The Nearness Of God

HOW THE MIGHTY had been ground down.

The German assault on Verdun had been big-canvas stuff — towering assaults and rapid movement on a wide front. No longer. Now they focused on local attacks — sometimes as a riposte to French actions, as at Douaumont and Vaux; sometimes because some spot, the crest of a hill, typically, was deemed to possess tactical value. But they struggled to make headway. The poilus threw them back northwest of Thiaumont Farm on 9 May, at Mort Homme 24 hours later, west of Vaux Pond and south-east of Haucourt in the days which followed.

None of which meant that the killing let up. A twenty-four-year-old theology student from Leipzig, Johannes Haas, wrote to his family on 13 May:

Here we have war, war in its most appalling form, and in our distress we realise the nearness of God. Things are becoming very serious, but I am inwardly unalarmed and happy … I do not fear the Judgement.

This effusion was no doubt authentic. As death came to dominate the thoughts of the combatants, such resignation was certainly not typical. The French Jesuit priest, Sergeant Paul Dubrulle, wrote:

Having despaired of living amid such horror, we begged God not to have us killed — the transition is too atrocious — but just to let us be dead. We had but one desire; the end!

The reality of modern warfare was something which soldiers longed to communicate to those left at home, albeit often in a sanitised version. A letter sent on 10 May from Captain John Staniforth in the Leinster Regiment dwelt on the intensity of the world which lay just below ground:

You’d step down into a trench, and that would be your last breath of open country for sixteen days, if you were staying with us. The rest of your time would be spent in a world of moles, burrowing always deeper and deeper to get away from the high-explosives: an underground city with avenues, lanes, crescents, alleys and cross-roads, all named and labelled and connected by telegraph and telephone. ‘No.3 Posen Alley’ was my last address, and you reach it via ‘Piccadilly’, ‘Victoria Station’, and ‘Sackville Street’

The contrast between apparent quietude and lurking danger was a theme picked up by the Grenadier and future Tory Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, in a letter to his mother written three days later:

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about a modern battlefield is the desolation and emptiness of it all … Nothing is to be seen of war or soldiers — only the split and shattered trees and the burst of an occasional shell reveal anything of the truth. One can look for miles and see no human being. But in the miles of country lurk (like moles or rats, it seems) thousands, even hundreds of thousands of men, planning against each other perpetually some device of death. Never showing themselves, they launch at each other bullet, bomb, aerial torpedo and shell. And somewhere too (on the German side we know of their existence opposite us) are the little cylinders of gas, waiting only for the moment to spit forth their nauseous and destroying fumes. And yet the landscape shows nothing of all this — nothing but a few shattered trees and three or four lines of earth and sandbags, these and the ruins of towns and villages are the only signs of war anywhere visible. The glamour of red coats — the martial tunes of flag and drum — aide-de-camps scurrying hither and thither on splendid chargers — lances glittering and swords flashing — how different the old wars must have been!

While the experience of battle was still confined to men, nurses in France and Belgium knew more than enough to understand fear. The week saw Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisolm on a fund-raising tour in Britain, but their minds were all on Pervyse and the travails of their patients. Miss Knocker, now the Baroness de T’Serclaes, told an audience in Dundee that being under shell fire was “not at all pleasant … you don’t feel one bit brave, you are all taut, and if you are hit you suffer dreadful nerve shock”.

Moved by the women’s bravery, donations rolled in. In Cheshire, the Heroines of Pervyse Fund was set up and locals wanted to support Belgium, the “gallant little country” suffering at the “hard hand of a relentless foe” by sending comfort foods. Gift Days were instituted on the first Saturday of the month to collect donations of tea, cocoa, turtle-soup cubes, jelly squares, soap, chocolate, toffee, Bovril, and biscuits or cakes in tin boxes. The Belgian Funds Committee, besides money, offered “woollen underclothing, scarves, socks, mufflers, chocolate, tobacco, cigarettes, pipes, shirts, soap, biscuits, sweets, paper and envelopes”.

Such comforts were appreciated, but necessarily threw into relief the huge gulf between the experiences of soldiers and civilians. The British Army was thinly spread, with too few men fighting on the ground, and too many fronts upon which they were active.

