The Awful Truth

Poelcappelle, 1917

WORDS HARDLY BEGIN to touch the surface of what was now happening.

Abstract ideas — death, agony, waste, horror — take us some of the way. The week’s leitmotif, however, was mud, and that was not abstract at all — rather, a glaring and ubiquitous physical reality.

We know, again in an abstracted way, that Third Ypres was all about mud. We know that the autumn was unforgivingly wet, and that the drainage in the lowlands of Flanders could not support the combined deluge of rain and artillery. We know also that Field Marshal Haig had the reputation of being a tad obstinate, and his reluctance to close down the offensive at Passchendaele had done nothing to undermine this reputation.

This column, at least, has always ranged itself squarely on the side of those who have argued Haig was brave, patriotic and a consummate professional — in every respect a colossus by the side of his predecessor. Yet, when one views the events of the week which now unfolded, it is hard not to believe that, just now, his judgement deserted him.

He had been buoyed by the success of the most recent action at Broodseinde Ridge, and launched the next Allied attack on Tuesday 9th October, with the aim of capturing Poelcappelle on the lower slopes of Passchendaele Ridge. In military terms, that need not have been a bad call but when, a couple of days earlier, heavy rain had made conditions so difficult that Generals Plumer and Gough had counselled halting the campaign for the winter, Haig was having none of it. He remained convinced that the Germans were on the verge of collapse and that continued Allied attacks were essential.

General Plumer

Had that proved to have been the case, his ruthless insistence on pressing ahead with the attack now would have been treated as an example of his far-sightedness. In fact, according to Lieutenant P. King, when the attack commenced at 5 a.m.:

It was a nightmare. Often we had to wait for up to half an hour, because all the time the duckboards were being blown up and men being blown off the track or simply slipping off… going down into the muck.

The really frightening part here is the sense that commanders had allowed themselves to become submerged in some kind of hellish Wagnerian fantasy — a national triumph beckoned, and the fate of individuals no longer counted. British soldiers were given strict instructions not to stop and help any who fell into the mud but to press on regardless. Colonel H. Stewart recalled how awful it had been for anyone wounded:

Famished and untended on the battlefield… those who could not be brought back were dressed in the muddy shell holes… On the morning of the 12th many of these unfortunate men were still lying upon the battlefield, and not a few had meantime died of exposure in the wet and cold weather.

The Coldstream Guards reached and held their objective of Houthulst Forest but only with heavy casualties. A one-mile advance was achieved with 2,000 prisoners taken but the attack became bogged down and German resistance proved stubborn. Then, on 12th October, the Allies launched another attack north-east of Ypres on a six-mile front towards the Ypres–Roulers railway.

A famous letter, posted in England to avoid censorship, written by Private Leonard Hart of the 1st Otago Infantry Battalion, 5th New Zealand Reinforcements, bore witness to the immense costs of this sortie:

For the first time in our brief history the New Zealanders failed in their objective with the most appalling slaughter I have ever seen. My company went into action 180 strong and we came out thirty-two strong. Still, we have nothing to be ashamed of, as our commander afterwards told us that no troops in the world could possibly have taken the position, but this is small comfort when one remembers the hundreds of lives that have been lost and nothing gained…

Leonard Hart and a fragment of his letter

It was worse than that, in fact. During the initial attack, their own artillery barrage dropped short and opened right in the middle of them:

It was a truly awful time – our men getting cut to pieces in dozens by our own guns. I heard an officer shout an order to the men to retire… Others, not knowing what to do under the circumstances, stayed where they were, while others advanced towards the German positions, only to be mown down by his deadly rifle and machine-gun fire…

And for those who actually got to face the enemy, there was more bad news:

What was our dismay upon reaching almost to the top of the ridge to find a long line of practically undamaged German concrete machine-gun emplacements with barbed wire entanglements in front of them fully fifty yards deep! The wire had been cut in a few places by our Artillery but only sufficient to allow a few men through at a time. Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their comrades’ eyes. It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that the day was lost…

We hung on all that day and night. There was no one to give us orders, all our officers having been killed or wounded…

Hart’s rage is not hard to understand. Eight hundred and forty-five New Zealanders perished in minutes during this attack and it remains the bloodiest day in that country’s military history. Someone, as he saw it, had blundered. And yet:

the papers will all report another glorious success, and no one except those who actually took part in it will know any different.

He was right, of course. To add to his disgust, he and his comrades had come across:

half a dozen Tommies, badly wounded, some insane, others almost dead with starvation and exposure, lying stuck in the mud and some too weak to move. We asked one man who seemed a little better than the others what was the meaning of it and he said that if we cared to crawl about among the shell holes all round about him we would find dozens more in similar plight.

