THE TRAGEDY OF the battle now unfolding in the west was twofold: it delivered virtually none of the gains which Haig had promised and men died, not merely in profusion but in a mindless terror which should haunt us even now.
For every yard the British won, it seemed, the Germans exacted retribution – yard for yard, day by day. The rapid reversion to a battle of attrition added to the sense of alarm and futility which many commanders felt, but dared not express. British and Canadian forces captured enemy positions west and north-west of Lens, and advanced further on 22nd August, but they were forced back two days later. On both days, a German post which had been captured near Lombartzyde was lost again. The French did rather better, taking over 5,000 prisoners around Verdun on 21st August and another 1,000 five days later. But they were a million miles from outright victory.
Edwin Vaughan recorded in his diary the full nightmarish details of the attack on 27th August in which he and his platoon of Royal Warwickshires participated. It started, inevitably, with a British barrage – but this was immediately answered by a German one:
…even as I rose, signalling my men to advance, I realized that the Germans must have known of our attack and waited at their guns.
Shells were pouring on to the St Julien-Triangle Road as we advanced, and through the clouds of smoke and fountains of water I saw ahead the lines of figures struggling forward through the mud. It only took us five minutes to reach the Boilerhouse, but during that time I saw, with a sinking heart, that the lines had wavered, broken, and almost disappeared. Over our heads there poured a ceaseless stream of bullets from 16 machine guns behind, and all around us spat the terrifying crackle of enemy fire…
The casualties were catastrophic:
A man stopped dead in front of me, and exasperated I cursed him and butted him with my knee. Very gently he said ‘I’m blind, Sir’ and turned to show me his eyes and nose torn away by a piece of shell.
The attackers pushed on. Some hours later, a posse of German soldiers were surrounded and surrendered. They were marched back to British lines to begin their captivity – a prospect which at least afforded the reassurance that, for them, the war was over. Or so they may have hoped. Vaughan recorded that one group “had only gone a hundred yards when a German machine-gun mowed them down”.
He pressed on, however, with a handful of men, and took Springfield, a strongly built pill-box with thick walls and machine-gun positions. What he found inside was not pretty:
…water in which floated indescribable filth reached our knees; two dead Boche sprawled face downwards and another lay across a wire bed. Everywhere was dirt and rubbish and the stench was nauseating.
The worst still lay ahead, however. A little later,
…he went out again into the open and walked along our line; a few heavies were still pounding about us, but a more terrible sound now reached my ears.
From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell-holes, and now the water was rising above them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning.
Horrible visions came to me with those cries – of Woods and Kent, Edge and Taylor, lying maimed out there trusting that their pals would find them, and now dying terribly, alone amongst the dead in the inky darkness. And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham was crying quietly beside me, and all the men were affected by the piteous cries…
At 11.15 p.m., to his astonishment, his company was relieved by some 4th Berkshires’ and his remaining troops headed back.
The cries of the wounded had much diminished now, and as we staggered down the road, the reason was only too apparent, for the water was right over the top of the shell-holes. From survivors there still came faint cries and loud curses.
Point was – there was nothing to be done. To rescue his comrades would have been a physical impossibility, and a passport to certain death. That was the terrible knowledge which would haunt those who survived, perhaps for the rest of their lives. Vaughan – not much more than a boy, but fully blooded now in the worst that life could inflict – headed home. His day ended only after he had delivered his report to Brigade HQ on the 8th Warwicks’ heroic actions during the attack.
We should ponder the narrative of those left behind. They had fought, been injured, and yet in their agony they clung to life. They lay in shell holes in the middle of No Man’s Land, aware that in a matter of hours, or even days, mud and water would close over them. Then, who knew how much longer afterwards, they would die – by slow inches. That was the hideous lie of their land. There were no alternatives to be had, and no comfort to be drawn.
This was dark knowledge of a kind about which most civilians preferred not to know. If death and destruction were to rain down, they preferred that it was drawn in primary colours – David and Goliath stuff, with the subliminal message always that Tommy Atkins might occasionally be down, but he was never out.
In this context, the great story of the week concerned a tank… a Male Tank F.41, nicknamed “Fray Bentos”, because its grocer captain had a licence to sell that tinned meat. Early on the morning of 22nd August it had set out with other tanks to launch an attack on German positions, travelling at four miles an hour. Immediately it had come under ferocious fire from German guns and the driver, 2nd Lieutenant Hill, was wounded. Then, as his colleague attempted to change seats to take the controls, the tank lurched sideways into a crater and got stuck in the soft mud, becoming stranded in the middle of No Man’s Land.