After a spate of Zeppelin raids, the need to beef up national aerial strength was also widely recognised. One problem (a very British one) was administrative. Back in February, an attempt had been made to co-ordinate the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service but it had quickly been degenerated into a turf war. Now, on 15 May, a new Air Board was created under the chairmanship of Lord Curzon in an effort to streamline production and maximise effectiveness.

Another impediment was technological: Fokkers were armed with guns which fired through the propeller, a bit of wizardry already responsible for felling many Allied airmen. The French had countered with a new aircraft the Nieuport 11, known as Le Bebe, and volunteer American pilots also now appeared on the scene. Where, in all this, was Britain?

Yet spatchcock flying machines were in many ways the least of her problems just now. In Ireland, the short-lived Easter Rising had ever so briefly waxed before it had succumbed to an overwhelming display of British might. Enough, one might have thought — but in the second week which followed the immediate suppression, British authorities continued to indulge a mood of vengefulness.

There was no remotely good explanation for such self-defeating behaviour — bile and gene, perhaps, that the moral vacuum at the heart of the Union had been exposed. But the voices of conservatism were clamorous: according to the Daily Telegraph: the leaders of the rising have thrown up the sponge…for this revolt there was not the slightest scrap of justification. There was no nation to deliver, for Ireland is free.

The Irish typically viewed their country as under foreign occupation, just as was Belgium for which the British (and thousands of Irishmen) had gone to war. Padraig Pearse had clearly enunciated the alternative view, writing:

Bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.

Roger Casement, knighted by the British, and now awaiting trial in London, had written:

Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself.

The emergency produced a rare harmony between leaders who, in spite of disagreeing about almost everything else, at least perceived Irish feelings. On 4 May, the Nationalist John Redmond, and Ulster Unionist, Sir Edward Carson, had both called for moderation in dealing with those involved in the uprising. As the Telegraph reported:

And so the House, which had cheered — and loudly cheered — the Prime Minister’s earlier announcement that three of the rebel leaders had been promptly court-martialled and shot, murmured its approval of this joint appeal.

In Dublin, however, moderation was not on Sir John Maxwell’s mind. For him, the rebellion was treacherous and treasonable and rebels should be punished with the full weight of the state. Twelve rebels had already been shot; on 9 May, Thomas Kent was executed in Cork Detention Barracks. He had not taken part in the rebellion but was accused of intending to — an uncomfortably radical interpretation of the law, especially when accompanied by the supreme penalty. The context had been a raid on Kent’s home, during which a policeman had been shot dead and his brother, Richard, fatally wounded. Kent was held responsible for the death of the policeman but, as news seeped out about the paucity of evidence and the lack of defence counsel, public disquiet escalated. Talk about spatchcock: due process and procedure seemed to have been jettisoned without a backward glance. While the accused were allowed to call witnesses in their defence, embarrassing lapses emerged when they did so — in one case, an embarrassed official was forced to explain that the person in question had been shot that morning.

Two of the Proclamation’s signatories yet remained alive: Sean MacDiarmada, a polio victim, who had initially taken an extra hour on the march to Richmond Barracks as his walking stick had been confiscated; and James Connolly, seriously wounded and lying in Dublin Castle hospital. The two men were sentenced to death on 9 May and were at least given time to see relatives. MacDiarmada, young, handsome and popular, was well known as he had travelled the country as the chief organizer of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He told his siblings: “I have been tried by court-martial and sentenced to death — to die the death of a soldier. I feel happiness the like of which I never experienced in my life before, and a feeling that I could not describe…You ought to envy me”.

On 10 May, the London Daily News published a letter from George Bernard Shaw, the most famous Irishman in England. He maintained that:

It is absolutely impossible to slaughter a man in this position without making him a martyr and a hero, even though before the rising he may only have been a minor poet …The military authorities and the British Government must have known that they were canonising their prisoners. But they said in their anger: “We don’t care; we will shoot them; we feel that way.” Similarly the Irish will reply: “We knew you would; you always do; we simply tell you more or less politely how we feel about it.”

Even a century later, it is impossible to find fault with Shaw’s brisk, unflattering analysis.

The following day, in the House of Commons, the Irish nationalist MP, John Dillon, claimed the government was “washing out our whole life work in a sea of blood” and warned, prophetically, that “this series of executions is doing more harm than any Englishman in this House can possibly fathom”. Ireland had always been good for stirring up emotions in Westminster and he proceeded to compound outrage and affront by asserting” “It would be a damned good thing for you if your soldiers were able to put up as good a fight as did these men in Dublin”.

