Something Which Is Lost

Kaiser Wilhelm II inspecting troops in Riga

EVENTS WERE SPINNING beyond anyone’s control. Certainly that was true of Russia, in which rhyme and reason had been discarded, in the wake of millenarian madness. Military and political crises, both of which had afflicted the nation for months, now assumed new momentum.

The fall of Riga presaged defeat at the hands of the Germans and a full-scale invasion of the motherland: Russian troops fell back 30 miles along the Riga-Petrograd road. On 5th September, the enemy captured 7,500 of them. The next day, an exultant Kaiser Wilhelm enjoyed a day out in Riga, reviewing his troops.

At this dark moment for Russia, the authority of its Provisional Government lay in tatters. Probably, it had never had much to begin with. After the fall of the Tsar, the urban bien-pensants had briefly championed it, but most of them were political halfwits who spoke for no one but themselves. No doubt they would have had an easier life had Lenin never been allowed to ride across Germany in his sealed train, but their failure to tackle the Bolsheviks was a drop in the ocean compared to others. Russia had had it with the war but it was only Lenin who had dared say it. Premier Kerensky’s intense emotionalism and nervous energy had become an irrelevance as well as an embarrassment.

Just now, Kerensky’s biggest problem was not Lenin but Lars Kornilov, Commander-in-Chief of an army which, until a few months earlier, had owed its fealty to the Emperor. Kornilov was old school, but not a hopeless reactionary. To his understanding, the lamentable series of defeats which Russian forces had recently suffered owed less to German military genius than to the fact that her troops no longer obeyed orders. For centuries, the ability to brutalise the masses had been the sine qua non of Tsarist authority, to the despair of liberals all over Europe. Since the March revolution, the worm had turned. Political illiterates they may have been, but even the most backward of the backwoodsmen knew that their world had not changed.

Russian prisoners in Riga march off to captivity

Now Kerensky faced defeat at home as well as abroad. On 5th September, the British Ambassador in Petrograd, Sir George Buchanan, received an approach via an intermediary from “several important financiers and industrialists” who were confident of the support of Kornilov and an army corps for an imminent uprising. He was told that this would probably take place on 8th September when “the Provisional Government would then be arrested and the Soviet dissolved”. The group wanted Britain to assist by “placing British armoured cars at their disposal and by helping them to escape should their enterprise fail”.

Buchanan (he really was old school) must have enjoyed this:

I replied that it was a very naïve proceeding on the part of those gentlemen to ask an Ambassador to conspire against the Government to which he was accredited and that if I did my duty I ought to denounce their plot. Though I wouldn’t betray their confidence, I wouldn’t give them either my countenance or support. I would, on the contrary, urge them to renounce an enterprise that was not only doomed to failure, but that would at once be exploited by the Bolsheviks. If General Korniloff were wise, he would wait for the Bolsheviks to make the first move and then come and put them down.

Rather de haut en bas. Ordinary Russian citizens reflected on events despairingly. On 6th September, Nikita Okunev in Moscow wrote:

News reaches us from Berlin that the capture of Riga is celebrated there with flags, church bells and dismissal of students. Look at that: they achieve victories and learn, and here school ended on May 14th and will not start again before September 3rd. There were finally elections to the Duma in Petrograd, based on a revolutionary method. They discovered complete apathy of 60% of the population – it didn’t participate in elections. The result was good for the socialists…

Next day, on 7th September, Kerensky’s predecessor Prince Lvov arrived at Stavka in Mogilev and sought out General Kornilov with a view to getting him to behave and put his weight behind the government. It looked like a doomed enterprise, since Kornilov had already expressed the view that Kerensky was “a feeble man who gets easily influenced by other opinions, and who, of course, has no skill in his profession”. Nor did he change direction now, demanding Lvov

let Kerensky know that, according to my knowledge, they are preparing a Bolshevik demonstration in Petrograd, in the nearest days, and that an assassination attempt on Kerensky was being planned.

These political ructions were not unknown to Russia’s allies. Alfred Knox, the Head of Britain’s Military Mission in Russia, was terrified that Russia was about to drop out of the war and pleaded that day for his government to send an urgent Note of support to Kerensky. Lloyd George appears to have been hedging his bets, and confined himself to a series of meaningless effusions. He urged supporters in Birkenhead:

…far from despairing of Russia, to look forward in hope to her recovery and to the great part she will take before this war is over in emancipating the world from the menace of Prussian militarism.

Fine words butter no parsnips. The next day, on 8th September, Kerensky received demands from Kornilov to set about:

1  Declaring a state of emergency in Petrograd

2  Transferring all power in its entirety, military and civil, to the Commander-in-Chief

3  The resignation of all ministers, including the chairman, and handing over temporary control of the ministries to deputy ministers, until the Commander-in-Chief has formed his cabinet.

Kerensky had had enough of Kornilov and immediately appealed to his Cabinet for total powers “to put an end to Commander-in-Chief Kornilov’s anti-government offensive as soon as possible”. That evening, he fired Kornilov and, the following morning, imposed martial law on Petrograd and its region. Using the same time-honoured clichés invoked by desperate leaders through the ages, he called on

all citizens to maintain complete calm and order necessary for the rescue of the motherland. I call all officers of the army and navy to self-sacrifice and the calm fulfilment of their duties in the defence of the motherland from her external enemy.

