THIS TIME, HAIG knew, the game might really be up. The Germans were within days — hours, for all anyone knew — of a major offensive.
It was inevitable that they would fight hard. With Americans now pouring into Europe, and the Allied blockade ratcheting up, there was no way they could survive another year. But if they could strike now, with enough force and firepower to beat off the British and French, they could still win the war. The greatest prize of all was still there for the taking.
Troops of both sides seem often to have shared a sense that the deadlock would soon be over. As one wrote, “Every German soldier on the Western Front felt that the decision of war and peace was at hand.” The Germans were riding high after Brest-Litovsk, and were famously fierce on the attack. Haig, meantime, worried about the offensive spirit of some of his own men, especially given their inexperience and conscript status. Even more, he feared not having enough of them.
The Kaiser was worried too. He had left the final planning to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, less because he wanted to, and more because they had given him no choice. He arrived at Spa in Belgium on 15th March, which was where the headquarters for the forthcoming offensive had been established. Uncertainty surrounded his arrival: he had no useful function beyond a ceremonial one, and ceremony was not exactly at the forefront of the military agenda. Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over the Grand-Hotel Britannique for their accommodation but, not unreasonably, they had no wish to spend their few idle moments in polite conversation with one of the more ludicrous Hohenzollerns. It was decided that His Imperial Majesty would live on his imperial train — which, indeed, he did, for a whole month.
Appearances of “business as usual” were maintained, even in these last days of preparations. On 12th March, the Germans attacked the Portuguese near Laventie and, on 17th March, mounted a big raid north-east of Verdun, as well as continuing their bombardment in Flanders. The Allies played along: on 13th March, a German strongpoint south-east of Polygon Wood was captured by the British, and there was a successful Australian raid on the Ypres–Comines canal. The French regained trenches recently lost on the eastern slope of Moronvilliers Ridge near Reims the next day.
But the waiting preyed on everyone’s nerves — even those of Lieutenant Colonel Feilding, then at Villers Faucon, who wrote to his wife:
March 13 We are going through a hard worrying time. We were said to be due for a great thrust this morning from our friends across the way, but nothing happened.
March 15 I got up at 2.30 this morning and marched the battalion forward to man the Reserve trenches behind Ronssoy, as counter-attacking party, against the enemy’s offensive which is still expected daily. It was very cold — the ground white with frost. At 10 a.m., no attack having been delivered, we marched back to billets.
Our artillery gave the enemy a heavy pounding for about an hour and a half, which I venture to think at least gave him food for thought…
March 16 I was up this morning at three o’clock and marched forward with the battalion to man trenches again, as yesterday. At 6.25 one of our S.O.S. rockets went up, and was followed by many others along the front. Immediately, the artillery and machine-guns opened uproariously all along the line.
Today (as have others which have passed) had been officially mentioned as the likely date for the great German effort, and all naturally thought for a short while that at last the expected had arrived. However, after half or three-quarters of an hour of deafening din, all became silent, and it was evident that it was a false alarm.
March 17 We again marched forward at three o’clock this morning to man Bois switch and the Ronssoy sunken road. It is a wearing life, and all are feeling the strain.
The strain showed in the highest echelons of Allied command, as well as in the fields. Haig wanted far more men, and bitterly resented the pressure being brought to dilute his already thinly-spread forces. When, on 14th March, the Allies held another meeting of the Supreme War Council, he and Pétain blankly refused requests to divert troops to supply the so-called “General Reserve”.
Practicalities and politics overlapped here. Haig needed the men. Lloyd George needed Haig to concede the principle that there could be British forces in France that lay beyond his direct authority. This skirmishing made life hard for the new CIGS, Sir Henry Wilson:
Douglas Haig… says he can’t and he won’t give any divisions to the General Reserve, so the thing was impossible, and he said that, if I wanted a General Reserve, I must make some more divisions and I must get more man-power. I could not get him to see the problem in any other light. I impressed on him the fact that by refusing to contribute to the General Reserve he was killing that body, and he would have to live on Pétain’s charity, and he would find that very cold charity. But I was quite unable to persuade him…
A compromise was agreed — a face-saver, more than anything else — whereby decisions were postponed until the Americans’ presence could release Allied troops for the Reserve.
It was all nonsense really: the Executive War Board at Versailles was being widely ignored. Haig had already been talking with the Minster of War, Derby, about “the serious situation as regards drafts”. He also now warned Lloyd George that, “the deficiency of men would make the situation critical by June. If the enemy attacked, our position would be worse…”
This infuriated the Prime Minister who protested that, until now, Haig had claimed that the enemy would only attack against small portions of the British Front. Haig angrily denied it. Perhaps, at the back of both their minds, were the sanguine assessments Haig had made in 1917 that it would only take “one last push” to bring the German army tumbling down.
Haig’s defence, of course, was that much had changed since then:
I now said the German Army and its leaders seem drunk with their success in Russia and the middle east, so that it is impossible to foretell what they may not attempt. In any case, we must be prepared to meet a very strong attack indeed on a 50-mile front, and, for this, drafts are urgently required.
