FOR BELIEVERS ESPECIALLY, it was a problem. Faced by legion sadness, unspeakable terror and no prospect of anything better, what possible reasons for hope remained?
In comparison to the casual secularism of the present day, these were religious times. Most men and women had been brought up to pray, and to identify God as the source of supreme justice and mercy. Recalibrating faith around the narratives of war was not always reassuring. This problem seems to have prompted a bleak letter written by the pilot, Arthur Gould Lee, to his wife on 21st September:
Why should God grant me any special favour? The Hun I’m fighting may be calling on Him too. It isn’t as though I have any great faith in religion, but even if I had, would it divert a bullet? Anyway, how can anybody who has to fight believe in God, with all the mass killings, and with the British, French and German priests all shouting that God is on their side? How can I call on God to help me shoot down a man in flames?
No answers, and certainly no comfort, were to be drawn from the Western Front. After the battles of Pilckem Ridge, which had opened the Third battle of Ypres on 31st July, and Langemarck in mid-August, Allied casualties rapidly rose to 70,000 by the end of the month.
Haig, famously, was not for turning. The next stage of the campaign was entrusted to General Plumer who, understandably apprehensive of German firepower, had insisted on massive artillery support. This meant time was spent planning and bringing up guns which coincided with the sole period in which the weather was good enough for the ground to dry out. Predictably, it also allowed the Germans to reinforce their gun emplacements. When the opening bombardment began on 14th September, the German commander, General von Arnim, was merely confirmed in his suspicion that an attack was imminent.
At 5.40 a.m. following an intense artillery bombardment, the Allies attacked on a 14,500 yard front and had captured most of their objectives by mid-morning. For the first time in the war, two Australian divisions attacked together, covering 1,500 yards but sustaining 5,013 casualties. British losses were reckoned at 20,255, of whom 3,148 were killed.
This was all way too costly. Medical staff struggled under the shells, as the Australian, Captain Donald Coutts, recorded:
One large one landed about 100 yards from the pillbox whilst I was trying to tie a radial artery and covered us with mud and dirt. My fingers became all thumbs and I wasn’t much use for a minute or so from fright.
Losses accumulated as the fighting continued: the Australian, Major Frederick Tubb, who had won a VC at Gallipoli, in August 1915, was killed at Polygon Wood, as were the three Seabrook brothers serving with the Australian Infantry. George and Theodore were killed by a shell on 20th September and their brother, William, died the following day — of wounds caused by the same shell. Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded for heroism within a single day (18th September).
A few days later, the expected German counter-attacks arrived. Captain Harry Yoxall of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps recalled:
The three counter-attacks were preceded by the most intense bombardment I have ever experienced from the Hun in my now fairly long knowledge of this war. First they came on down the road crowded in close mass, and we scattered them by machine-gun fire. Then they tried again in more open order, supported by flammenwerfer, which fortunately never came into action. Finally in the twilight they made the most determined effort of all, after a terrific bombardment: this drove in the outpost which another regiment, passing through us, had formed in front of us, but our men held fast, used their rifles, and the attack collapsed.
As the Australian official historian, Charles Bean, wrote later:
Whereas the artillery was generally spoken of as supporting the infantry, in this battle the infantry were little more than a necessary adjunct to the artillery’s effort.
However reluctant some historians have been to acknowledge it, this battle marked a pronounced evolution in the management of trench warfare. The British were trying the new ‘bite and hold’ tactics which entailed a short advance by infantry behind a heavy artillery barrage. Once nearer enemy positions, the infantry consolidated their positions, protected all the while by a deep artillery barrage which was designed to prevent German counter-attacks.
Troops had been well drilled in the new strategy and it proved successful in the Battle of Menin Road Ridge which began on 20th September with some 575 heavy and medium guns and 720 field guns and howitzers available, equivalent to one artillery piece for every ten yards of the attack front. But there was always a body count. Private Reg Lawrence, 3rd South African Infantry Battalion, wrote that on 18th September:
We marched a mile or two along the Ypres road and through Ypres itself — majestic, though in ruins, and silent but for the echo of our marching feet on the stones. There was something unnerving about this silence, broken only by the steady thud of guns…We had very little sleep as the advanced batteries were only 100 yards behind us and the noise was ear-splitting…
We got everything ready for the fray and made our last wills and testaments. Mine was short and sweet as I had only about £10 back pay to leave….It drizzled mournfully and our spirits sank again as we started slipping in the mud and falling over each other. After keeping fine for seven days it was too bad to rain the night the attack began.
