Numberless fears

NATURE ABHORS A vacuum. Any hopes that the closing down of the Somme front might herald a respite were quickly eclipsed. This was a week of dense tragedy and terror at sea.

Zeppelin raids on the British coast had been ongoing for many months. Improved anti-aircraft provision now began to limit their effectiveness: on 27th November, a raid on the north-east and north Midlands resulted in four deaths and 37 injured  –  but two of the Zeppelins were brought down.

There was no such comeback, however, against the German navy. The enemy had laid a network of mines throughout the Mediterranean and Aegean seas and these, of course, did not discriminate. When a ship struck, they exploded. Even a hospital ship was not safe: Britannic, sister ship to the Titanic,  had set off mid-month on her sixth voyage to collect sick and wounded, this time from the Salonika campaign. Painted white, emblazoned with red crosses and with a horizontal green stripe down her side, she struck a mine on the morning of 21st November, as she passed near the island of Kea off the Greek coast.

Two immense explosions were at once detonated. On board were 1,065 people: 673 crew, 315 Royal Army Medical Corps members and 77 nurses. Despite an improved system of bulkheads, some watertight doors failed to close properly and Britannic soon reached her flooding limit. As the ship started to list, the problem was compounded because  –  here fate seems to have been especially cruel  – nurses had opened portholes to air the hospital wards in readiness for patients. In desperation, the captain now attempted to drive the ship onwards to beach in the island of Kea, and to this end he kept the engines going for a period longer. Alas, however, some lifeboats had already been launched, and  –  in a scene of unmitigated horror  – those nearest the still-moving propellers were sucked towards them.

Violet Jessop

Violet Jessop

Horrific as this was, it might have been yet worse. Thirty men were lost: 21 crew, one officer and eight RAMC staff. Thirty-five lifeboats were launched, the warm sea temperature helped those in the water, and rescuers arrived within two hours of the first distress call. One of the survivors was the Red Cross nurse, Violet Jessop, whose ability to escape disaster seems to have been matched by her uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a stewardess before the war, she had survived Olympic’s collision in 1911 and had been one of only 770 rescued by Carpathia after Titanic’s dramatic sinking.

On this occasion, she leaped from her lifeboat as it headed towards the propellers:

I leapt into the water but was sucked under the ship’s keel which struck my head. I escaped, but years later when I went to my doctor because of a lot of headaches, he discovered I had once sustained a fractured skull…

She also endured the solemn and terrifying sight of the mighty ship sinking, only 55 minutes after the first explosion:

She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence.

Britannic would prove to be the largest ship to be sunk during the entire war and her wreck still lies on the sea bed. She never quite overcame the notoriety of the twin sister alongside which she had been built. After being launched in February 1914, she had remained in Belfast having additional safety features added following Titanic’s sinking and then, following a mere two weeks of service as a passenger liner, she was requisitioned by the Admiralty in December 1915 to begin life as a hospital ship.

Among those most stirred by the tragedy was the British nurse Vera Brittain  –  not unreasonably, especially since she had left Southampton in the Brittanic herself two months earlier en route to nurse in Malta. She now wrote to her brother, Edward:

Isn’t it dreadful the way hospital ships are being torpedoed; I should think even the Germans will find it hard to explain away four in a fortnight. I suppose since they cannot shake our supremacy at sea they are wreaking their vengeance on the only kind of ship which is known not even to attempt to defend itself. We are all very sad at the fate of the poor gorgeous Britannic; it seems impossible to imagine those beautiful saloons & state cabins at the bottom of the sea. We are wondering what is the fate of some of the nice people we met on board but we hear that some of the Sisters are coming here to recover from the shock & partly to wait till the Powers that Be decide what to do with them…

The Germans, as you probably know, had threatened her, and now that she is sunk I suppose there is no harm in telling you that we had a very narrow escape ourselves; we were chased through the Archipelago by a submarine & for some time were in considerable danger though fortunately for our peace of mind we did not know it at the time…

In fact, Allied shipping took hefty punishment all week. Mines laid by the German navy from the Ionian to the North Seas accounted for several naval trawlers: nearly 50 lives were lost, and many more besides were taken prisoner. The truly dire incident, however, was visited on the French when U-52, a German submarine patrolling the Atlantic under Kapitän Hans Walther, attacked the French pre-dreadnought battleship, Suffren, off the west coast of Portugal. A torpedo ignited a magazine on board and the ship sank within seconds and 648 souls perished.