Success in Russia did not mean peace there, of course, nor anything like it. On 12th March, the Germans landed in Finland and, on the following day, with Austrian support, they completed their occupation of Odessa.
None of the Allies wanted Germany triumphant in Germany, but nor did they want to the Communists in charge. Following the conference held in London mid-month, they issued a joint manifesto, refusing to accept the validity of Brest-Litovsk, and condemning the “unprecedented outrage perpetrated under the name of a German peace on the Russian people whose armies spontaneously abandoned the defence of the country”.
One can see now, all too clearly, the immensity of the responsibilities falling on their shoulders. While planning for the anticipated onslaught from the Germans, they had also to consider an appropriate response to news of a proposed Japanese intervention in Siberia. Geopolitical strategy and minute military planning were uncomfortable bedfellows.
The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, was much impressed by the forceful presence of French premier, Georges Clemenceau:
He said… shrewd things about Wilson’s claim to be a co-belligerent but not an ally, and to run an independent policy all over the world, while protesting if the Allies make any independent announcement, as he did after the last Versailles Conference… Old Clemenceau is a splendid, old fellow; short, very broad and solid, with a magnificent head, study, independent, honest, sincere, witty, and with a curiously boyish knack of deliberately making regular ‘enfant terrible’ observations. I have taken a great liking to him.
By contrast, the Russian leaders seemed to cope with the odium of former allies without losing sleep. On 14th March, the Congress of Soviets meeting in Moscow ratified the Brest-Litovsk treaty by 704 votes to 261.
With the Germans and Austrians now in possession of Odessa, there was a panicky exodus of Petrograd by many of the population, government leaders among them. Lenin and Trotsky now took up residence in the Tsar’s former quarters in the golden-domed Kremlin, served by his former servants. This was enough to set a few tongues wagging, and even Trotsky thought that the Kremlin, “with its medieval wall and its countless gilded cupolas, was an utter paradox as a fortress for a revolutionary dictatorship”.
It is not hard to find reasons to loathe and despise Lenin but, in the matter of material comforts, the dirt won’t stick. He and Krupskaya lived in a modest three-bedroom apartment in the Kremlin, and usually took their meals in the cafeteria. Nothing much mattered to him beyond the party and the revolution.
Such single-mindedness was remarkable. Chernov noted:
Lenin possesses a devotion to the revolutionary cause which permeates his entire being. But to him revolution is embodied in his person. Lenin possesses an outstanding mind but it is a mind of one dimension… more than that, a unilinear mind…
“Unilinear” is a bit too nice. “Desiccated” and “joyless” might be better. Faced by dissent, Lenin would erupt in rages, swearing at, and abusing, opponents. In that fervent Bolshevik heart, love took little residence. He himself acknowledged:
I can’t listen to music too often. It makes me want to say kind, stupid things, and pat the heads of people… But now you have to beat them on the head, beat them without mercy.
One wonders what he may have made of the rebuilding of the musical clock on Spassky Tower: its bells now rang out the tune of the “Internationale”, rather than “God Save the Tsar”.
Poor Nicholas — that was the least of the humiliations heaped upon him. He was still languishing nervously in Tobolsk with his family. His diary suggests that domestic considerations, patriotic fervour and religious faith all jostled for his attention:
13th March I finished Anna Karenina and began reading Lermontov. Sawed a lot of wood with Tatiana. Over the last few days we have begun to receive butter, coffee, cakes for tea and jams, from various kind people who have heard that our expenditure on food has been reduced. How touching!
15th March …How much longer will our poor Russia be racked and torn apart by external and internal enemies! Sometimes it seems I no longer have the strength to go on, I don’t even know what to pin my hopes on, what to wish for? And yet there is no one like God! Let His Sacred will be done!
The Tsarevich seems to have been cast down by boredom, poor boy:
15th March Everything the same. Did some drawing… Managed to put my boot on in the evening and went downstairs. There was a requiem service for great-grandfather at 12 o’clock. Had a compress on my toe all afternoon. Pancakes for lunch.
The Tsarina’s letter to Anna Vyrubova, sent on 15th March, is the most explicitly political:
My God! How Russia suffers. You know that I love it even more than you do, miserable country, demolished from within, and by the Germans from without. Since the Revolution they have conquered a great deal of it without even a battle. If they created order now in Russia how dreadful would be the country’s debasement… God help and save this unhappy country…
The imperial children’s Swiss tutor, Pierre Gilliard, was very aware of the monotony endured by the young Tsarevich and Grand Duchesses:
17th March Today is Carnival Sunday. Everyone is merry. The sledges pass to and fro under our windows; sound of bells, mouth-organs, and singing. The children wistfully watch the fun. They have begun to grow bored and find their captivity irksome. They walk round the courtyard, fenced in by its high paling through which they can see nothing. Since the destruction of their snow mountain their only distraction is sawing and cutting wood. The arrogance of the soldiers is inconceivable; those who have left have been replaced by a pack of blackguardedly-looking young men.
