HOW MUCH PUNISHMENT could a nation absorb? It was a question asked of the French, in the eye of the storm at Verdun, and of Britain too. For this was a week in which heartache and humiliation were heaped upon them, unleavened by consolation.
The British surrender at Kut-al-Amara on 26th April had a cinematic quality. All attempts to relieve the near-starving garrison had failed: the relief force under General Gorringe had not broken through, and the casualties it had sustained along the way were shocking – almost 23,000 had been killed or wounded.
Nor had the much vaunted airlift – a new feature of war – brought much sustenance. General Townshend dismissed it irritably as “a complete failure” but the facts do not fully bear this out: a little over ten per cent of the 19,000lbs which had been dropped in 140 flights had fallen into the water or missed the target and been claimed by the enemy. The bigger problem was that ten times as many flights were needed.
The last desperate effort to deliver supplies had been made on the water two days earlier. Under cover of darkness, Lieutenant Commander Charles Cowley and Lieutenant Humphrey Firman, with twelve ratings, had volunteered to pilot the steamer Julnar up the Tigris. It was dashing, but suicidal, and degenerated rapidly into farce.
Under heavy fire from both river-banks, the boat managed to evade one steel cable placed across the river but soon was caught in another. Firman was killed by a shell and the remaining crew on the stricken vessel forced to surrender. The formalities of war did not detain anyone long: Cowley is believed to have been executed by his Turkish captors, more or less on the spot.
The British undoubtedly drew inspiration from this moment of reckless courage. Cowley and Firman were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Now, however, it really was all over. According to Major Dunn’s diary for 26th April:
General Townshend received instructions from the War Office to surrender and accordingly a flag of truce was sent out to treat for surrender. All firing was stopped by Khalil Pasha on receipt of the letter.
Two days later, on 28th April, Townshend issued a final communique to his men:
… I have interviewed the General-in-Chief yesterday who is full of admiration for ‘an heroic defence of five months’, as he puts it. Negotiations are still in progress, but I hope to be able to announce your departure for India, on parole not to serve against the Turks, since the Commander says he thinks it will be allowed, and has wired to Constantinople to ask for this, and that the Julnar which is lying with food for us at Magasis now, may be permitted to come to us.
Whatever has happened, my comrades, you can only be proud of yourselves. We have done our duty to King and Empire; the whole world knows that we have done our duty. I ask you to stand by me with your steady and splendid discipline, shown throughout, in the next few days for the expedition of all service I demand of you.
He was wildly sanguine. Captain Lecky’s diary for 29th April noted tersely:
Terms of surrender evidently refused by Constantinople as we can hear them blowing up the guns again. What next I wonder? Later, white flag is up, unconditional surrender, so it is all over.
That same day, Colonel Maule wrote to his wife, “Well, dearest the end has come, we destroyed our guns this morning, burnt everything we can and are waiting for the Turks to come and take over. We have no more food. It is the saddest day of my service.”
On 29th April, Townshend sent his last message to British headquarters:
I have hoisted the white flag over Kut Fort and town, and the guards will be taken over by a Turkish regiment which is approaching.
During the siege, which lasted longer than the famous one at Ladysmith during the Boer War, 1,025 men had died from enemy action and 721 from disease. Having held out for 143 days, a total of 13,309 British and Indian troops surrendered, the largest British force ever to yield to an enemy.
For the second time in only a few months, Britain stood defeated at the hands of the Turk. Coming hard on the heels of Gallipoli, it hurt; so too did the obvious relish of the Germans who (very typically) claimed a share of the stardust, based on the fact that the Turkish troops surrounding Kut had been mainly German-led.
In the greater scheme of the war, the British stand had served some purpose, engaging enemy troops who otherwise would have been deployed against the Russians in the Caucasus. But that was scant consolation for those now marched off into a brutal captivity in which thousands would die. A member of the relief force, Captain Dawson, wrote on 30th April:
Heat is appalling and only just begun. Fleas bite very hard—are in thousands. Cholera has started so things are very cheery. I was inoculated yesterday against it and then had to march in the heat of the day to relieve trenches. Great fun. We lie and gasp all day under a blanket, which we put up to keep off the sun which is does indifferently… you may say I am pretty fed up with Mesopotamia.
Kut was not the only disaster visited upon the British that week in Asia Minor. The diary of Cynthia Asquith, daughter-in-law of the Prime Minister, chronicled her response to newspaper reports about fighting in Katia, 40 miles east of the Suez Canal.
There had been a catastrophic engagement between Yeomanry Divisions, and a much larger Turkish force – their numbers swollen by the fearsome Mecca Camel Corps. This constituted some 400 men of the Hedjaz, robed in red cloaks and apparently fanatically anti-Christian – who “gave one a cold shiver to look at… Dark skinned individuals with gleaming teeth, waving curved swords, riding swift camels and thirsting to kill!”