The British had already suffered from the depredations of this ruthless commander earlier in the year when U-52 had attacked a British battleship, HMS Nottingham, with the loss of 38 crew. Now it was the turn of the French who, God knows, had already sustained their fair share of tragedy in 1916.

At least the British were facing a quieter spell on the Western Front. With the Somme Front closed down, the British Commander, Haig, offered a pithy verdict of the offensive just ended in his report to the CIGS, Sir William Robertson, on 21st November:

We must expect a very severe struggle and our utmost efforts will be required, but the results of the SOMME battle fully justify confidence in our ability to master the enemy’s power of resistance. It is true that the amount of ground gained is not great. That is nothing. The strength of the defences overcome and the effect on the defenders are the real tests.

Time after time in the last five months the Allies have driven the enemy, with heavy loss, from the strongest fortifications that his ingenuity could conceive and his unwearying labour could construct. Time and again his counter-attacks have been utterly defeated. If the memory of these experiences should fail during the winter a few successes by us at the beginning of the campaign will bring it back. The full value of these results will become evident in the future.

While frequently criticised as both callous and obtuse, Haig had grasped the fundamentals of war better than many of his more flamboyant colleagues and contemporaries, both those on the General Staff and in Westminster. His analysis that the Somme would be integral to any eventual victory is one which now commands respect.

Haig visiting troops in 1916

Haig visiting troops in 1916

He was never a man given to verbal flourishes, but in March 1917 he acknowledged with feeling the debt owed to the men who had fought there:

No one can visit the Somme Battlefield without being impressed with the magnitude of the effort made by the British Army. For five long months this battle continued. Not one battle, but a series of great battles, were methodically waged by numerous divisions in succession, so that credit for pluck and resolution has been earned by men from every part of the Empire.

And credit must be paid, not only to the private soldier in the ranks, but also to those splendid young officers who commanded platoons, companies and battalions. Although new to this terrible ‘game of war’ they were able, time and again, to form up their commands in the darkness of the night, and in spite of shell holes, wire and other obstacles, lead them forward in the grey of morning to the attack of these tremendous positions. To many it meant certain death, and all must have known that before they started.

Surely it was the knowledge of the great stake at issue, the existence of England as a free nation that nerved them for such heroic deeds. I have not the time to put down all the thoughts which rush into my mind when I think of all those fine fellows, who either have given their lives for their country, or have been maimed in its service.

The idea of England “as a free nation” deserves a second airing. The fear of catastrophe should it fall under the heel of the Kaiser was perennial. Because it never happened, many historians have rather discounted the possibility, treating it as the conceit of a rabid popular Press.

Perhaps this was what it took to reconcile everyone to the grotesque suffering. Even Margot Asquith, wife of the Prime Minister, shared the nation’s sense of shock and puzzlement. In a letter of 20th November to Bernard Freyberg, who had just been awarded the VC for his exploits in the field and was now recovering from wounds in hospital, she wrote:

I know I know nothing, but it does strike me that the soldiers must be very wanting in cunning and cover and care. We always fling ourselves at death — we don’t creep and crawl and we always go too far… Can it be right to lose nine to ten thousand in casualties every two or three days? Is there no way of surprising the foe? I feel terribly unhappy over it all.