Astonishingly, Gilliard seems to have entertained the fantasy of an imperial rescue:
Never was the situation more favourable for escape, for there is as yet no representative of the Bolshevik Government at Tobolsk. With the complicity of Colonel Kobylinsky, already on our side, it would be easy to trick the insolent but careless vigilance of our guards. All that is required is the organised and resolute efforts of a few bold spirits outside.
We have repeatedly urged upon the Tsar the necessity of being prepared for any turn of events. He insists [that]… he will not hear of the family being separated or leaving Russian territory.
It is impossible to imagine that, by now, the family could have escaped a hundred yards without the dogs of war baying down on them. Even had they somehow reached another land, their pariah status seemed assured. It was grossly unfair, of course — Nicholas was a decent man, and a great deal more honourable than many of his fellow monarchs.
While the West waited for the new offensive to open up, war in the air became more intense than ever. The number of aircraft engaged in fighting over the Western Front was greater than ever: the British claimed to have disabled 223 enemy planes since 1st March, albeit at terrible cost to the lives of young pilots in RFC.
More emotively, bombing raids continued all week. There were two daylight raids by the British on 12th and 13th March, the first against Coblenz, the second on Freiburg. On those same days, Zeppelins attacked Yorkshire, and Hull was bombed with a woman killed and then Hartlepool was targeted again when eight were killed and 39 injured.
The rhetoric inspired by these events was now familiar. In the British press, when the Germans carried out raids, they were bandits and war criminals. When the British did, they were heroes and avengers. The Germans rained down terror on innocent women and children; the British confined their bombs to industrial and military heartlands. Of course, wild partisanship was as much an instrument of war as bayonets and bombs. But we need to be careful.
Louis Avery, the young Australian soldier, just on his way back to France, poured out some of the violent emotion engendered by the thought of what air raids did to civilians:
12th March This is my last night at Chatham & I am all packed up ready to leave tomorrow. While writing letters the air raid alarm sounded & the lights were dimmed. It is very difficult to see. The Zepps have passed overhead presumably on their way to London.
It is not very pleasant to think that at this very moment these heartless brutes are dropping their vile bombs on innocent citizens, women & children, many of whom will not see the light of day tomorrow. What fiendish type of humanity are these German swine?…
…For some considerable time now I have felt so fed up with the whole business that I would have welcomed the loss of an arm or leg to get back to Australia & out of it all for good… But these Zepp raids on harmless people far removed from the scene of battle has altered all that. If these good English people can take it standing up, cheerfully & bravely, well, damn it all they are not going to show me how to face up to it.
It is the authenticity of these thoughts, rather than their wisdom which we should prize.
Time seemed to be running out for the exceptional Richthofen family. German squadrons were busily trying to subvert RFC reconnaissance machines as both sides competed to gather intelligence for the forthcoming offensive. There was a particularly perilous moment on 13th March in which 35 planes of Manfred Richthofen’s squadron encountered about 20 or 30 enemy aircraft, including eleven Bristol Fighters of №62 Squadron. In the dog-fight which ensued, the Red Baron notched up his 65th kill.
His brother, Lothar, was in the thick of that particular action as well. With only 29 to his name, was anxious to make up ground. That didn’t happen. Instead, he lost a wing of his aircraft and crashed.
Manfred hastened to reassure their mother,
Thank God, he is doing very well. I visit him daily. So, please, don’t worry about anything. He is really doing very well.
He seems to have been curiously uninhibited about relaying detail one would have thought most mothers might have preferred to do without:
His nasal bone has already healed, only the jawbone has been cracked, but all of the teeth have been saved. Over the right eye he has a big gash, but the eye itself has not been damaged. On the right knee some blood vessels have burst, [and] on the left leg from the calf down, likewise some haemorrhaging. The blood that he coughed up did not come from any internal injuries; rather, he swallowed it in the crash…
Two other great fixtures in the shifting landscape along the Western Front, the Madonnas of Pervyse, came perilously near eclipse this week. From 15th March, the Germans launched a heavy and continuous bombardment as a prelude to an attempt at seizing British-held Dunkerque.
You couldn’t hear yourself think… the whole place went up, the whole line was one long roar and it went on non-stop… We slept in tiny bunks, you could touch the walls all round and the passageway from where we receive the wounded had been entirely blown in with shellfire… There were slanting cuts for air, which we stuffed with Aquascutums as there were shell splinters coming in from all directions.
Things got even worse two days later when the Germans sent a salvo of arsenic gas shells into the passageway. Having scrupulously worn gas masks during the previous days, they had — with epic poor timing — recently abandoned them because “we were nearly dead with it because they pinched your nose hard, and you breathed through a tube which dribbled down your chest”.
Miraculously, even mask-less they all survived, but one of their drivers died. Experts agreed that had pure mustard gas been used, the women would have been killed.
Whilst recovering in a Chelsea nursing home a month later, Elsie Knocker gave an interview to a Daily Express journalist:
…suddenly I felt as if a rope had been fastened round my neck. I could not breathe and was utterly helpless… My little dog, Shot, who had been with us for three years, came up and looked at me with wondering eyes. He licked my hands and then died. I don’t think that ever before I had felt I hated the enemy, but ever since my dog was gassed I’ve wanted, I’ve longed to kill a German.