The surprise attack at Oghratina carried out early on 23rd April in dense sea fog resulted in devastating losses for the Worcesters, with only four officers and 40 two men left to surrender after a two-hour battle.
Her anxieties were rooted, as with so many others, in family. On 28th April she heard that her brother, Lord Elcho and her brother-in-law, Tom Strickland, had been taken prisoner:
They think it is the Germans, not Turks, who have got them. I’m sorry, Turks are supposed to treat prisoners better.
The facts did not always bear out this remark.
In later years, Kut-al-Amara was sometimes written up as the very epitome of defeat made glorious by high ideals and inflexible resolve. The Civil War which now erupted in Ireland permitted no such consolation.
Neither side enjoyed a monopoly of bravery, nor of patriotism – a word whose meaning is susceptible to many nuances, even in societies less riven by division than the Irish. There was much ugliness as well: the British authorities were nonplussed, enraged to have been compelled to divert their attention from France, and sometimes vindictive and stupid. The Irish rebels’ version of freedom was sometimes undermined by fancy and romance; their praetorian guard included some who were naïve, others who were violent and, at points, almost inconceivably incompetent.
In Dublin, the rebellion gathered momentum early in the week. The Irish Volunteer numbers had been modest at the outset when many had believed they were under orders to do nothing, but rebels now held several key buildings.
By contrast, a vacuum prevailed in the organs of government: Chief Secretary Birrell and Major-General Friend, in charge of the British army in Ireland, were still in London. The Under-Secretary was marooned in Dublin Castle while the Lord Lieutenant, Viscount Wimborne, took refuge in strong liquor. In the words of his private secretary: “his Ex simply swilled brandy the whole time”. Flushed with self-importance and aflame with alcohol, he took it upon himself to declare martial law in the county and city of Dublin –a measure last employed after the rebellion of 1798.
Had martial law been exclusively a drunken idiocy on the part of the Lord Lieutenant, maybe the alienation it induced might have evanesced. It was not: two days later, the Cabinet extended it across the whole country. This coincided with the arrival of large numbers of reinforcements in Dublin and of Brigadier-General Lowe from the Curragh, who now took command.
British soldiers in Dublin on 24th April had numbered some 400, but now there were thousands. The rebels belatedly began to appreciate how thinly defended the city had been on the first days of the uprising and that, in failing to take significant buildings like Trinity College, they had squandered their early advantage. The British had brought 18-pounder field guns from Athlone. The Helga, a fishery protection vessel armed with a three-inch gun, was brought up the Liffey. Suddenly they faced large numbers and the onslaught of heavy artillery – typically while sheltering in buildings without escape-routes.
In such circumstances, fatalism prevailed – not only among those who were armed. The temptation to loot shops and carry off valuables was overwhelming for many civilians: an indication partly of their impoverished lives, and also of their growing terror as all semblance of restraint collapsed around them. Looting distressed some of the more high-minded rebels, who took to firing over their heads by way of protest. But it was hopeless: after the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police had been withdrawn on 24th April, anarchy reigned – which played, of course, straight into the hands of the British.
Since all public buildings were closed, even the rudimentary infrastructure of life collapsed and, for those with least, the burden was greatest. “Separation allowances”, given to the wives of the thousands of Irishmen fighting for King and country, were left unpaid. There was little temptation to take the long view or to draw consolation from nationalist and republican rhetoric.
Now a horrible procession poured into the streets, mainly women and girls, shoeless, hatless, with filthy faces, with tangled, matted hair flying loosely in the wind… They came out into the streets in crowds, shouting, shrieking, yelling… Ordinary shutters were useless against this throng…
Herein lay the tragedy of an occupied people – led by want and fear to turn on each other.
There were plenty of heroes too. Some of the leaders were deeply respected figures, prominent in Ireland’s literary and cultural life and associated with efforts on behalf of the poor – such as the socialist, James Connolly, or charismatic humanitarian, Countess Markewiecz.
Others were playwrights, teachers, poets, university professors, members of Cumann na mBan, the women’s group fighting for equal rights and for independence. Some of the followers were quietly, selflessly brave. Volunteers moved about the city often on bicycles, acting as couriers, or carrying much-needed supplies. Initially told to bring rations for twelve hours, days into the siege they found themselves seriously hungry. The rebel garrison in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, sated by confectionery they found on the shelves, now began to yearn for everyday staples – chiefly bread and potatoes.
As in all civil wars, the violence sometimes felt personal. Captain John Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles went on a killing spree. His victims included the famous pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who had tried to save the life of Guy Pinfield at Dublin Castle, the first British soldier to die in the Rising, and who had been arrested while trying to prevent looting.