All hell broke loose. The Germans hated these iron-clad behemoths and since F.41 seemed unable to do them much mischief, they gaily blasted it with all the shells and bullets at their disposal. For their part, the crew, while they could not use the tank’s guns due to the angles they were facing, set up an astonishing resistance. They used their own personal weapons to fend off repeated German attacks, even hand-to-hand ones, and when, at one stage, a German dropped a grenade into the tank, they threw it straight out again. By nightfall the following day, 24th August, with every crew member injured or killed, it was decided finally to abandon the tank and crawl back to the British lines. Those who still had the use of their limbs did so, dragging their Lewis guns with them. It was an extraordinary tale of sang froid in the most harassing of circumstances, and the survivors were duly decorated. In the grim circumstances of the time, the authorities were happy to clutch onto any good news they could get.
With so many dying, and in such misery, it feels almost wrong to single out individuals. There was a great poignancy, however, in the fact that No. 44 Casualty Clearing Station was shelled on 21st August and one of the nurses was killed. No. 44 specialised in abdominal, chest and thigh wounds, all of which depended upon rapid response, and for this reason it had been moved on 19th July to Brandhoek, only a few miles from the front. It was a more dangerous venue than usual for a CCS, located alongside ammunition dumps and railway sidings, but the contingencies of battle left the authorities with no real choice. What happened after the shells struck was described by Sister Kate Luard:
The business began about 10 a.m… I came on to the shell-hole and the wrecked tents in the Sisters’ Quarters at 44. A group of stricken M.O.s were standing about and in one tent a Sister was dying. A piece went through her from back to front near her heart. She was only conscious for a few minutes and only lived twenty minutes. She was in bed asleep. The Sister who shared her tent had been sent down the day before because she couldn’t stand the noise and the day and night conditions. The Sister who should have been in the tent which was nearest was out for a walk or she would have been blown to bits…
The dead woman was 26-year-old Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler from Wakefield. A nurse before the war, she had immediately joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service after the outbreak of hostilities, and arrived in France in May 1917. Pious, cheerful and popular, in her last letter home on 28th July she had enclosed a gift for her sister Lily… a small silver pendant embossed with a weeping angel.
At the time of her death, she had just retired to bed after an arduous nightshift. Following the tragedy, the authorities immediately ordered the evacuation of №44 and 321 patients, all the staff and the dead woman’s body were taken to Lijssenthoek. Her funeral took place the next day with full military honours, attended by around 100 officers, four generals and the Surgeon General. She was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery and would remain the only woman amongst the 10,000 men to be buried there. Again, it was the kind of horror around which the authorities hoped people might unite.
Even in the midst of all this, the horrors of war were mitigated by certain conventions. Any soldier, friend or enemy, was entitled to certain considerations after his death. The business of trying to assemble a dead man’s possessions and return them to his next-of-kin was a sensitive task, and its importance was understood by all belligerents, and largely respected. Princess Evelyn Blucher, the Englishwoman living in Berlin, spent much of her time working for the Red Cross, helping Allied prisoners of war in whatever way she could under the aegis of this international and non-partisan organisation. One of her grimmer jobs was to identify those killed and wounded from the pathetic remnants of their possessions which, for whatever reason, had wound up in the hands of the Red Cross.
Her diary for August records:
There was a whole stack of battered and blood-stained cigarette-cases, some with inscriptions or monograms engraved on them, many containing small photos or a few written words by the giver. Then there were all the other various small articles generally to be found in a man’s pocket – fountain-pens, handkerchiefs, torn letters, purses, coins, etc.; and I felt the tears come into my eyes when I thought of what value they would be to some in England now, and how almost impossible it is to identify even a small number of them… Time will gradually thrust them aside to the other inevitable lumber of the war, and they will never come into the hands of those to whom they would be relics of great worth.
Civilian sorrows were intensified when Ramsgate became the target in another daylight air raid on 22nd August. Ten Gothas dropped 28 bombs within a square mile of the High Street, and twelve people were killed, including one child and some Canadian soldiers. British anti-aircraft strategy had by now sufficiently improved to give chase, however, and this would be the last raid of its kind. Anti-aircraft fire accounted for two Gothas and a third was brought down by a pilot of the Royal Naval Air Service.
For civilians of all nations, the sorrows surrounding one’s own family and friends, let alone that of the nation, were all-absorbing. Maintaining much interest in other theatres of war was a quiddity, confined in the main to commanders and politicians. In fact, this was also a dramatic week for the Italians. The 11th Battle of Isonzo which had started last week continued to rage in the Carso region and, by 26th August, almost the whole of the Bainsizza Plateau was in Italian hands with around 23,000 prisoners claimed.