His brother Geoffrey, a subaltern with 1st South African Infantry, also remembered that mud:
We carried on until we reached our objective. This was difficult going on account of very swampy ground that had churned up by our heavy artillery fire and three times I sank to my waist and higher, and would have stayed there had it not been for the hand my men gave me…
There were no winners here:
We passed two Germans (they were hardly more than 17 years of age) clinging to each other and weeping, unable to move apparently. One of them had most beautiful brown eyes, more like a girl’s than a boy. I signed for them to go back with the prisoners, but they could only stare and moan, completely broken by the terrific blast of shell fire that had passed over them.
Four days later on 22nd September, his brother Reg was weighing the cost of the latest attack:
Of our Company only thirty-two men answered roll call. Puckrin has shell shock. Engel’s leg is broken by a shell. Hands is wounded. Roscoe is dead. I am the last and I have no companions left.
Nor was he in any mood to tolerate the usual apologias:
I see no excuse for war, unless it is in defence of home and dear ones. Otherwise it is just legalised murder conducted on a large scale. No one excuses individual murder…while in war you murder a man you have never seen, who has never done you an injury. But, of course, we are fighting for national honour. How absurd! A soldier when he bayonets a man does not nurse the nation’s wrongs in his breast.
In the interminable period building up to Third Ypres, British politicians had promised to intervene if the new offensive appeared to be failing. Bonar Law wrote to the Prime Minister, who was out of London, on 18th September:
….The only thing at all new is that, in speaking to Robertson yesterday, I said to him that I had lost absolutely all hope of anything coming of Haig’s offensive and, though he did not say so in so many words, I understood that he took the same view…It is evident, therefore, that the time must soon come when we will have to decide whether or not this offensive is to be allowed to go on.…I have no doubt that you have been thinking of nothing except the war during your absence and will come back full of ideas and they will be needed.
There is no reason to doubt that Lloyd George was, indeed, doing as Bonar Law imagined. It remains an axiom of rulers in wartime that, at any one moment, they were forced to confront a terrifying array of problems, and that upon their decisions rested the fate of any number of innocents.
Reviewing these events, it is clear that the horror and compassion of a later generation for these sufferings is unconditional. It is certainly not contingent upon nationhood, nor often on supposed innocence or guilt. On 20th September, Private Herbert Morris was shot at Poperinghe. The tragedy of his end is symbolised, to some extent, simply because we have no photograph by which we can commemorate of his short life. We do not even know his colour but, since he had been born in Jamaica and enlisted in December 1916 following a major recruitment drive in the West Indies, it seems likely he was black. He probably lied about his age in order to be accepted. He had arrived in France in April 1917 but, on 16th July, he left his detachment and was in Boulogne the following day, Fourteen days’ Field Punishment №1 were meted out as a result.
Spending hours each day tied to a stake, especially within earshot of artillery fire, was enough to deter most men. Morris, for whatever reason, once more absconded in August, this time from his camp at Poperinghe. The following day, he was found and arrested, his trial taking place on 7th September. He told the tribunal that:
I am troubled with my head. I cannot stand the sound of the guns.
Two officers gave evidence for the defence. According to Captain Russell: The accused has never given me any trouble and is a willing worker.
Morris had no prisoner’s friend to aid his defence and no medical evidence was given at the trial. This was his second offence of desertion, and leniency was hard to come by during such desperate days. Somehow, the fact that this pathetic boy was only seventeen seems never to have been mentioned. Thirteen days later, he faced the firing squad.
His tragic fate deserves to be resurrected, but it is easily overlain by desperation which seemed to overtake everywhere. On 23rd September, the French troopship, SS Medie, was sunk in the Mediterranean by the German submarine, UCM-27, north of the Algerian coast. Of the 626 on board, 250 perished.
Further east, the war spluttered on chaotically, with German infantry unsuccessfully attacking Lemburg, east of Riga, on 19th September. In Moldavia, the heroic Romanian resistance continued the next day when they were attacked unsuccessfully in the Susitza Valley. Two days later, an indignant message from the Russian Orthodox Church Council was sent to the Provisional Government, demanding protection and safeguarding from criminal violations by evil individuals not only of the freedom and welfare of the cloisterers, but also of the integrity and property of the monasteries themselves.