British stretcher bearers carry a wounded soldier in the clinging mud of Passchendaele. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

We were dumbfounded, but the awful truth remained, these chaps, wounded in the defence of their country had been callously left to die the most awful of deaths in the half-frozen mud while tens of thousands of able-bodied men were camped within five miles of them behind the lines… when we came upon them they must have been lying where they fell in mud and rain for four days and nights…

…I do not say for a moment that the…  survivors of the first attack on the Passchendaele Ridge… were physically capable of doing it, but…  it was their officers’ duty to send back and have fresh men brought up to carry out the wounded that they themselves could not carry. Perhaps they did send back for help, but the fact remains that nothing was done until our chaps came up, and whoever is responsible for the unnecessary sacrifice of those lives deserves to be shot more than any Hun ever did…

For everyone killed that day there were many more injured. The following day, 13th October, Dr Harvey Cushing, an American army field surgeon, listed some of those awaiting treatment:

Winter, E. 860594 7th Borderers, 17th Div.-penetrating cerebellar. Sitting down. Helmet on. Blown into the air. Unconscious for a time, does not know how long. Later crept back to a trench-legs wobbly — dizzy etc.

Robinson, H. 14295 1st S. African Inf., 9th Div. — penetrating rt. temporal. Wounded yesterday c. 6 p.m. Knocked down but not unconscious. Helmet penetrated. Walked 20 yards — dizzy — vomited — numbness left arm. No transport until this morning owing to mud.

Matthew, R. 202037 8th Black Watch — penetrating right parietal; hernia cerebri. Thinks he was wounded three days ago, etc. A fine, big Jock.

Hartley, J. 26th M.G.C., 8th Div. Wounded at 11 last night, not unconscious. Walked to dressing station. Thinks they had reached their objective, etc.

Bogus, 3rd N.Z. Rifle Brigade, 1st Anzac. Frontal gutter wound. In line for two nights before show began — awful conditions. Had gone 1000 yards when wounded etc.

Beattie, 7th Seaforths, 9th Div. Stretcher bearer, wounded while bringing out his third man — 4 to a stretcher — 300 yards from advanced line. Occipital penetrating(?)

Medgurck, 11th Royal Scots, 9th Div. Multiple wounds, including head etc.

Dobbie, Household Batt’n, 4th Div. Wounded near Poelcappelle some time yesterday afternoon. Adm. here 7p.m. In ‘resus’ since. Severe. For X-ray etc.

Cushing operated all day, successfully using the special magnet system to extract splinters from three of these men’s brains. One suspects, however, that their minds and souls had been shattered way beyond the restorative power of human ingenuity.

Nurses helped more than one can ever imagine. Some were fastidious in writing to the families of those whom they had tended in their last hours:

№3 Australian CCS, France 12th October:

Mr David Sutherland,

Dear Sir,

I am writing to tell you about your son, Rifleman W.D. Sutherland, 39912. He was brought into this hospital on the 8th, very collapsed, suffering from a severe shell wound in his right arm and chest which penetrated into his lungs, also one of his legs. He was immediately warmed up and made comfortable in bed, but the injury done to his lung had been too severe; he never really picked up at all, and died on the morning of the 11th. I am afraid it is not very much to tell you, but it might be some comfort to his people to know that he was in hospital where he received every possible care and attention, and that he was relieved of all his pain. I told him when he was first brought in not to worry, that I would write and tell you he was wounded, and he was very relieved. He sent his love to everyone and hoped soon to be well enough to write himself. He had no idea at all that he was dying. He was buried today in a military cemetery at ‘Nine Elms’, near Poperinghe. All his personal belongings will eventually be sent to you.

I remain, Yours faithfully, Ida O’Dayer (Sister in Charge)

In strategic terms, it was hard to decide what came next. Logistically, physically, the Allies were committed. But the ground was impassable, the opposition doughty, and — still — it was raining. Crown Prince Rupprecht called rain Germany’s greatest ally on the Western Front.

Gunner Sydney White, of the Royal Artillery, would have agreed:

The only way up from Ypres was by a plank road fifteen to twenty feet wide. All munitions had to travel a considerable distance up this plank road, and the mud was so deep that on one occasion, with drag-ropes on the wheels and something like a hundred men on the drag-ropes, it was still impossible to pull the guns out of the mud.

There was no chance of being wounded and getting a Blighty… if you were wounded and slipped off the duckboards you just sank into the mud… if you stumbled you would go in up to the waist, and literally every pool was full of the decomposed bodies of humans…

The Germans were not facing the strain of attack, but relentless bombardments imposed upon them a terrible trauma. Add to that, of course, the experience of desperate fighting and no chance of recuperative leave. By mid-October, Sixt von Arnim’s Fourth Army had suffered between 175,000 and 200, 000 casualties and it was becoming harder to find reserves to replace the dead.

Werner Beumelberg recorded later:

For half an hour on a day in a major battle it was possible to fight — the rest [was in a state of near] unconsciousness, lying in puddles of mud, occasionally endeavouring to crawl into areas that were less fired upon; the constant terror of being mutilated or killed.

The artist Otto Dix, an artillery officer in the campaign, noted in his dirty that it was just

Lice, rats, wire entanglement, corpses, blood, schnapps, gas, guns and rubbish — This is the true nature of war.