This reads less well. Dillon was angry and his provocations presumably made him feel better, but were hardly persuasive. Moreover his assertion that “in the whole of modern history … there has been no rebellion or insurrection put down with so much blood and so much savagery” does not withstand cool scrutiny. But when he concluded that what was needed was “not a Military Service Bill” but to “find a way to the hearts of the Irish people”, he was bang on the money. It was an enduring tragedy that so few were listening.

Asquith paid a surprise visit to Dublin, arriving on 12 May, partly because he despaired of finding a new Chief Secretary and felt he had to do the job himself, even temporarily. He arrived to find that MacDiarmada and Connolly had been executed at dawn that morning. Connolly had been brought to the stonebreakers’ yard at Kilmainham Gaol on a stretcher and tied to a chair. When the accompanying priest asked him to pray for the soldiers about to execute him, Connolly had replied: “I will say a prayer for all men who do their duty according to their lights”.

Each nation throws up its sports who seem devoid of the inhibitions and frailties borne by ordinary men and women. An extreme version was the Danish-born Richard Meinertzhagen, who had already bumped off quantities of the enemy over the previous twenty months and acquired in the process a richly-earned reputation (depending on your perspective) as a hero, blood-drinker or psychopath.

Meinertzhagen was fighting with a British/South African force under Generals Smuts which was still being baffled by the elusive Von Lettow-Vorbeck. On the night of 9 May, at Kondoa Irangi, they managed an encounter with the Germans as he described:

An enemy machine gun crept up to within thirty yards of us and opened from behind some rocks. We could not dislodge it, so we led out a platoon and smothered it, bayoneting all its personnel. I ended up using my stock as a club — with disastrous results — for my stock broke, but it was great. The South Africans behaved splendidly: quite steady, quiet and collected. Their fire discipline was perfect. The enemy were yelling orders and trying to rally for a final rush, and I could distinctly hear words of command in German.

In the ensuing hand-to-hand fighting, shrouded in darkness, Meinertzhagen knocked out an opponent with his own weapon and:

By 3 a.m. all was quiet. As soon as we could see I returned to examine my victim and was surprised to find he was a German officer, a man called Kornatsky, a company commander. His head was well battered in and I retained his knobkerrie, a handsome bit of native work, half black and half brown and beautifully balanced. It was a first real knock Von Lettow had. My God, I should have liked to have caught old Von Lettow instead of poor Kornatsky.

While the pathetic remnants of the Irish rebellion bloodily foundered, the thousands of men taken prisoner when the siege ended at Kut-al-Amara were now being driven into captivity on a forced march through the desert heading for Turkey. This was another kind of suffering, no less terrible and apparently just as unavoidable. Some officers had it better than others, but the contemporary accounts they left make for grim reading.

Captain Lecky’s diary for early May stated:

Half the inhabitants of Kut were either shot or hanged, and before we left the trees were dangling with corpses. Whole of Division is rotten with cholera, and men are dying like flies.

Captain Edward Mousley of the Royal Field Artillery, who had been compelled through hunger to eat his own horse in the last days of the siege, wrote:

We tingled with anger and shame at seeing on the other bank a sad little column of British troops who had marched up from Kut driven by a wild crowd of Kurdish horsemen who brandished sticks and what looked like whips. The eyes of our men stared from white faces, drawn long with suffering of a too tardy death, as they held out their hands towards our boat.

As they dragged one foot after another some fell, and those with the rearguard came in for blows from cudgels and sticks. I saw one Kurd strike a British soldier who was limping along. He reeled under the blows. We shouted out, and if ever men felt like murdering their guards we did …

The padre (the Rev. H. Spooner) was awfully good and diligent in assisting men, but, nevertheless, from out of the night one heard the high Indian wail, “margaya, sahib, margaya” (“dying, sahib, dying”). For the most part British soldiers stayed with their friends until they were dead. I saw some of the finest examples history could produce of British soldiers’ self- sacrifice for and fidelity to his friend.

Anyone reading these words, and blessed to live in another time, can only be moved. Yet these were people who belonged to the nation which, at this same moment, so grievously mishandled the Irish. Again and again the war would show that the propagandists’ attempts to depict all virtue as belonging to one nation, and all vice to another, was fatuous — and doomed to fail.