Royally shafted

The taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917

SO MUCH RESTED on what happened now.

Nobody had qualms  -  of course –  about launching an offensive which would prove rapidly to be colossally successful. But Verdun and the Somme cast long shadows.

Official despatches back then had talked of resolve undimmed, of hearts undaunted and so forth. But, in their hearts, allied commanders struggled to believe that the German Army could ever be put to flight.

Perhaps that was the great usefulness of Nivelle, the bumptious and untested French commander. As the time for his new offensive loomed, he brimmed with confidence, and ignored every sign that might have given him a more sober spirit for reflection and doubt –  not least revolution in Russia, and the parlous state of affairs on the Italian front. Elan was the thing, he told Micheler: “No consideration should intervene of a nature to weaken the elan of the attack.

What did that mean in practice, his colleagues wondered?

The character of violence, of brutality and of rapidity must be maintained,

he told them. 

It is in the speed and surprise caused by the rapid and sudden eruption of our infantry upon the third and fourth positions that the success of the rupture will be found.

More élan, anybody? A younger Nivelle

His colleagues seemed more restive than reassured. A conference was held on 3rd April in which the Minister of War, Painlevé, outlined his objections and that of other French commanders. Nivelle was obdurate and, on 5th April, after another day of listening to the naysayers at Compiègne, he threatened to resign. There followed a brief impasse, during which his critics reflected that, if they were as unhappy with his ideas as they now seemed, they should have acted weeks earlier. If they blocked him now, France would be seen to be running scared. Unsurprisingly, their objections subsided.

So - the new offensive beckoned. News of the prospect of battle quickly spread. While many were cast into gloom, Siegfried Sassoon glowed with satisfaction. Back with the Royal Welch Fusiliers after his earlier illness, he and his men marched 40 miles in a few days to join the forces gathering around Arras:

April 7 …I don’t suppose anyone would believe me if I said I was absolutely happy and contented… my feeling of quiet elation and absolute confidence now is something even stronger than last summer’s passionate longing for death and glory… This battle may be nothing at all, or it may give me a fine chance. I only hope we are in the forefront of it. Sitting in support and getting shelled is no fun at all. I may even be left out, awful anti-climax for the hero!

The men seem very cheery and have done the forty-odd miles well. These occasions when soldiers are on the verge of hell always seem to show them at their very best…

A six-inch gun of the Royal Garrison Artillery firing over Vimy Ridge

The next day, the preliminary bombardment began, a terrifying cacophony which soaked up some 2.6 million shells. This was the prelude to the British diversionary attack on Arras, planned as an attack along a broad front, between Vimy in the north-west, and Bullecourt in the south-east. The intention was that it would draw German reserves away from the main assault made by the French against the Chemin des Dames ridge.

On 9th April, according to Colonel David Rorie with the 51st Highland Division:

Day was just breaking and the dawn was illuminated with the long line of bursting shells, to which the golden rain and coloured SOS rockets of the enemy lent a strangely picturesque variety of colour. The noise was terrific with the continuous whistling scream — like a furious gale of wind — of the thousands of heavy missiles going over us to the enemy’s lines, and the thunderous drumming of their arrival.

Vimy Ridge was a sharp escarpment, strongly fortified. The three German divisions which currently held it enjoyed a bird’s eye view of Canadian positions below. Mindful of that, the Canadians had developed the pre-existing warren of tunnels underneath to the extent that 11,000 men could be moved in safety. Light railways had been laid and hospitals and ammunition stores installed.

At 5.30 a.m., the attack to clear the Germans off the ridge began. A creeping barrage was employed, protecting the troops’ advance more effectively than during the Somme, but the weather was appalling –  troops went over the top in a freezing blizzard. It was no fun for the Germans, either, many of whom were captured in their trenches as they sheltered from the snowstorm and shelling.

The view from Vimy Ridge after its capture

It made for a surreal spectacle. Nicholson recalled:

Walking, running and occasionally jumping across No Man’s Land, the men followed closely the whitish-grey puffs that marked the exploding shrapnel of the barrage. Co-operating aeroplanes swooped low, sounding their klaxon horns and endeavouring to mark the progress of the troops in the driving snowstorm.

