The Least Of My Little Ones

IRELAND IN AUGUST 1916 was Britain’s Palestinian problem — intractable, ensnared in mutual uncomprehension and deep mistrust of its neighbour.

General Maxwell was still in charge and martial law was ongoing. Had the British proved less trigger-happy, the Easter Rising might conceivably never have caught the imagination of the population. But the rash of executions and the internment of suspects had succeeded brilliantly in fashioning a cult of martyrdom, an injured sense of occupation and a widespread enthusiasm for the nationalist cause which, four months earlier, had been almost unimaginable.

Compassion for the executed leaders showed no signs of abating, a fact for which Maxwell indignantly blamed the Catholic clergy. He noted that police reports were “full of the doings of the priests all over the country. Their sermons … fan the feeling of sympathy amounting to martyrdom for the killed rebels.”

A more immediate problem was the fate of interned prisoners, thousands of whom had been rounded up immediately after the Rising, locked up without trial and sent, usually in cattle ships, to gaols in England. Prisoners’ aid societies flourished, again with priests as catalysts. That was another beef of Maxwell’s: he deplored the Fathers being “foremost in promoting subscriptions for the families of those who suffered, and for the families of deported rebels”.

The British authorities weren’t so much indignant as overwhelmed. The numbers of internees were so great that there was serious overcrowding in English jails like Knutsford, Stafford and Wakefield.

Contempt for the Irish had a long and ignoble history on the British mainland, a fact borne out by brutality meted out now to those who fell foul of the prison authorities. Bob Holland was kept in solitary confinement for two weeks:

I thought a hundred times I would go mad — then I would wish to be mad, anything to replace the hunger and loneliness and darkness. I was sorry I had not been killed in the fight. I was glad that others had been executed — they had been relieved of prison torments.

In fact, military guards turned out to be “with one or two exceptions, very decent men”. Many of the Irish prisoners were tortured, however, by thoughts of what might have been. Michael Collins, in Stafford, described “the dreadful monotony, the heartscalding eternal brooding on all sorts of things, thoughts of friends dead & living, especially those recently dead, but above all the time, the horror of the way it refuses to pass.”

Rough justice might, to an extent, be seen as a fact of the times. Injustice was different. Of the 2,519 deported by Maxwell, hundreds were innocent civilians who had neither participated in, nor sympathised with, the rebellion. They had been deemed guilty by association or, at best, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Logistical and administrative pressures now encouraged a righting of that wrong and, eventually 1,804 of the original complement were transferred, in batches, beginning in June, to the wilds of the Welsh countryside.

A former whiskey distillery at Frongoch, near Bala, had been turned into a holding camp for captured German prisoners, some of whom were still there when the first Irishmen arrived. They warned the newcomers of the harsh conditions in the two camps, South and North Camps, the former oppressively hot in summer, the latter extremely cold in winter. The Irish immediately dubbed them Purgatory and Siberia.

For many, the countryside was a welcome change from the ‘high walls, cold cells and clanging doors’ of the penitentiaries and reminded them of West Cork and Connemara.

One commented acidulously:

I am certain that there is nowhere in Connemara as remote, as lonely, as cold and as dreary … despite the fact that the town of Bala … was only three miles away and had a population of over a thousand, we scarcely saw a man or a stranger passing by.

Michael Collins wrote:

Up to the present it hasn’t presented any good points to me … We sleep in an ‘ut (this is the regulation name) the dimensions being 60 long, 16 wide and 10 foot high in the middle. Not too much room to spare! Of course when we’ve made roads etc. the place will be much better. But the cold at present is — well not too pleasant even now, but I cheer them all up by asking them — what’ll they do when winter comes.

What indeed? Bill Mullins of Tralee recalled:

We were prisoners, and they could do anything they wished with us … We had been imprisoned without trial. We knew not when we would be released.

Irish MPs kept up the pressure by tabling questions to ministers during July and August and the rare visitors permitted also raised concerns about the camp conditions and management.

Determined to run their own captivity, the prisoners set about politicising (that is, radicalising) all detainees — a brilliant device to alarm the authorities. The more egregious proselytes (these included two famous future Mayors of Cork City, MacCurtain and MacSwiney) were rapidly transferred to Reading Gaol — but replacements were easily found.

The Sankey Tribunals, which had begun in late June and would end on 28 August, can be seen as a reflex of alarm by the British at the prospect of Irish fifth columnists spreading poison through the British penal system, as much as reflecting a wish to right a wrong. Having heard 1,846 cases, Sankey ultimately recommended release in all but 573. The British authorities were delighted to see the back of them, but feared the loss of face entailed. In the event, those freed tended to be dumped on the Dublin quayside — without notice and in the small hours of the night.

They were the lucky ones. Life in Frongoch deteriorated further under the new commandant, Colonel Heygate Lambert. Nicknamed “Buckshot” by the prisoners, he was rumoured to have claimed that “he would have discipline in the camp even though it was filled with nothing but dead bodies”.