Allied confidence occasioned by Italian successes were in inverse proportion to the despondency elicited by the travails of Russia. On 21st August, the Germans launched a full-scale attack on the Riga Front forcing the Russians to evacuate their positions between Tirul Marsh and the River Ava, and they also attacked the town of Sereth in the Bukovina district. On 26th August, the Germans claimed 1,000 prisoners after renewed attacks east of Czernowitz. The implosion of military fortunes was matched fully by despair within the country itself.
Boris Nikolsky, in Petrograd, recorded in his diary on 22nd August:
Poor Russia! Madness of workers, stupidity of the government, rowdiness of the deputies, escalating food crises in Petrograd, growing animosity of peaceful and calm people, are creating high tension in society. I believe there will be an explosion in the near future.
Following their failed attempt at a coup in July, many Bolsheviks were still in gaol. Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, had now reached Finland where her husband was living in hiding. Like him, she travelled on a false passport disguised as a worker. On her arrival, she recorded:
Illich was delighted. It was clear that he is terribly frustrated to have to stay under cover…
Truth was, sympathy for the Bolsheviks, and animosity against the war and for the Provisional Government which identified with it, was burgeoning. Another leading Bolshevik, Alexandra Kollontai, was languishing in Vyborg prison. On 23rd August, she received evidence that she – and the cause which she represented – had not been forgotten:
Two wardresses at the door. Both are entirely weighed down with packages. ‘What a delivery you’ve got today! It’s like an entire wholesale shop. You’ve got everything! White bread, sausages, canned goods, butter, eggs, honey…’ And there was a note: ‘Greetings from the sailors of the Baltic Navy to Comrade Kollontai’….
On 25th August, the Russian National Conference – whatever that was supposed to mean – was opened by Kerensky in the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow. President Wilson sent
…to the members of the great council now meeting in Moscow the cordial greetings of their friends, the people of the United States, to express their confidence in the ultimate triumph of ideals of democracy and self-government against all the enemies within and without, and to give their renewed assurance of every material and moral assistance they can extend to the Government of Russia in the promotion of the common cause in which the two nations are unselfishly united.
Shorn of all the bombast, the message was stark: “do what you like within your own borders – but stay in the war”. The signs, however, all pointed in the other direction: within the army, mass desertions continued. There were serious tensions between the Commander-in-Chief, Kornilov, who was urging drastic measures to restore order in the army, and the more cautious Premier Kerensky.
According to Gippius, against Kerensky’s orders, Kornilov “went to Iversk Steet in a grandiose cortege, with crowds shouting ‘Hurray’”. He also received an ovation when he spoke at the conference. By contrast, “Kerensky is a railway carriage that has come off the rails. He wobbles, sways, painfully – and without the slightest beauty…”
Power had been relinquished by Kerensky’s predecessor, the Tsar, without apparent regret. Having been stuck aboard the steamer Russia while their accommodation was being cleaned and prepared, the Imperial family was only now able to take up residence in Tobolsk. In his diary for 26th August, the Tsar observed:
At 10.30 the children and I went ashore with the commandant and the officers and set off for our new home. We inspected the whole house from top to bottom. We have taken the first floor, the dining room is downstairs. At 12 o’clock there was a Mass, and the priest sprinkled the rooms with holy water. We lunched and dined with our people. We went to look at the house where the suite is staying. Many of the rooms have still not been done, and look very unwelcoming. Then we went into the so-called garden, a paltry orchard, and looked at the kitchen and guard house. Everything looks old and neglected.
His aide-de-camp, Valia Dolgorukov, sent a letter to his brother on 27th August, which suggested that he was also concerned about the health of the children:
Alexei and Maria have caught cold. His arm is hurting a lot and he often cries at night. Gilliard [the Swiss tutor] has been lying in his cabin for the last eight days, he has some sort of boils on his arm and legs and a slight fever. It is easier to get provisions here and significantly cheaper. Milk, eggs, butter and fish are plentiful.
The family is bearing everything with great sang-froid and courage. They apparently adapt to circumstances easily, or at least pretend to…
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – that was what war did. Nearly 4000 miles to the west, the poet soldier Siegfried Sassoon, still in Craiglockhart Hospital, had been deliberating on that. He had recently made the acquaintance of another patient, Wilfred Owen, after Owen had dared to knock at Sassoon’s door. This moment was to mark the start of a critical friendship for both men. Owen managed to stutter a request for Sassoon to sign copies of The Old Huntsman.
One of the poems contained within the volume might have made particular sense for the Tsar, for Kornilov, for Princess Blucher and for Edwin Vaughan – perhaps for everyone.
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause; they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race.
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic; you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’