There was also, unfortunately, mud. According to Lieutenant Colonel Peck:

Going forward the mud was terrible. In one place I had to get out of my boots, climb on the bank of the sunken road and then pull out my boots after me.

Instead of the massed ranks of infantry at the Somme, platoons were now led in diamond formations formed of four groups: grenade throwers, Lewis gun operators, snipers and riflemen, and rifle-grenade launchers. Unfortunately for the attackers, the Germans had also sought to apply lessons learned from past mistakes: the bulk of their defending forces were kept in the rear, for one thing, with just a few forward strongpoints.

This was to be the only time in the war in which all four Canadian divisions fought together. By day’s end, they had succeeded in taking most of the ridge and two German lines had been captured. These were phenomenal achievements, but they did not come cheaply. They took 14,000 casualties and earned seven VCs, just on that one day. In stark contrast to British troops the previous summer, the Canadian rank and file, as well as officers, had been briefed fully about the nature of the attack and the enemy’s defences, and also supplied with maps.

Canadians returning from Vimy Ridge

Sassoon, still at Basseux, noted in his diary:

April 9  Weather windy and cold, with snow-showers and fine intervals. The usual pre-operation-orders, restlessness and forced gaiety. Everyone talking very loud about successes reported from the line — ‘our objective gained’, ‘5000 prisoners’, and so on. I try to be serene through it all — and get into a corner and read Far from the Madding Crowd in a desultory way.

The cold weather does its best to take the heart out of one — and I’ve got my usual sore throat and no clean handkerchiefs or socks. A bloody life. Mail today — mine including little India-paper edition of Keats bound in green vellum. [A present from Lady Ottoline Morrell.]

Back with his Connaught Rangers, now near Locre, Lieutenant Colonel Rowland Feilding seemed vague on detail, but could hear the noise of battle and noted:

The enemy has knocked over the last outstanding fragment of Ypres Cathedral. When I looked yesterday from the fire-trench for this great landmark, it had gone.

Remnants of Ypres Cathedral

Feilding’s alertness to beauty never left him, fittingly so for a man so alert to the feelings of others. Nature proved a consolation and an inspiration to many soldiers on all sides, if only because it gave evidence of life and renewal in the midst of death and destruction. Indeed, this was exactly the theme which dominated Edward Thomas’s last letter to his wife on 8th April:

So good night: Edward Thomas RIP

The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks. But the sun shone and larks and partridge and magpies and hedgesparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us… One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice — days of ten times the ordinary work too. So good night and I hope you sleep no worse than I do…

The following day, Easter Monday, he was killed at his observation post. The blast of air of a passing shell stopped his heart and he fell without a mark on his body.

At last, some said. At last. On 6th April, America entered the war.

Whereas, the Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the people of the United States of America; therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust on the United States, is hereby formally declared.

America’s provocations, measured in terms of tonnage and lives sacrificed since the start of unrestricted submarine warfare, had been intense. But even so, this final commitment marked a massive cultural and political leap of faith. America had only come into existence less than 150 years earlier. The Civil War, fought only 50 years earlier, had been an agonising exercise in its own right, testimony to the nation’s struggles for self-definition.

Woodrow Wilson in a self-consciously historical pose

The USA found it far harder than most Europeans realised precisely because she was a nation in her own right and towards Europe she entertained feelings of profound ambivalence. While America’s leaders and white population was overwhelmingly of European extraction, their ancestors had generally come to America in the first place because the old world had displeased them –  or they it. They were also aware of the extent to which their burgeoning wealth and importance had made the nation a focus of attention and envy among those by whom they had felt often despised.

For nearly three years, these considerations had allowed America to stay on the sidelines: she was rich enough, she believed, not to mind who won or lost. That calculus had been thrown into doubt. Her leaders believed now that a German-dominated Europe threatened her trade, her safety –  indeed her fundamental identity.