Countess Markiewicz, the controversial revolutionary whose death sentence had been commuted to penal servitude, was also languishing in a British prison, having just been transferred from Mountjoy in Dublin to Aylesbury. She now wrote now to her sister — the pacifist, poet and suffragist, Eva Gore-Booth — describing how she had just seen her face in a mirror for the first time in three months and failed to recognise herself.

She continued:

It is queer and lonely here, there was so much life in Mountjoy. There were sea-gulls and pigeons, which I had quite tame…and little boys splashing in the canal and singing Irish songs, shrill and discordant but with such vigour…Here it is so still and I find it hard to understand what anyone says to me, and they seem to find the same trouble with me.

On the mainland of Europe, the week exacted its customary toll. Very often it was hard to tell who was winning, but it was certainly not the Austrians who were in headlong retreat in the east. The Russians had taken 8,500 of them prisoner in Stanislau back on 10 August and continued to inflict heavy punishment in western Galicia.

Florence Farmborough, a former governess in Moscow who had become a nurse in a Mobile Field Hospital, now came across a fresh battlefield near the river Dniester:

The dead were still lying around, in strange, unnatural postures — remaining where they had fallen: crouching, doubled up, stretched out, prostrate, prone … Austrians and Russians lying sided by side. And there were lacerated crushed bodies lying on darkly stained patches of earth. There was one Austrian without a leg and with a blackened, swollen face; another with a smashed face, terrible to look at; a Russian soldier with legs doubled under him, leaning against the barbed wire. And on more than one open wound flies were crawling and there were other thread-like things. I was glad Anna and Ekaterina were with me; they, too, were silent; they, too, were sorely shaken. Those ‘heaps’ were once human beings: men who were young, strong and vigorous; now they lay lifeless and inert; shapeless forms of what had been living flesh and blood. What a frail and fragile thing is human life!

Like her nursing compatriots in other theatres of war, Farmborough identified strongly with her own side. She and her companions were cheered by evidence of the rapid retreat of the Austro-Hungarian armies, something which led her to suggest the enemy was at the point of collapse. Lay assessments of military strength were seldom of much value, but her belief that Italy would be in an even stronger position to inflict defeat on the Isonzo was not irrational. Indeed, the Italians captured Austrian trenches east of Gorizia in the first half of the week, and had the upper hand in artillery actions on the upper and lower Isonzo.

The Habsburgs were also under the cosh further south. A general Allied offensive began in Macedonia on 20 August, in part in reaction to Bulgarian advances and to the occupation of various Greek forts on 18 August. As part of the shady diplomacy in which statesmen indulged, even in the darkest days of war, the Allies continued negotiations with Romania. The aim was to get her to join the war on their side and her agreement join a Military Convention with the Entente Powers in Bucharest on 17 August was a good portent. But this was realpolitik rather than the milk of human goodness: Romania had her eye on territorial acquisitions.

Diplomacy was hard-nosed, whereas courage was ultimately personal. News was now released to an enthralled public of the latest exploits of Albert Jacka, arguably the most famous and popular Australian soldier. He had already won the VC for acts of phenomenal bravery at Gallipoli, and now showed at Pozieres he had lost none of his elan.

Returning to his dugout on 7 August after a reconnaissance, he had found the enemy rushing down the trench where they had killed two soldiers with a grenade. Whereas lesser men might have at this moment sat back, he now stormed up the firestep, firing as he went and discovered Germans rounding up Australian prisoners. With just two men in support (and how the layman’s heart goes out to them), Jacka now charged the Germans, shooting or clubbing them with his gun, being wounded in the process but inspiring the captives to fight back. Around fifty Germans were then taken prisoner and the line was safely restored. 23-year-old Jacka would receive the Military Cross for what Charles Bean described as “the most dramatic and effective act of individual audacity in the history of the Australian Imperial Force”.

The vexed question as to whether the exceptional exertions made by the British since 1 July could possibly be worth their modest gains of land was now aired by commanders — with a scrupulousness which may surprise sceptics. Haig was pinning considerable hope on the imminent arrival of the tank — the secret weapon which had been months in preparation, but which had not yet materialised in any number. He had been promised 150 would arrive by the end of July, but this figure had now been revised downwards and he was told on 11 August that even the smaller contingent would not be delivered until 1st September. He noted, with commendable self-restraint:

This is disappointing as I have been looking forward to obtaining decisive results from the use of these “Tanks” at an early date.

Joffre was also pressing him for another joint operation. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff Robertson wanted to know how much longer he intended to keep the offensive alive.

Haig replied:

I expect to be able to maintain the offensive well into the autumn…It would not be justifiable to calculate on the enemy’s resistance being completely broken without another campaign next year.

