I was dead tired…

Like every other form of warfare, gas technology did not stand still. The latest refinements came in the form of shells containing mustard gas with which the Germans used to spray the Allied artillery lines. Major Shiel of the 250th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery remembered:

We did not at first realise the full danger of this and just laughed because no-one had a voice, but when people began to blister and swell, and two men of my old Battery died horribly from eating bread which had been splashed with this stuff, we got the wind up thoroughly.

At least the Italians were not, just now, wrestling with gas. But the impact of defeat at Caporetto was traumatic in terms of the human suffering it occasioned, and significant for its impact upon the evolution of strategy. Italian forces now fell back to the Tagliamento river, fighting some rearguard actions, but the Germans soon crossed it, bagging another 6,000 prisoners, in addition to the 180,000 already claimed. By the end of the week, French and British troops had arrived in the area, evidence of their desperate concern to help Italy to shore up its defences.

Much of the front was mountainous, and news penetrated these eyries amidst the snow only slowly. Trooper Paolo Monelli, a member of the Italian Alpine Regiment, confided to his diary on 30th October:

Tragic news is reaching us from the front in the east. Our enemy is trampling the soul of our fatherland and our soldiers are throwing down their weapons.

Suffering on the Southern Front was not confined only to those who had been defeated. Only two days later, on 1st November, Pal Kelemen, a Hungarian cavalryman in the Austro-Hungarian army, described a battalion’s withdrawal from the front line on the Isonzo:

…it seems impossible that these are the fighting troops with which the statesmen and the generals are defending the monarchy. That this tattered ravaged band with their shaggy beards, their crumpled, soaked, and dirty uniforms, their dilapidated footgear, and the exhaustion in their faces constitutes ‘our brave infantry’.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers on the march

… Some of the soldiers take ration cans out of their knapsacks and with the long blades of their clasp-knives they lift out the food and shove it raw into their mouths. Their hands are black with dirt, horny, heavy moving… Their uniforms are made of more inferior cloth than was prescribed. The soles of their boots are paper, turned out for the profit of the army purveyors exempt from military duty.

The nearest reason the British could find this week for patting themselves on the back came with the defeat they inflicted upon the Turks at Beersheba. There was always the hope that the collapse of the Ottomans in the Near East could provide them with a soft underbelly into Austria-Hungary and, ultimately into Germany, as well as a means whereby to extend British imperial possessions. Previous attempts to break the Turkish line which stretched from Gaza to Beersheba, had miserably failed. The last, back in April, had cost 6,000 casualties in three days, but Sir Edward Allenby, now the commander of the desert forces, had been instructed by Lloyd George to take Jerusalem by Christmas.

Allenby had identified the capture of Beersheba as a significant staging post. The town lay on the northern edge of the Negev desert, halfway between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, and was an important administrative centre under Ottoman rule. Its southern and eastern sides were lightly defended by trenches lacking barbed wire, since the Turks relied on the absence of water and the open terrain there to cut off any attacks.

Allenby had gathered intelligence to the effect that there were, in fact, wells to the south of the town. Very secretly, he ensured these were returned to working order, and gathered his forces. By the evening of 30th October, some 47,500 Allied infantry, and 15,000 troopers from the Desert Mounted Corps had been amassed, ready to attack.

For the Australian 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments, the journey to the edge of Beersheba had involved a horrendous trek across desert terrain. Private Hunter, of the 12th Light Horse Regiment, remembered:

…The dust was terrible. One could not see beyond his horse’s head. The horses braved the journey which was about 36 miles. Walked at my horse’s head for about 10 miles of flat country giving him a rest.

Australian Light Horse riders

Only the extraordinary stamina of Australian horses and their riders, most hardy outback stockmen, made such a trek possible. The battle for Beersheba opened at 05.55 on 31st October with a ferocious Allied bombardment by over 100 guns which brought an immediate response from the Turkish gunners. Three British divisions attacked, and despite bitter resistance, drove out the Turks by lunchtime.

Speed was of the essence, as it was known that the German technicians working with the Turks had mined the wells in the town. As daylight was fading, the commanders ordered the Australian Light Horse Brigades to attack the remaining Turkish-held trenches, and 800 horsemen duly charged. The wells were captured intact. Around 298 Turks were killed and between 700 and 1,000 were taken prisoner, compared to 31 allied horsemen. The charge became part of the iconography of Australia’s extraordinary contribution to the Great War.

Australians at Beersheba

However, victory at Beersheba emphasised the growing strategic confusion which awaited any Western ‘victor’ in the region. For years, the British had been busily inciting the Arabs to assert independence against their Ottoman suzerain. Now, just as the momentum for Arab independence appeared to becoming unquenchable, the UK offered official support for the creation of a post-war Jewish state.