Of course, in his own eyes, Kornilov was a patriot, and Kerensky the imposter. That made his next step easy:

In view of the grave circumstance in which the country and the army currently find themselves, I decided not to surrender my duties…

Which meant, in practice, he wanted power for himself – and a few like-minded chaps. On 10th September, word came that Kornilov was marching on Petrograd with some of his troops and he was only 20 miles from the city.

Kornilov, 1917

Desperation seemed to have infected the Germans as well. This week, they started bombing hospitals: at Verdun, Red Cross stations were bombed during the night of 4th September and, the following day, a French hospital, and three British ones at Vadelaincurt on the Meuse,were also hit, killing 19 patients and injuring 26 others. On the same day, air raids over the British lines resulted in 37 being killed and a further 43 wounded – who all happened to be German prisoners. On 7th September, American hospitals near the coast were also targeted: three more died and ten were injured. An American aviator, Major Charles Biddle, met staff of the Pennsylvania Base Hospital and

Dr Packard told me the Boche had bombed the hospital two out of the last three evenings.

At first they thought it was a mistake, but when they kept it up it became apparent that there was no mistake. This is a big field hospital in white tents and with lots of red crosses plainly visible… A bomb had landed on a cook shack about twenty yards from Dr Packard’s tent. The cook’s leg came through the roof of the tent next door and the guy-ropes of Dr Packard’s tent were decorated with his entrails…

The problem with pointing the finger of blame too stridently was that the hinterland of battlefields was crowded with army camps, ammunition dumps and depots, all legitimate targets – and hospitals were often stationed next to them.

There was no doubt at all, however, that the bombing of civilians in London on 4th September was deliberate. Coming as it did on the back of the devastating bombing raid on the Kent coast, emotions now ran high. Eleven Gotha bombers took off one by one from their bases in Belgium and, although only five reached the capital (mechanical problems and anti-aircraft fire having exacted attrition), they proved devastatingly effective.

The first released its bombs on West Ham and Stratford at around 23.35 and the second dropped its load between Greenwich Park and Woolwich just before midnight. The third offloaded a 50kg bomb at Oxford Circus and another fell near the Strand. A hotel opposite Charing Cross Hospital was hit and when an off-duty RFC officer ran into the building to offer assistance he saw two Canadian soldiers sitting dead in their chairs. As he recalled later:

One had been killed by a piece of the bomb which went through the back of his head and out of the front of his Army hat, taking the cap badge with it.

More bombs fell in Victoria Embankment Gardens and on the Embankment itself, narrowly missing Cleopatra’s Needle just as a tram was passing, but killing the driver and two passengers. The last dropped bombs on Wanstead, Tottenham, Highgate and Kentish Town, where a woman and child were killed in Kentish Town along with a soldier on leave. By the time the five bombers had finished, 19 people had been killed and 71 injured.

The Sphinx: a casualty of the bombing raid in London, 4th September 1917

This first night-raid on London badly shook civilians whose nerves, after three years of war, were already frayed. The fact that they each succeeded in returning back to base without incident compounded a sense of burning injustice and of impotence. It did not help that, three days earlier, Scarborough had once again been shelled by a submarine, leaving three killed and six injured.

Making sense of what was happening along the front line on the Western Front at this moment confounded many contemporaries. There was no shortage of private soldiers and junior officers who felt the small-scale attacks and raids were expensive and ultimately pointless. Lieutenant George Horridge described one such assault by battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers which took place early on 6th September:

Our objective was a German pillbox called Borry Farm. My Company was detailed to stop in the front line and our headquarters were in a pillbox… When the time came, Captain Tickler’s Company got out of their trenches and advanced at a walk. Nothing happened until they’d gone about 100 yards – then all hell was let loose. We were getting crossfire from both sides as well as from the pillboxes in front. Well, Tickler’s Company advanced and I’m afraid he lost a lot of people. They never took Borry Farm and Tickler himself got behind a bit of high ground. He sent a message back to send stretcher bearers to an officer who had a leg blown off and was very badly wounded…

Towards the evening, Tickler withdrew his troops, what was left, it was quite hopeless. Then, strangely enough, the Germans and ourselves seemed, by instinct, to stop fighting and our and their stretcher bearers could go out in No Man’s Land. We could see each other and nobody fired a shot, nobody took any notice, we just went collecting the wounded. That’s how the battle ended.

Of the 140 men involved in this battle, only 40 returned. It was only one incident among the many which conspired to make the week a difficult and costly one for the British, whose detachments pressed back near Frezenberg (Ypres) on 6th September and made only painstaking and costly progress elsewhere: 600 yards of ground were gained on 9th September at Villeret, north-west of St Quentin and another 400 yards of trenches there the following day. By contrast, the French did rather well. By the time the third offensive at Verdun was declared over on Sunday 9th September, they had regained all ground they had previously lost. On the Meuse, they attacked again on 8th September and, as well as bagging seized Fosse, Caurières and Chaume Woods, took 800 prisoners and then repulsed a German counter-attack the following day.