If this embittered the rebels, it was soon the turn of British to feel wronged, following a bloody stand-off between some highly inexperienced Sherwood Foresters and a handful of rebels ensconced in houses near Mount Street Bridge on Wednesday 26th April. Four rebels were killed and three captured after hours of fighting, while 24 British lay dead with over 200 wounded. One British officer tried to explain away his grief and humiliation by opining: “I don’t think they were genuine Irishmen at all. I think they were paid mercenaries.” He was wrong.
With forces so unevenly placed, a dénouement now approached. By 29th April, the GPO was in flames and rebels were tunnelling their way through walls to escape into neighbouring buildings. When British troops burst into houses searching for rebels, they were often none too particular in determining the guilt or innocence of whoever it was they found within. Civilian graves were later discovered in basements in some of the houses on North King Street.
Pearse decided it was over. He had been profoundly shocked by the sight of three unarmed civilians carrying a white flag shot dead by British soldiers and through Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, negotiations opened with the British commander. Lowe insisted on unconditional surrender and – deeply though some wanted to continue – all rebel garrisons obeyed Pearse’s instructions to lay down arms.
On 29th and 30th April they marched in formation to surrender. Those from the GPO were taken to the Rotunda Hospital and the scenes that followed were not pretty. General Sir John Maxwell had arrived on 28th April to assume control as Military Governor and with plenary powers to suppress the rebellion and punish the rebels. Magnanimity was not the order of the day. Maxwell wrote that he was “going to ensure that there will be no treason whispered for a hundred years” and planned immediate courts-martial which would begin on 2nd May.
While Ireland sank into Civil War, the British were taking hefty punishment in France. Rumours had persisted in the trenches between Hulluch and Loos held by the British I Corps that the enemy was planning to use chemical weapons.
They were only about 120—300 yards from the German trenches and suspicions had first been aroused when a large number of rats left the German trenches for No-Man’s-Land. To those in the know, this was a sure sign of leaking gas cylinders, and their fears were confirmed by intelligence received from a deserter on 24th April. When the winds dropped, the Germans shelled the 16th (Irish) Division on 26th April and launched their gas the next morning.
War correspondent Philip Gibb described what happened:
…at 5 in the morning came a sudden shout of warning, “Gas!”. The division donned their helmets… The men then fearlessly awaited the oncoming cloud, behind which were the German infantry. The Dublin Fusiliers fiercely repelled the attack. A German officer and 47 German soldiers were found dead, the bodies being entangled in the barbed-wire. At one point a second attack was made. After more gas, the Germans reached the position of the Inniskillings and Dublin Fusiliers, but the Irishmen made a counter-attack, and ejected the enemy in half an hour. It was the first time this Irish division had been in action, but the young soldiers were magnificently cool.
Another gas attack on 29th April failed, as the wind veered and sent the gas back, as this German account described:
The unexpected change had the result that the gas masks were not put on in the German trenches in time or with the necessary calm and care, and the 9th Regiment had heavy losses to bewail—dead, 1 officer and 132 men; gas sick, 6 officers and 280 men, of whom 30 subsequently died.
Local livestock died too and fields were burnt by the acid gas. The British casualties for these two days were estimated at 1,980, of whom 1,260 were gas casualties, 338 of these being killed.
To add to these horrors came grievous news at sea. On 24th April a German battlecruiser had shelled Lowestoft, killing four people and unleashing a great deal of destruction – an ugly start to a terrible week. Three days later HMS Russell was blown up by a mine in the Mediterranean with the loss of 124 lives; submarine E-22 was sunk in the North Sea. On 1st May it was announced that the armed yacht, Aegusa, and the minesweeper, Nasturtium, had been mined and 13 of the crew declared missing. Zeppelins continued their raids too with attacks on Kent, Essex, and the north east coasts of England and Scotland.
Amidst this scale of loss, it is not hard to see why soldiers in France, or Mesopotamia, may have felt less than sympathetic to strikers, pacifists, republicans or rebels. A particularly harrowing example of bile emerged in a letter from Raymond Asquith on 25th April to his wife:
I am delighted they have caught that swollen-headed, maggot-ridden idealist [Sir Roger] Casement, and heartily hope they will hang him. We owe it not only to ourselves but to Belgium for the fuss he made about the Congo.
Most readers today will struggle not to wince at his ignorance, but his absence of sympathy was widely shared and history should record it as such.
One reflects on the enormity of the task facing King George V as he sought to persuade his people to believe there was an end and a purpose to all that was now happening. This week marked the first Anzac Day, commemorated on 25th April. A special memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey, attended by the King and Queen, and 2,000 veterans marched through London.
His Majesty had a message that day for all his people:
May those who mourn their loss find comfort in the conviction that they did not die in vain, but that their sacrifice has drawn our peoples more closely together and added strength and glory to the Empire.
George V has often been patronised: abrupt in manner and often rather inarticulate, his better qualities can be easily overlooked. But he loved his country deeply and sought humbly to reconcile his people. It was no mean task.