‘Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas’ by Otto Dix

Lloyd George had been for long a sceptic about the value of war waged along the Western Front, and openly mistrustful of Haig. In a move calculated to enrage the C.I.G.S., Robertson, and Haig, he now sought views of the Flanders campaign from Sir John French and Sir Henry Wilson. Then there was a meeting at Chequers on 14th October. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, noted that during the course of this the PM raised the possibility of an inter-allied War Council and permanent General Staff in Paris.

Of course Franklin Bouillon and Foch leaped at it…

Such a creation would, of course, have gravely restricted Haig’s operational autonomy. But this was office politics, and did nothing to ease the plight of a single soldier in France. What rings out most clearly here is that Lloyd George, for all his bluster of earlier in the year, was not about to take on Haig — not even now.

For the Allies, these were some of the darkest days of the war. The British armed merchant cruiser, HMS Champagne was torpedoed and sunk by U-69 in the Irish Sea on 9th October, and 58 people died. In a macabre coincidence, the French passenger ship of the same name, Champagne, was also torpedoed and sunk, also in the Irish Sea, just six days later on 15th October: 56 people were killed. The German Navy was also closing in fast upon the Russians. On 12th October, eight German dreadnoughts and other light cruisers destroyed Russian coast batteries near Riga and, two days later German warships landed detachments on the islands of Runo and Abro. The Russians attempted a retreat, but that was quickly cut off. Three thousand five hundred prisoners were bagged.

The fears of many civilians in Petrograd focused more on their own countrymen than on foreign invaders. Revolution seemed imminent and violence inevitable. People seem to have spent a good deal of time posturing, and also looking over their shoulder. After all, there was much of which to be afraid. According to Somerset Maugham:

The endless talk when action was needed, the vacillations, the apathy when apathy could only result in destruction, the high-flown protestations, the insincerity and half-heartedness that I found everywhere sickened me.

It was easier for him to take a high moral tone than for those without an exit visa. Robberies were commonplace and disorder spread easily. One newspaper reported on 11th October:

Yesterday evening a group of sailors from the crew of the cruiser ‘Aurora’ vandalized the ‘Freedom’ restaurant at 13 Kolomenskaya Street. The sailors shattered several windows, as well as smashing items of crockery and furniture. A misunderstanding between the owner of the establishment and his staff served as the provocation, with the sailors taking the latter’s side. The police did not succeed in detaining any of the vandals.

That same day in Odessa, Elena Lakier recorded:

Soldiers broke into a wine cellar in Bender and smashed the barrels of wine and spirit. They then regretted their haste and set to drinking the wine mixed with the earth from the ground where it had spilt. Almost all died later of dysentery.

Lenin, of course, was loving it. Still in hiding in Vyborg, he urged the Bolsheviks on 13th October to:

take power at once. By doing so they will save the world revolution… Delay is criminal. Victory is certain; and the chances are ten to one that it will be a bloodless victory….

Nice to know someone was upbeat, even if that someone was Lenin. At the other end of the spectrum, the German air ace Manfred von Richtofen, was still convalescing, but in the slough of despond. On 9th October, his mother expressed her worries:

To my horror I have ascertained that Manfred’s head injury has not yet healed. The bone is still exposed. Day after day he goes to a local medical aid station to have his bandage changed. He does not look good and is irritable. Previously, it seemed to me that he was like young Siegfried, the invulnerable.

More Wagner. Weariness and serious injury seem to have catapulted the young Siegfried into a petulant adolescent. When his father woke him up one day to explain that admiring visitors have arrived:

…He didn’t care to accept the ovation. He could hardly conceal his foul mood, even though all eyes were on him [as if] spellbound.

I felt sorry for the people and asked if he would be a little friendlier the next time. Manfred bolted up with an almost brusque movement, his eyes narrowed and hard [he said]: ‘When I fly out over the fortified trenches and the soldiers shout joyfully at me and I look into their grey faces, worn with hunger, sleeplessness and battle — then I am glad, then something rejoices in me…

The tally of dead for the week included the German spy, Mata Hari, born Margarethe Zelle, who was executed on 15th October. She was a figure so steeped in myth and subterfuge that the extent of her guilt is impossible to ascertain, as are the rumours that she had also spied for France as well as for Germany. She had, allegedly at least, confessed to taking German money, and President Poincaré turned down an appeal for clemency.

Her deportment in her last moments of life appears to have been more than sufficient to perpetuate her fame. Having kept Parisian audiences spellbound for a decade with her erotic dancing and exotic lifestyle, she was woken early in her cell at Saint-Lazare prison and rushed to the place of execution at the old fortress of Vincennes.

Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her…

She was offered a blindfold but refused it.

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and the lawyer stepped away from her.

So ran a report filed three days later by Henry G. Wales, the Paris correspondent for International News Service. He continued:

As she faced the firing squad of Zouaves, she did not move a muscle… She did not die as actors and moving-picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot… Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward…

God alone knows the literal truth of this. What is clear is that she received a further gunshot in the temple by way of coup de grace. As no one claimed the body of the 41-year-old, it was donated to a school of medicine in Paris and used in dissections.