A German soldier resting on a track between Ypres and Passchendaele

The American commander in France, General Pershing, preparing his troops for war, seems just now to have been living a life based almost exclusively on ceremonial engagements. He had established his headquarters at Chaumont but continued to work in Paris, and his days consisted of an exhausting schedule based on meeting military and political leaders, representatives of medical organisations and the Red Cross, while also sitting for his portrait and taking French lessons.

On 6th September, Pershing left Chaumont at 6.45 to get to Gondrecourt where his First Division was stationed. He welcomed Pétain and other French commanders and then, as his diary related:

the President of the Republic and the Minister of War arrived soon afterward on a special train. A battalion of the 47th Division of Chasseurs were present at the station to receive them. Went to plateau near Houdelaincourt where the First Division was reviewed by the President… After the review the officers of the Division were assembled and President Poincaré made them a short speech and the officers turned out three cheers for the President of the Republic. We then took President Poincaré to see the temporary barracks at Houdelaincourt and the billets at Bainville thence went with him to the station. Returned to Chaumont about noon…

All well and good but, given that no actual fighting by the Americans had yet taken place, this reads a little awkwardly. One of the oddities of war – this war, certainly –  was the extent to which high pomp and great ceremony persisted in the face of all that was terrible.

Or perhaps it was not odd at all: there was comfort to be drawn from soldiers drilling in perfect formation, from the procession of dignitaries, to displays of religious grandeur. Almost everyone was living in a state of high tension, and moments of catharsis were necessary. The knack was to ensure these were allied to the war effort.

In the case of the Welsh, catharsis found particular expression at the National Eisteddfod, held in Birkenhead on 6th September. This was something that Lloyd George, ever a proud Welshman, passionately supported. In 1916, when some had criticised holding such an event as unpatriotic in time of war, he had delivered a barn-storming speech defending the festival and its singing: “Why should we not sing?…Let us sing of the land that gave birth to so many heroes.”

For the 1917 festival, competitors had been invited to enter an ode on the subject of “The Hero” in Welsh strict-metre. Lloyd George and his wife were on the platform when it was announced that the winner was Hedd Wyn, who had been killed in action in France on 31st July, the opening day of the Battle of Passchendaele. Hedd Wyn, the Bardic name of the shepherd-poet, Ellis Evans, had already secured fame for being second in the 1916 National Eisteddfod. The poet’s parents now stood with the Prime Minister as the Bardic Chair that now belonged to the dead poet was solemnly draped in black cloth. It was a moment of high emotion, witnessed by the many thousands there.

As Hedd Wyn had written a year earlier:

The lads’ wild anguish fills the breeze.

Their blood is mingled with the rain.

The complexities of war meant statesmen had constantly to turn their mind to any number of unexpected circumstances, and to calibrate (sometimes on the spot) a measured response. There was a hard call for President Wilson this week when it was discovered that the Swedish Legation in Buenos Aires had allowed a German diplomatic agent to use its telegraph facilities to send messages to Berlin.

Sweden was supposedly a neutral power, and one of the transmissions had given the sailing date of Argentine ships, recommending that they either be spared or sunk without trace. Wilson was livid, especially when rumours spread that the dates when Allied ships set out had also been communicated. There were 400,000 tons of neutral shipping currently in US ports, and he now started seriously to contemplate seizing the lot. In its editorial of 10th September, the Daily Telegraph called the subterfuge by the Germans “a fresh revelation of the insane wickedness and the baseness which it is the task of the Allies to stamp out”.

Buenos Aires in 1917

Fulminating against the enemy was what newspapers did – individuals did too, of course, but the demotic of public discourse sometimes seems to have become stuck in a timewarp dating from August 1914. The longer war endured, however, the more reason there is doubt that civilians bought into the hating as fervently as the newspapers suggested. Cynthia Asquith, the tireless diarist and daughter-in-law of the former Prime Minister, had been desperately worried for months about her close friend and admirer, Lord Basil Blackwood who had been declared missing after an action with the Grenadier Guards on 3rd July. When the news which she had most feared arrived, it was desolation that overpowered her – not hatred.

Monday 10 September  …telegram from the Crown Princess of Sweden… saying that Basil had been killed at Buesinghe, which is the name of the place where he was missing. This must be accepted as final – it has come at last.

In theory I didn’t have much hope, but the gulf between the tiniest doubt and the stark certainty is much greater than I expected. All the same, I am grateful for this long phase of uncertainty. I don’t know how I could have borne it all at once. I do think that being a little weaned from daily intercourse before one knows for certain that it is never to be renewed is a gain – it helps to strengthen my already strong impression of the distinction between something which is merely inaccessible and something which is lost.

To use a hackneyed expression, I have felt him so ‘close’ to me all these weeks. He has been dead all the time; so why shouldn’t that feeling always continue?

“Why shouldn’t that feeling always continue?” Lady Cynthia Asquith