James W. Gerard, a former Ambassador to Germany, considered:

I believe that we are not only justly in this war, but prudently in this war. If we had stayed out and the war had been drawn or won by Germany we should have been attacked, and that while Europe stood grinning by: not directly at first, but through some Central or South American State to which it would be at least as difficult for us to send troops as for Germany. And what if this powerful nation, vowed to war, were once firmly established in South or Central America? What of our boasted isolation then?

Perhaps because the moment had been a long time in coming, public emotion ran high. The historian, James Duane Squires, wrote later:

… the American people launched themselves into the war with an emotional hysteria… [I remember] attending a great meeting in New England, held under the auspices of a Christian church… A speaker demanded that the Kaiser, when captured, be boiled in oil, and the entire audience stood on chairs to scream its hysterical approval.

American Boy Scouts celebrate the start of war in April 1917

Some young Americans were already serving in medical and ambulance units. Dr Henry Potter of the 3rd Harvard Medical Unit recorded in his diary:

Our chief feeling is one of relief that the suspense is over. We had a little jollification tonight. An orchestra, punch, and lots of toasts…

Some of these raced off to Paris, to swap the life of an ambulance driver for that of a combatant soldier in the US army.

But, for all her immense resources and potential, the United States was –  by comparison to Europe –  a military minnow. Her Navy and Marine Corps had precisely 54 aircraft, 48 officers and 239 enlisted men. The US Army Aviation Section had fewer than 300 aircraft, none of the combat type, and only 35 qualified pilots. Some of the best American pilots had already gone as volunteers to France and served with distinction in the Escadrille Americaine, and of these many had been killed.

Hindsight, of course, leaves us in no doubt that the arrival to the United States was a seminal moment in the greater story of the war. It did not always seem so at the time, even to those who were well-informed. King George V’s diary suggests he, at least, was distinctly underwhelmed:

April 7  Windsor Castle. Six degrees of frost in the night. The United States declared war against Germany yesterday by a large majority in the Congress: 375 to 50.

Note that the event is recorded only after giving consideration to the weather. This was England, after all.

While Britain and France were preoccupied by the parallel dramas of Vimy Ridge and America’s arrival in the war, revolution in Russia made her an increasingly implausible ally.

The Provisional Government vows to stay in the War

It should not have been thus. On the one hand, the new Provisional Government created a War Committee –  which certainly sounded as if they were in the war for the long haul. It was also busily engaged in the kind of worthy statute-making to gladden the hearts of liberals everywhere. Anti-Jewish legislation was repealed and legal and religious restrictions of all kinds were abolished –  all laudable, if long-overdue in the eyes of most. On the other, its authority was nugatory, beyond a few enclaves within Petrograd and Moscow. It could make whatever legal pronouncements it liked, but its ability to implement them was open to grave doubt.

The fact that it had nailed its colours to the mast on the matter of Russia’s continued involvement in the war was reassuring to Russia’s allies. It was enough, however, to bring them into headlong conflict with exiled Bolsheviks and to make many political agnostics at least thoughtful. The Germans were delighted by this evidence of internal dissent and decided it must be capitalised upon speedily. On 9th April, in a train provided by the German government and with safe passage guaranteed to Russia, Lenin left Switzerland with his wife and a large group of supporters.

Chafing to return home: Lenin, April 1917

Talk about reaping the whirlwind. Churchill, never a chum of revolutionary Marxism, wrote later of

the desperate stakes to which German leaders were already committed… [turning] upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia.

In its weakness, the Provisional Government was quite unable to stem the odium being directed at the former Tsar and his family. The now-liberated press was peppered with lurid tales about the Tsarina and Rasputin, and with accounts of the “private lives” of the Tsar’s four daughters written by their “lovers” –  a horrible calumny. A dinner menu, allegedly from the palace, was described as “typical” and published to show the hungry in Petrograd how “Nikolasha” and his family were feasting on “caviare, lobster soup, mushroom patties, macaroni, pudding, roast goose, chicken pie, veal cutlets, orange jelly, pork chops, rice pudding, herrings with cucumber, omelette, rissoles in cream, fresh pineapple, sturgeon”. Cartoons depicted Nicholas clapping his hands with joy as he watched the hanging of a political prisoner, and Alexandra bathing in a tub filled with blood, saying “If Nicky killed a few more of these revolutionaries, I could have such a bath more often.”

Rather like the anti-Semitic ravings of the Nazi Press two decades later, the importance of this tosh lies only in what it tells us about its readership. There was a blood-lust here and, to give it a veneer of legitimacy, rumours abounded that “Citizen Romanov” and “Alexandra the German” were planning to betray the country in exchange for German help in restoring the autocracy. The Petrograd Soviet now repeated its demands that the ex-Tsar should be incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress before standing trial.

The ex-Tsar in a reflective mood

Vengeance apart, there was no possible reason for this. The ex-Tsar and his family were going nowhere, being under house arrest and living behind locked doors at the Alexander Palace. On 3rd April, Alexander Kerensky, the Minister for Justice, arrived at Tsarskoe Selo and reassured the ex-Tsar about his family’s safety. The Provisional Government was clearly worried about their safety, but was also terrified to do anything which might direct public opinion against itself. Evidence that this last point was gaining the upper hand comes when, only six days later, just as the family began their fast for Holy Week, Kerensky returned. This time he was less accommodating: the imperial couple was ordered to live separately, only meeting for prayers and meals, while the Tsarina was investigated for her alleged “treasonable, pro-German” activities.

It would have been rather nice had this been the moment when George V stepped up to the plate and offered his unhappy cousin a home. It is impossible to know, of course, but it seems very probable that the Provisional Government would have, just then, been able and willing to let the Romanovs go.

Instead, as is well known, they were shafted  – royally so. On 6th April, the King’s Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour

Every day the King is becoming more concerned about the question of the Emperor and Empress coming to this country. His Majesty receives letters from people in all classes of life, known or unknown to him, saying how much the matter is being discussed, not only in clubs but by working men, and that Labour Members in the House of Commons are expressing adverse opinions to the proposal.

As you know, from the first the King has thought the presence of the Imperial Family (especially the Empress) in this country would raise all sorts of difficulties, and I feel sure that you appreciate how awkward it will be for our Royal Family who are closely connected with both the Emperor and Empress…

The King desires me to ask you whether after consulting the Prime Minister, Sir George Buchanan should not be communicated with, with a view to approaching the Russian Government to make some other place for the future residencies of their Imperial Majesties?

On His Majesty’s Service: Lord Stamfordham

There was enough here, one would have thought, for Balfour to get the idea. But, only a few hours later, came another letter on behalf of an anxious King:

…opposition to the Emperor and Empress coming here is so strong that we must be allowed to withdraw from the consent previously given to the Russian Government’s proposal.

The British royal family has long had an instinct for self-preservation, but there was far more at work here than that. The King wanted, more than anything, to save Britain from public unrest and insurrection at a time of war. The presence of the Tsar and Tsarina threatened exactly that.

If one wants to look for an example of unedifying self-interest on the part of the high-ups, however, one need look no further this week than to the Prime Minister.

On 7th April, Lloyd George and his family attended the wedding of his son. The young man in question, Richard, was in the Royal Engineers and had fought at the Somme, later developing trench fever which hospitalised him in Bath. It was during this time that he had met and fallen in love with Roberta McAlpine, daughter of the wealthy businessman. The Prime Minister made no secret that he would have preferred a girl from the valleys to the daughter of a cement magnate, but there were some areas on which even he had to accept he could not dictate. There was a grand wedding at Bath Abbey but the wedding breakfast which followed, a strictly teetotal affair, was testimony to paternal authority.

Details of this patriotic self-denial were carefully leaked to the Press. Away from public view, however, the Prime Minister was very careful to protect those of his comforts about which he cared most. He had spent the previous weekend in the arms of his mistress, Frances Stevenson, his secretary at №10, and her diary recorded that:

…he was very tender & kind & bucked me up again. I feel as though I ought not to mind when he is busy & cannot pay me very much attention, but I suppose I am only human and I get depressed. But he soon puts me right again.

Frances Stevenson