Margot Asquith

Margot Asquith

Mrs Asquith, despite her protestations to the contrary at the head of this letter, was lightning-quick in passing judgement on everyone and everything. But her cri de coeur was sincere: she was the matriarch all the more of a family in which three sons who had seen action and one had been killed. It is telling that, notwithstanding her high station, she shared in the general bafflement as to how this bloody deadlock might ever be resolved.

On 13th November, Vere Harmsworth, nephew of the Press baron, had been killed, leading his company in an attack on enemy trenches during the Battle of Ancre. In a letter to another of his uncles at the end of October he had written:

We had to leave our Sgt.-Majors behind in addition to two sergeants per company. These will help form up new companies if we are all wiped out. It has been very wet lately, which naturally cramps operations somewhat. The trenches round here are very bad and knee-deep in water and mud… If one comes thro’, one will emerge out of the new world rather dazed and it will take some time to settle down. The awful nightmare of seeing one’s own men — that one has been with so long — being struck down all round one, will never move from one’s mind. One gets attached to one’s men, and their loss hits as hard as dear friends.

Whether I am to emerge from this show, I do not know. Fate has not definitely informed me… Somehow I have never imagined myself as an old man with infirmities and limitations of old age… Surely it is a life fulfilled, if one dies young and healthy fighting to one’s country. It cannot be a life wasted… If I fall, do not mourn, but be glad and proud. It is not a life wasted, but gloriously fulfilled.

The young lieutenant then added a postscript:

I am leaving all I have for the betterment of those who have suffered thro’ the War. Most of it for the men of my Battalion. My whole being is bound up in my men, body and soul. Nothing else seems to matter.

Vere Sidney Harmsworth — by de Laszlo

Vere Sidney Harmsworth — by de Laszlo

Bleak realism and high idealism are both welded within these words. Harmsworth had seen action in Gallipoli with the Royal Naval Division before serving on the Somme, where his deep devotion to his men and apparent serenity at the ever-present prospect of death had left a huge impression. His letter was written at exactly the period when his uncle, Lord Northcliffe (an altogether less serene character) was piling relentless criticism upon Prime Minister Asquith.

Those whose energies were expended on actual fighting seem to have been mainly impatient of politics and of civilian posturing. Bernard Freyburg, who seems to have been forced to spend much of his convalescence in correspondence with one or other of the Asquith family, wrote desperately to Asquith’s son Oc, imploring him to use his influence to keep the press away.

Cynthia Asquith’s diary for 24th November recorded that:

Oc had a note from Freyberg, the hero of the Naval Division which has done such great deeds. He is back with four wounds and recommended for the VC. The note was a frenzied appeal to Oc to stop the terribly erroneous puffs of him in the papers. Frank Mitchell, who is in the Press Censorship, was appealed to, but he wasn’t very helpful and Oc went off to see Sir Frank Swettenham about it.

The Germans scored some major successes in theEast this week. This could not gainsay the failure of their strike at Verdun earlier in the year, nor their exhaustion in the wake of the Somme. But two of their best generals, Falkenhayn (the architect of Verdun, as it happened) and Mackensen, separately advanced on Bucharest, capturing towns and villages in their path.

On 23rd November, Mackensen crossed the Danube at Islatz and Siminitza and, by the end of the week, Curtea de Arges had been taken after fierce resistance. The port of Alexandria was occupied on 27th November and the Romanians abandoned the Aluta line, though fighting continued around Orsova.

While Romania seemed in free fall, the Allies were doing better further south. The Serb-French forces continued their successful advance from Monastir, taking villages and, on 26th November, capturing the important Hill 1050, seven miles north-east of the town.

Flora Sandes was out of the action for now, having been badly wounded. At the Third Danube Field Hospital she had been visited by one of the chauffeurs of the Scottish Women’s Hospital’s Transport Column who found her lying on straw in a corner, her wounds already dressed, but with more wounded being carried and piled more or less on top of her.

Sandes was the object of international fascination  –  and concern. At Sorovic, enquiries poured in from the Serbian military authorities as RAMC Major Alport reported:

They were in a terrible state of mind, fearing she had been killed and not knowing what had become of her… Naturally, when I heard she was a casualty in the hospital next door, I called to see her, expecting to find an Amazon — one of the Spartan sisterhood. Instead, I found a sweet-faced woman, bordering on middle age, with short grey hair and a pleasant voice… She told me that before she was wounded she had been in the trenches for thirty days without being relieved, and when I add that the weather during that time had been extremely cold and wet, it will be readily appreciated how greatly she must have suffered and how extraordinary her courage and powers of endurance must have been.

Sandes was lucky. After an arduous journey, she finally arrived at the 41st General Hospital in Samlis, seven miles from Salonika. It was one of several hospital opened in August 1916, in fulfilment of a British–French pledge to each provide 7,000 beds for the Serbs who had no hospitals of their own. Other French, Canadian and Italian volunteers had also set up hospitals near Salonika’s harbour and were already coping with increasing numbers of malaria cases.

Salonika during the First World War

Salonika during the First World War

Salonika itself had dramas greater even than malaria with which to contend. On 23rd November, the provisional Greek government based there declared war on Bulgaria and Germany, further throwing doubt on to the legitimacy of the rump government in Athens which was further threatened by an ultimatum from the French Admiral du Fournet on 24th November. The Allies, in truth, had lost patience with the pro-German King Constantine and were ratcheting up the political pressure in an effort to persuade him to depart.



The war’s outcome remained opaque but, every now and then, something happened which underlined the evident impossibility of a return to the world as it had been before 1914.

On the evening of November 21st, Franz Josef, Emperor of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, breathed his last in the palace of Schönbrunn outside Vienna, in which he had been born 86 years earlier. He had caught a cold several days before, which had developed into pneumonia in his right lung. The press reported that “the long-feared, unavoidable event had now happened”.

Emperor Franz Josef

Emperor Franz Josef

The Emperor had reigned since 1848, a total of 68 years, and had retained popular affection and respect, despite the litany of failures and tragedies which had littered his long reign. The latter included the suicide of his only son, Rudolph, in 1889, and the assassination of his beloved (though estranged) wife, the Empress Elisabeth, in 1898.

The second half of the nineteenth century had seen Austria’s imperial pretensions in freefall. Since 1914, her armies had suffered humiliation upon humiliation. Franz Josef himself had authorised the ultimatum to Serbia following the murder of his nephew and heir, Franz Ferdinand, which had triggered the outbreak of war in 1914. His young heir  –  a great nephew  – became Karl I of Austria.

King George V was, by contrast, in robust health. The political survival of his Prime Minister, however, looked increasingly in doubt. Plots to install Lloyd George in his place were now discreetly advancing. Asquith seemed phlegmatic, writing to one of his confidantes, Pamela McKenna, on 27th November: “Alas! the whirlwinds are blowing, and the windmills are whirling: in short, I am in the centre of an aerial tornado, from which I cannot escape.” As befitted a men steeped in the classics, Asquith had a strong sense of the inevitability of fate.

Enemies abounded  – across the water, within Parliament, and of course within a man’s own soul. Life, even in wartime, threw up narratives which were touching and ageless. Take this letter sent on 2th November by Winnie McClare, a Canadian teenager had arrived in Britain in July 1916 and was still in training at Upper Dibgate, to his father in Nova Scotia.

The worst of London is the girls that run around the streets… The Strand is the worst place for them that I ever saw. They will come up to you, that is, after about nine o’clock, and they will take you by the arm and want you to go home with them and stay all night with them. I have not had much experience with them, but it is an awful temptation when they act like that.

An awfull lot of fellows that go to London come back in bad shape and are sent to the V.D. hospitals. There is one V.D. hospital near here that has six hundred men in it. It is a shame that the fellows can’t keep away from it.
Your Loveing Son, Winnie


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