These words merit a second look. They threw open the possibility of another major effort for September and suggested that the Somme campaign may never have been intended to be a knock-out blow. That had been perhaps a fantasy spun for home-consumption rather than a blueprint. Haig was a practitioner in the art of the slow grind and was looking towards a German defeat in 1917.

The exhaustion of men in the forces seems to have been among the King’s concerns as well. He had now returned from his week-long visit to the front and penned a tribute on 15 August :

Since my last visit to the front there has been almost uninterrupted fighting on parts of our line. I have had opportunities of visiting some of the scenes of the later desperate struggles, and of appreciating to a slight extent the demands made upon your courage and physical endurance … Do not think that I and your fellow countrymen forget the heavy sacrifices … ~The arms of the Allies will never be laid down until our cause has triumphed.

In and among the guff, there lay a subliminal exhortation to hold tight.

There was a moment of potential great excitement at sea during the week. Tipped off by the Admiralty decoders in Whitehall’s Room 40, the British Grand Fleet put to sea on the evening of 18 August. Their job was to chase German submarines which were probably on their way to bombard Sunderland but HMS Nottingham was torpedoed and sunk by U-52, with the loss of 38 crewmen. Shortly after HMS Falmouth was attacked with the loss of twelve men and a further thirteen wounded.

That was enough for Jellicoe who now ordered a return to base rather than continuing to expose his ships to the depredations of the U-Boats. The German High Seas Fleet also retired. It marked a disappointing end to a bad week. Three days earlier, two submarines, E4 and E14, had been engaged in anti-submarine training exercises off Harwich when they accidentally collided and sank. The 32-strong crew of E4 were all killed and 16 were lost from E14 from which some survivors were picked up. Later, both submarines were salvaged and returned to service — an example of the unsentimental realities of war.

The historian must confront these brusqueries, while noting that human sensibilities persisted in the midst of all horrors. Spiritualism had become a desperate expedient for many as they sought to maintain contact with loved ones lost in action. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an aficionado — not something which would have earned him the approval of his Jesuit educators, had he been looking for it.

Cynthia Asquith was also in deep mourning for her 18-year-old brother, Yvo, who had been killed in October 1915 after only a few weeks at the front. Those born into privilege and wealth were no less protected from sorrow, and no less desperate in their grief.

Her diary for the week notes:

17 August I had some conversation alone with Helen Campbell … She had written me an extraordinary letter to say they had been doing table-turning at Knebworth, and the name Yvo Charteris had been spelt out. When a message was asked for, the sentence ‘I question duty night and day’ was given. They asked who it was for, and the answer was ‘Mother’. They inquired if there was anything more and ‘Kiss her’ was spelled out. Then Helen had been too upset to go on.

A less contentious way to commune with the ‘Lost Generation’ was to write about them. Lady Ettie Desborough had completed her book about her two ‘golden boys’, Julian and Billy Grenfell, both killed in action within weeks of each other in 1915. She had privately printed 250 copies of Pages from a Family Journal 1888–1915 and, on 21 August, sent a copy to Arthur Balfour, close friend of the family and now First Lord of the Admiralty, writing that “Above all people, I wanted you to have it”.

Never, never, losing sight of the personal. That alone rescued dignity. A poignant illustration of this came in a letter this week from Kresten Andresen. It was sent from Guillemont , an area in which attack and counter-attack had destroyed the woods and villages and left a mass of stinking corpses.

My good, dear friend Peter Ostergaard — I can’t understand why he should fall. How many sacrifices are being demanded of us. Rasmus Nissen is badly wounded in his legs. Jans Skau has lost both his legs and is wounded in the chest. Jens Christensen from Lundgaardsmark is wounded. Johannes Hansen from Lintrup is badly wounded. Asmus Jessen from Aarslev – wounded. There is no one left now: Iskov,Laursen, Norregaard, Karl Hansen — they are all gone and I am almost the only one remaining.

His recollection is important in more ways than one. Andresen was from southern Jutland, which had been part of the German Empire since the annexation of the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg back in 1864. He and his friends were German citizens but Danish-speakers and fought together. Some ethnic/national minorities had welcomed the war since a demonstration of loyalty and service was considered an opportune way of gaining more respect. Many Jews chose this path — those in Germany with more success at the time than in Russia where anti-Semitism was rife. German newspapers had carried many stories of German Jews who had left Palestine and travelled back to Germany, often with difficulty, in order to volunteer. Given later history, the pathos is atrocious.

A glimpse of this same mindfulness also surfaced this week at Etretat, where Edith Appleton somehow managed to continue her diary. Her everyday preoccupations were immense: German submarines were in evidence, the port had been closed for a few days, and her Matron was on the sick-list with an over-strained heart. But she always rose above the everyday: on 20 August, she wrote of Lennox, her slowly, but inexorably, weakening patient:

Poor Lennox is even worse — only his heart and eyes are alive, but all the rest of him is dead, poor dear.