While anti-semitism was a familiarly disagreeable part of the repertoire of British sentiment and attempts at humour, there was a large diaspora of extremely well-educated and well-connected Jewish opinion-makers in Britain. One was the research chemist, Dr Chaim Weizmann, President of the English Zionist Federation, who had been a pivotal figure in the technology of explosives, working closely with Churchill, then Minister of Munitions. There were hundreds of others. On 2nd November, the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent leader of Jewish society in Britain:

Balfour and the Declaration

The letter, the first political recognition by a major power of Zionist aims, would be published in The Times on 9th November. Balfour evidently hoped to garner support from American Jewish groups, and also to influence Russian leaders, many of whom were Jewish, into continuing the war. A Jewish presence in Palestine friendly to Britain would also strengthen the UK’s position on the Suez Canal and reinforce the route to India.

However carefully worded the letter, the Balfour Declaration was not even-handed. It is fatuous to deny that the Arabs lacked the same kind of social presence of the Jewish élite in London, nor could they exert any equivalent political traction. But many were outraged by the declaration and would refuse, in time, to recognise any such Jewish state.

If the Middle East was a powder keg, Russia was — very nearly — ablaze. The American journalist, John Reed, wrote of a meeting at the Smolny Institute on 30th October:

A meeting of all the Petrograd regiments passed a resolution: ‘The Petrograd garrison no longer recognises the Provisional Government.’

For most people in the Provisional Government, that would hardly have been news. The Soviet had done nothing but ridicule it for many months. Crime was also rampant. On 1st November, Reed reported that

…On the streets… Hold-ups increased to such an extent that it was dangerous to walk down side streets. On the Sadovaya one afternoon a crowd of several hundred people beat and trampled to death a soldier caught stealing.

Two days later, in Moscow, Nikita Okunev noted that:

Yesterday, everyone in Petrograd and Moscow was waiting for a ‘Bolshevik uprising’. Scared Philistines imagined armed robberies hitting every apartment, carnage, unrest — in a word, something like a Massacre of St Bartholomew.

In making this allusion to the massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572, Okunev chose a particularly lurid example of madness and mayhem, perhaps gently ridiculing the fear which was endemic among the population, both its natives and Western visitors. Rumours were swirling that the Bolsheviks planned to kill all foreigners if they took power and, on 4th November, the British Embassy was given an armed guard of military cadets — a modest last line of defence, should the population take it in their head to turn really nasty.

Kerensky did rather better for himself, holed up in the Winter Palace with field guns, armoured cars and machine guns, wielded by some 800 troops. These included members of Bochkareva’s Women’s Death Battalion, who were allegedly unimpressed at finding themselves forced to defend the Provisional Government, rather than slaughtering Germans.

Red Guards in Petrograd

For readers oppressed by the sense of relentless crisis, it will be invariably a relief to turn to the diary of Cynthia Asquith. As ever, she was alert to pomp and self-regard, both qualities in which Lord Curzon abounded:

Tuesday, 30 October  The new Lady C. said, ‘George works so hard and sits up so late. He often doesn’t come to bed till 2.30, but stays down writing out the menus for the servants in his different country houses.’

News of the Balfour Declaration also sparked in a little flurry of casual antisemitism — very typical of her class:

Wednesday, 31 October …The War Cabinet that morning had been buried with the Zionists. What fun if Montagu [Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India] and Venetia [his wife] are forced to go and live in Palestine!

And while she continued to visit her wounded warrior, Brigadier Freyberg, there are suggestions that, for the old soldier, another agenda may have been on the horizon:

Saturday, 3 November  …I visited Freyberg. He had been feverish again and can’t sleep, poor fellow. On the pretext of their being cold, he took my hands and held them the whole time I was there. I acquiesced…

Brigadier Freyberg

Human nature being what it is, one should not be surprised. The urge for solace and comfort took many forms, however. Lieutenant Colonel Feilding was struck by the intense, if chaste, pleasures available to his Connaught Rangers when they returned from the front line. He described these vividly in a letter to his wife from Dysart Camp, near Ervillers, on 4th November:

We were relieved the night before last, after holding the front line sixteen days, and yesterday and to-day (Sunday) have been devoted to haircutting, baths, and overhauling of clothing and equipment…

Last night I went to the Divisional cinema, which is in a restored barn among the ruin of Ervillers. Charlie Chaplin was there, figuratively, and at his best. I confess I am getting to appreciate him; and if you could see how the soldiers love him you would like him too. When his image appears upon the screen they welcome it with such shouts of approval it might be the living Charlie. The men all flock to these shows, and hundreds are turned away nightly.

Someone else who was happy was Wilfred Owen. Passed fit for a return to active service, he left Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh and arrived in London on 4th November. The following day, he wrote ecstatically to thank Sassoon who had so encouraged his writing:

Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile… you have fixed my Life — however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze…