WAR NORMALISED WHAT ought to have remained exceptional.
In war, normality meant living alongside death. As a nurse, Edith Appleton was accustomed to that – or, at least, accustomed to seeing men freshly mutilated. She was a constant witness to the most intense suffering – not just that wrought by bullets and shells, but from the loneliness among those confronting the fact they would not pull through.
Given the backdrop of war and battle, and because we belong to another time, we are insulated from the rawness of this horror. We risk forgetting that those facing death were scarcely more than boys, and that the first reflex of the young is to believe that they will live for ever.
Appleton’s diary this week touches on these ideas, albeit through the prism of one determined to be a good patriot as well as a good nurse:
October 20 — Very busy day yesterday. I took only 19 men, but they are rotten with gangrene — and German… Some are very badly wounded, and four on the DI [dangerously ill] list. Were their consciences tender — if they have such things — that they were such terrified creatures when they were admitted? They are settling down now — despite all they might know, we still don’t want the nasty job of killing them.
One man is simply entered as “German prisoner, name unknown”, as he has a bullet in his brain and has been unconscious all the time. He probably does not even know that he is a prisoner. Another arrived with both legs badly gangrenous, and one has been amputated high up. The other may clean up — or may have to be taken off. Another has the flesh torn off his thigh so deep that one can see the femoral artery, and he is lying dead still in the hope it won’t bleed. If it does there will be little chance of stopping it, as the wound extends to his stomach. The fourth DI has three gaping wounds across his back into the lung.
October 21 — It is such an extraordinary thing that the Germans rejoice to go to England, and many talk of settling in England after the war — but I don’t think they will. One of the slightly wounded, marked for the Canadian hospital at Le Havre, was left behind as the hospital was full. He asked me where he was going and I told him “Le Havre”. He was very grumpy about it and tried to be very ill to get marked “England” — but to Le Havre he will go.
Even when she was at her most peppery (it was a style which seems to have come to her naturally), Appleton’s reflex was to save life. She was supported in this by a hospital, by medical services and by a transport hub — an infrastructure. In direct contrast, wounded soldiers in the Romanian army faced a desperate plight, one intensified by their recent reverses in Transylvania and by the evacuation of Constanza.
In his account of the week’s horrors, Hans Carossa from the Romanian Army Medical Corps recalled that:
The mountain we climbed was a mountain of blindness and death. From the eastern slope, where the battle was not yet decided, wild cries rang through the rattle of the musketry; and up here, in the position we had captured, the enemy were wreaking their vengeance of the conquerors.
Like a swarm of hornets the shells dashed against the rocks, tearing the flesh from the limbs of the living and the dead. Sometimes German wounded called to us, sometimes Romanian, who were now being mutilated for a second time by the fire of their comrades.
Some of them suffered in silence; others twisted like wounded snakes.
Through the zone of death we saw Germans lightly wounded descending the mountain, a few white and shaken, but others walking jauntily, dressed up as if for a fancy-dress ball in the gay-coloured belts, jackets and military decorations of their dead enemies…
At daybreak rifle-firing, which soon fell silent… The stretcher-bearers have come, and in relays all the wounded are being carried away. Pirkl must remain here; his pulse is almost imperceptible and he would most probably reach Oitoz as a corpse. His brother had obtained an hour’s leave to visit him. As Pirkl cannot speak any longer his brother is employing his time in digging a grave for the still living man, and carving a cross, on which he is very carefully printing in blue pencil the name of the fallen.
The nearness of death now impressed itself on Flora Sandes as never before. On 20th October, her best friend, Lieutenant Janacko Jovic, was killed. Three days earlier, he had had to relinquish command of the Fourth Company to take over the Third. Now he was sacrificed in a hail of bullets when both companies were attacked by the Bulgarians.
Jovic appears to have been an exceptional character who, as Sandes later remembered, “had taken such care of us all through Albania, and to whom the men were devoted, was with the unlucky Third Company… He had fought through the Turkish and Bulgarian Wars; had every kind of medal for bravery, and had in two years, risen from private to [commander]; almost a record in that army”.
Until now, Sandes appears to have viewed war as devilish good sport, but the loss of Jovic, who had supported her throughout her time in the Serbian Army, subdued her. Shocked and desolate, she decided that she loathed war and everything to do with it with all her heart.
Being a witness to death might mean many things. For the wretched Company Sergeant Major Coggins from the 1st/4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, it meant burying the bodies:
The Somme was the worst. That’s all I dream about, mostly, now. I never saw so many dead. They sent me and my section back for a week’s rest to a clearing station for the wounded.
A week’s rest! My God! We were carrying the wounded. We were at it day and night! We met all the ambulances coming down from the front line, and some were dead when they arrived back there in the ambulance. It was in marquees then.
There was a big marquee — that was kept for men that weren’t expected to live — and the doctors examined each one as we carried them out on a stretcher and carried them into the reception tent. If they put a red tab on them they were the ones that had got to go into the big tent, they weren’t expected to get through it, and I used to hear them poor sods at night-time, moaning and crying for water.
Nobody went to them you know, nobody went anywhere near them. First thing in the morning, we had to go into that marquee, take blankets in with us, sew these bodies up in blankets, carry them from that marquee into GS wagons, then go with them to the burial ground. Some old Frenchmen were there, digging long trenches for the burying. We used to lay them side by side in the grave and wait until they’d read the burial service over them and then back again for the next lot.
For Oc Asquith, son of the Prime Minister, the stigma of cowardice was far more terrible than the nearness of death. On the night on 20th–21st October, he found himself in charge of two working parties of 500 men digging trenches, while with the Royal Naval Division in front-line trenches opposite the German-held village of Beaumont-Hamel. The Germans bombarded them with Minnenwerfer.
After a fashion, his luck was good. Although briefly buried alongside five others and badly concussed, he had suffered no life-threatrening wounds. Both eardrums which perforated, which was agonising, but Oc’s major concern appears to have been that he might miss the forthcoming “big show”. For two days, he fought to stay up front, but he could not disobey a direct military instruction. To his intense distress, he was ordered to a staff position and then invalided home.
He asked his sister, Violet, to reassure Asquith:
In case I may appear as a Casualty under the heading “Shell Shock”, will you please tell Father how things really stand — that I am perfectly well except for my ears, and that I do not mind Shells or any less or any more than I did before.
No doubt he was mindful of the need never to bring discredit upon his father, by now a very beleaguered Prime Minister. But he was brave too.
Others could not emulate his imperturbability. On 18th October, the publication of General Routine Order 185 indicated that the refusal to submit to military discipline came at a very high price:
12772 Private A. Botfield, 9th Battalion (Pioneers) Sth. Staffordshire Regt. was tried by FGCM on the following charge:
“Misbehaving before the enemy in such a way as to show cowardice”
The accused when proceeding with a party for work in the trenches ran away owing to the bursting of a shell and did not afterwards rejoin the party.
The sentence of the Court was “to suffer death by being shot”.
The sentence was duly carried out at 5.50 am on 18th October, 1916.
Poor Private Botfield. He was doubtless a victim of military commanders who, in 1916, were determined to instil an uncompromisingly pre-war style of discipline in the new army.
One can understand why: most officers were volunteers recruited since the outbreak of war and, increasingly, some of the enlisted men were conscripts. Given the devastating losses incurred in the Somme offensive, and the ongoing need to wage desperate war, this was no time for wringing hands and a bleeding heart.
Botfield seems also to have been a soft target. His offence had been committed near Pozieres on 21st September and evidence given in court suggested that, having already received lengthy Field Punishment sentences for absenting himself on occasions in January, June and early September, he had form.
On the day in question, the explosion of the shell seemed not to have been so terrible that there had been a general scattering of terrified men – quite the reverse: other men in his party had carried on working without trouble. The inference that Botfield had just used the opportunity to slip away seemed irresistible. His death sentence was confirmed by all unit commanders and by Haig. The execution took place at Poperinge and notification of it was published, pour encourager les autres.
War exposed citizens, in and out of uniform, to thresholds less dramatic than death, if still exacting. The diary of Signalman Stapleton Tench Eachus at Château Querrieu this week includes some pained allusions to the problems of cold and chronic fatigue:
18 October — Finished duty at 8.30 a.m. and quite fatigued. Spent the day at Pont-Noyelle, where I had dinner. Blankets have arrived today and each man is to be issued with one only. It is a positive disgrace that British soldiers should have been denied this very necessary article for so long. German prisoners are not obliged to be without at any time.
22 October — Bitterly cold night, but fine brisk sunny morning. Monsieur Frost had apparently paid us a very close visit during the hours of rest. Was on fatigues, drew rations etc from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m.. On duty 1 p.m. to 5.30 p.m.
From Rowland Feilding, who had now been confirmed in command of a battalion of the Connaught Rangers at Wytschaete, came hints of important social transitions wrought by war. In a letter to his wife on 17th October he reflects cheerfully on the heterogeneity of Kitchener’s Army:
First of all I find both officers and men magnificent — plucky and patient, keen and cheerful. Since I came here I have introduced gradually many innovations — notions I learnt from the Guards. I have tightened discipline up a lot. Inferior men might have resented it; yet I have not once encountered from any rank anything but the most loyal and whole-hearted co-operation…
Among my lot I have a successful trainer of race-horses, an M.F.H., an actor, a barrister, a squireen or two, a ranker from the Grenadiers, a banker, a quarter-master from the 9th Lancers, a doctor from Newfoundland; — members, in short of many professions; a lot of boys too young to have professions: — and a Nationalist M.P. is coming!… This morning one of my corporals killed a German and wounded another in No Man’s Land. The latter crawled back towards his line, and, as he neared it, three of his friends came out after him. My men then acted in a manner which would perhaps nowadays be regarded as quixotic so relaxed — thanks to our opponents — have the rules of this war become. They did not shoot.
The allusions are revealing: the fierce discipline of Household regiments; social exclusivity being ever-so-slowly undermined by arrivistes from the Dominions and the ranks. Feilding seems to have been quite unbothered. One senses his mind was bent only upon what it would take to win the war.
The idea of a New Model Army of roundheads (Kitchener’s Army in other words) which would annihilate a grand cavalier tradition (immortalised in the old BEF) had no basis in fact. Susceptibility to considerations of rank based on land and birth were way too deeply ingrained in the British psyche to be drummed out even after two years of war.
And cavaliers had a knack of surfacing, even when you least expected them, even among those who did not wear the epaulettes of a ruling caste. On 23rd October Sergeant Robert Downie, in an attack on Lesboeufs on the Somme with the 2nd Battalion of Royal Dublin Fusiliers, took over when most of the officers had been killed or wounded. Rushing forward on his own, he shouted “Come on, the Dubs!”, inspiring the rest to follow. Though wounded, he personally accounted for several of the enemy and captured a machine-gun, killing the gun team. He survived; and nobody begrudged the award of the Victoria Cross which followed.
The dreariness of life and its uncertainties ate into the souls of civilians. To most, gaiety seemed remote as well as inappropriate. The greater expenses of life in wartime also mitigated much chance of enjoyment. The Board of Trade now issued figures relating to the increased cost of living since the war had broken out, and F. A. Robinson – an obsessive compiler of facts – dutifully typed them into his diary:
The average increase in the retail price of the principal articles of food between July 1914 and September 1916 was 65 per cent. Granulated sugar, 166 per cent; fish and eggs, over 100 per cent; flour, 66 per cent; bread, 58 per cent; potatoes, 53 per cent; butter, 54.5 per cent; cheese,53 per cent; bacon, 49 per cent; and tea, 50 per cent.
He also noted that price rises in certain Dominion countries had been less steep:
in Canada, 14 per cent; Australia, 30 per cent; New Zealand, about 19 per cent, and that if comparison were made with the state of affairs in Germany and Austria it shews greatly to our advantage. In Berlin, it is stated that the increase in food prices is 116 per cent and in Vienna 178 per cent. In Dresden, owing to the scarcity of food, they have imposed a tax on cats.
One of the most subtle shifts wrought by two years of war revolved around the relationship between adults and children. It is a hard topic upon which to generalise and, given the apparent monolith of parental authority, on one level little had changed. But the fact was that most young fathers were now at war, and that raised a few unanswered questions.
A letter from Private George Rowson, of the 19th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment, to his niece, Annie, shows a touching alchemy of tenderness, discretion and gung-ho:
You don’t know how pleased your Uncle George was to have a letter from you one morning when I was in the muddy dykes that khaki boys call trenches. I wondered whose writing this can be as I never thought of Annie writing to me but Oh I was delighted.
Since I got your letter I have let those nasty German fellows hit me with a piece of shell so I have had to come to England and I have got a real nice bed in a real nice hospital with some nice ladies to look after me. I am getting better quickly so I shall soon be coming to see you all and Annie you must tell your mother that I want to see her walking about so tell her to hurry up and get well.
I hope you have enjoyed your long holidays, but I am afraid some of the days have been wet ones and you wouldn’t have liked those. I hope your father is real well and tell him I shall be pleased to come and help him again soon.
With love from your Uncle George
Uncle George would, alas, be killed near Arras in April 1917.
In the West, the week saw further progress for the Entente. On the Somme, the British made progress north of Gueudecourt, while the French drove the Germans out of Sailly and carried the whole Front between La Maisonnette Château and Biaches. The Germans hit back mid-week, with a powerful attack on the Thiepval plateau, but it petered out. Three days later, the British advanced towards Le Sars, claiming to have captured 1,000 yards of enemy trenches.
Exhausted German troops, still in trenches before Verdun, were meanwhile deserting in such numbers that General von Lucknow had issued a special decree warning that cowardice would be shown no mercy. It was the ultimate resort of all powerful states – the right to inflict certain death upon those who refused to submit to a probable one. The fact was that the Germans were running out of materiel. Meanwhile, appalling weather with constant rain and freezing temperatures at night made trench life unbearable.
On 19th October, France’s long-prepared assault to recapture the precious Fort Douaumont began with a massive and continuous bombardment in which hundreds of shells rained down on the fort, including the 400 mm shells. These each weighed a short ton and were fired from the new super-heavy guns. Fresh French divisions were in place to attack once the bombardment ended. For the Germans inside the fort, traumatised by the noise, short of supplies and out of water, the threat of another fire in the ammunition dump was too terrifying and, on the night of 23rd October, almost all the German garrison withdrew.
Vengeance may have been sweet, but any success was relative to the great losses of earlier months, and offset by a range of Allied losses at sea.
The biggest loss of the week was the Russian dreadnought, Imperatritsa Mariya, which sank on 20th October at Sebastopol, following a magazine explosion. Two hundred and twenty-eight crewmen were killed. The British mine-sweeper, Genista, launched only in February, was torpedoed off the south-west coast of Ireland on 23rd October, with the loss of 70 men. It took a determined search by the light cruiser Adventure to rescue the twelve survivors. The Alaunia, a Cunard ocean liner now working as a troopship, struck a mine off Hastings en route from London to New York. Two crewmen were killed, but it might have been many hundreds more had not the ship been abandoned rapidly.
Two and a half years earlier, war had been sparked when a young hothead assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne. This week came a new assassination. On Saturday 21st October, Count Karl von Sturgkh, the Austrian Premier, was shot dead by Friedrich Adler.
The killing was explicitly political: von Sturgkh was a rabid conservative and the killer was the son of Victor Adler, chairman of the Social Democratic party. Conspiracy theories were rife but there is no suggestion that this young hothead was acting on anyone’s orders. Even those disinclined to overlook murder found it hard to mourn Sturgkh who had prorogued the Reichsrat (Imperial Council) in 1914, restricted rights of public assembly and imposed strict Press censorship.
Other than his family and friends, the person who was probably sorriest was the increasingly enfeebled Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Josef. The Emperor had now been on the throne for 68 years and, to treat him with an indulgence way beyond his deserts, his political intuition may have been blunted by time. He rejected the call to appoint a new head of government from the armed forces and plumped instead for a professional politician, Ernest von Koerber.
Koerber sought to decline, but appears to have been swayed by a plaintive appeal from his royal master. He later recalled:
The old Emperor half rose from his chair, deathly pale, his eyes protruding, raised his hands imploringly and cried with the voice of the tortured: “So have you no pity for me?”’
He claimed that he feared the Emperor was about to suffer a stroke and so relented.
It hardly mattered – a tin of luncheon meat would have done the job as well, or as badly. The world was drenched in blood, but even now these Ruritanian nonentities could not see it.