They protested in vain. Seizure of private land and the murder of its owners had proliferated ever since Lenin’s calls for ‘Peace, Bread & Land’, and these extended to religious properties and personnel. Much worse lay ahead.
To many western eyes, Russia was characterised increasingly by anarchy. To others, it was its quirkiness which shone out. Recently arrived in Russia, the American socialist John Reed, now near Riga, mused on the catholicity of ordinary soldiers’ reading matter — social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol and Gorky:
We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue though their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, ‘Did you bring anything to read?’
The Italians were proving more useful members of the Entente. As the Eleventh Battle of Isonzo ground to a halt, they collected a further 200 prisoners on the Carso on 18th September. There were rich pickings also for French and Albanian troops who raided Austrian positions in the Skumbi Valley in Albania and captured 400 prisoners two days later.
A more miscellaneous achievement, although met with great excitement at the time, also redounded to an Italian. On 24th September, Captain Marchese di Laureati flew from Turin to London non-stop, a distance of 650 miles in just seven hours and 22 minutes. Good news of any kind was grabbed eagerly.
Yet the essence of war was that one man’s good news was another’s tragedy. British aeroplanes were critical in the latest battle around Ypres, flying over the battlefield and helping to direct artillery fire. Following an extraordinary dogfight, the brilliant German ace, Leutnant Werner Voss was shot down on 23rd September. That same morning Voss had led Jasta 10 against a flight of de Havillands that were bombing German positions in Hooglede, near Roulers. Voss brought down one of the two-seaters scoring his 48th aerial victory. It would be his last. During an early evening later that day, he encountered some of the best British pilots.
One of these, James McCudden, recorded what happened in the tones of a comrade-in-arms:
I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who, singlehanded, fought seven of us for ten minutes. I saw him go into a fairly steep dive and so I continued to watch, and then saw the triplane hit the ground and disappear into a thousand fragments, for it seemed to me that it literally went into powder.
Another talented pilot, Arthur Rhys Davids, was credited with downing the German. Voss was buried at the crash site near Frezenberg where fighting was continuing. Tributes poured in from all sides for his bravery and skill, led by McCudden: His flying is wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he was the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see.
Aerial war continued to engulf civilians. Another panic-inducing Gotha raid took place late on 24th September, when thirteen of the sixteen planes that had set off dropped bombs on Dover and other places in Kent, killing five and injuring eleven. Five reached London and hit a range of targets: Stoke Newington, Bayswater, Green Park, Dean’s Yard in Westminster, Islington and Highbury. Damage was caused to the famous Royal Academy in Piccadilly but the deadliest bomb fell on Southampton Row, killing thirteen people in the doorway of the Bedford Hotel and wrecking properties down the street. In total, 21 died and over 70 were injured during the raid.
It would be more than twenty years before radar was invented. In 1917, aerial defence was a haphazard affair. Anti-aircraft guns had been improved and now they sent up a wall of fire but it looked more impressive than it was. Pre-empting the attack was what counted. Failing that, one wanted to find the raiders and beat the hell out of them. The RFC sent up 30 planes to pursue the bombers this time, but they failed to sight any one of them. That, unsurprisingly, added to the choking grief of the times.
Back in Flanders, the incomparably fine Lt Col Rowland Feilding of the Connaught Rangers had just returned to his command, having been invalided home in July following a bad riding accident. As well as returning to duty, he resumed not only his military duties, but also his letters home. Once again, the reflections of a man of unruffled decency, someone who abounded in quiet charity and compassion, were set down for his family and, as it transpired, for later generations. On 20th September, he included the following extract from a letter written by a German officer.
If it were not for the men who have been spared me on this fierce day, and who are lying around me and looking timidly at me, I should shed hot and bitter tears over the terrors that have menaced me during these hours. On the morning of September 18, the dug-out, containing seventeen men, was shot to pieces over our heads. I am the only one who withstood the maddening bombardment of three days and still survives. You cannot imagine the frightful mental torments I have undergone in those few hours. After crawling out through the bleeding remnants of my comrades and the smoke and debris, and wandering and fleeing in the midst of the raging artillery fire in search of a refuge, I am now awaiting death at any moment. You do not know what Flanders means. Flanders means endless endurance. Flanders means blood and scraps of human bodies. Flanders means heroic courage and faithfulness, even unto death…