The Old, Old Story

Scottish soldiers guarding prisoners, 1918

WINNING OUGHT TO have been fun. But there was no sign of that. Rather, sorrow and bitterness accrued — strong emotions in which all protagonists shared.

Austria-Hungary collapsed this week, and so did Turkey. Germany continued to fight, but mainly because the people who ran its army abominated the idea of a ceasefire. They were now engaged in a war of their own — less for the soul of Germany, than for the levers of political power.

But it was only a matter of time. Allied progress on the Western Front had assumed an apparently unstoppable momentum. On 29th October, the French successfully attacked on a seven-mile front north-west of Château Porcion. By 4th November, they had reached Le Chesne.

The Americans were doing better too. On 1st November, along with the French, they resumed their great offensive between the Aisne and Meuse in the Argonne Forest. General Liggett, now in charge of the First Army, presided over a success which was more unequivocal than any Pershing had to date managed. Perhaps that was a consequence of troops becoming more seasoned or because, unlike his predecessor, he softened up the enemy first with a blistering artillery bombardment. Pershing, recovering from flu, noted tersely in his diary that the attack was “carefully planned and prepared. Everyone knew his task and did it well”.

You bet they did. Four thousand prisoners and 40 guns were captured.

There was other good news too for the Americans. Until now, the Germans had been intercepting their signals with relative ease. Nineteen Choctaw Indian were now posted to communication centres, charged with disseminating all military intelligence in native Choctaw and, obviously, translating it into English as occasion demanded. It seems rather an olde-worlde approach by the side of the Bletchley Park cryptographers two decades later, but the Germans were duly bamboozled.

Also on 1st November, the British reached the outskirts of Valenciennes at which point the last great battle of the war, the Battle of the Sambre, began. The Canadians took the town, a key strategic point, the following day, while the Germans retreated in the Argonne Forest.During the next 48 hours the Canadians took 1,800 prisoners and counted more than 800 German dead — their own losses during the same period were a tenth of that. Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, was insisting the pressure on the Germans must be relentless, and so it was. On 4th November, yet another offensive opened, with the British First, Third and Fourth Armies, along with the French, attacking on a 30-mile front east of the Scheldt.

Canadians in Valenciennes, November 1918

The full scale of the disintegration of the Central Powers climaxed this week on the Southern Front. There were squalls of Austrian resistance, as when a joint British–Italian force found themselves facing some stiff resistance on the Monticano on 29th October, but these were straws in the wind. The next day, Italians advanced between Upper Brenta and the sea, taking 33,000 prisoners. Fiume was surrendered to the Croats by the Hungarians and, on 1st November, the Austrians were in full retreat from the Venetian Alps.

Retreat was a predictably bloody affair. On 28th October, a flight of four Camels from 28th Squadron began low-level strafing of Austro-Hungarian infantry and supply wagons attempting to retreat towards Udine. The exercise continued for 48 hours and left a trail of dead soldiers and horses, and of burning and wrecked vehicles. Strafing had by now evolved into a highly effective aerial weapon, although it was unpopular with pilots: in contrast to the remoteness of aerial bombardment, or to the adrenaline-filled intensity of a dogfight, pilots had no alternative but to witness at close hand the suffering and death they were inflicting. Although Emperor Karl had been chafing to get out of the war almost from the moment he had arrived on the throne, the drive for peace which now convulsed his Empire owed everything to defeat rather than to any will of his own. The Austrian Fleet was now handed over to the new Yugoslav Council on 31st October, and the Danube flotilla to the Hungarians.


Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary

Even so, the appalling truth, to which the Habsburgs were only now waking up, was that any negotiated settlement might be elusive. Italy was enjoying this moment far too much. On 29th October, the Austrians had sent a delegation carrying a flag of truce, but the Italians booted it into touch, claiming it lacked proper credentials. In succeeding days, they concentrated on grabbing territory they considered rightly theirs, as well as indulging in the traditional spoils of the victor — collecting any booty on which they could lay their hands.

The vacillations of statesmen and diplomats had become an irrelevance. Revolution now broke out in Vienna and soldiers deserted in their hundreds, making their way home. In the case of Austrian troops, the moot point was whether home still existed, for newly independent nations which were springing up all around them and Czech, Polish, Croat and Hungarian troops, similarly stampeding, were impatient to stake their claim in the new order.


Italian troops in Trento on 3rd November, 1918, after the Battle of Vittorio Veneto

Catastrophe on this scale was bound to be traumatic, especially for those with a stake in the status quo ante. Kurt Wittgenstein, an officer in the Imperial Army, was one of many who shot himself in despair. His more famous brother, Ludwig, a decorated soldier, had returned to the front in late September and now became one of 500,000 prisoners taken by the Allies, and found himself holed up in prisoner-of-war camps, from which he would not be released until August 1919. One British officer recorded of the captured Austrian officers that:

They seem to have been given orders to retire without firing a shot and were told that there was an armistice 24 hours before we were. Consequently they were very unhappy at being called prisoners of war. Generals of Division with all their staff were brought in absolutely heartbroken, poor fellows…

Final victory, following the battle known as Vittorio Veneto, was a moment of legendary sweetness for Italy. It was a nation only fifty years old, but many of its citizens were united by an historic resentment of the Habsburgs which long predated that. On 3rd November, the armistice between Austro-Hungary and Italy was signed, but only after Italy had seized the port of Trieste.

Battle of Vittorio Veneto

Habsburg humiliation was not, of course, confined to Italy. On 30th October, Serbian soldiers reached the Danube and, two days later, many now barefooted, re-entered Belgrade. In under seven weeks, they had marched four hundred miles and driven the Bulgarians and Austro-Hungarians out of their land. Over half the male population had died in the war; industry, transport links and agriculture had been destroyed, and the country was overwhelmed by the epidemics of both influenza and tuberculosis. This was not the kind of context which suggested any easy transition from a time of war to one of peace.

The Ottoman Empire had had enough as well. The string of defeats inflicted by Allenby’s troops in Palestine persuaded the Ottoman Grand Vizier to request an armistice in mid-October. On 27th October, the formal negotiations had begun aboard the battleship, Agamemnon. To the annoyance of the French, the Allies were represented solely by a Briton, the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Somerset Arthur Gough-Calthorpe. With both sides keen to end the fighting in the Middle East, the British proposals were quickly accepted, and the armistice was signed three days later. That same day, the Turkish Army on the Tigris surrendered, having fought for six days during the battle of Kalat Shergat, and losing a further 7,000 prisoners.

Turkey prepares to sign the Armistice, 30th October, 1918

In Berlin, the sense of approaching nemesis was palpable. The Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, had succumbed to influenza, while the press had abandoned reticence and called openly for the Kaiser’s abdication. On 29th October, ignoring the pleas of Prince Max, Wilhelm left Berlin and appeared the next morning at military headquarters at Spa in Belgium.

General Groener

Presumably, he had convinced himself this would be good for morale or (he really was blue-riband level in self-delusion) that he might somehow effect a turnaround in the outcome of battle. To many of his embarrassed onlookers, he appeared merely as if he was trying to escape the rancour at home which his presence inspired. Hindenburg was with him, faithful to the last, as was General Wilhelm Groener, Ludendorff’s successor. Two days later, Prince Max’s envoy, Dr Drews, arrived, and — in what must have been a harassing encounter — conveyed to His Majesty the Chancellor’s suggestion that he abdicate.

Wilhelm’s response indicates a distinct sense-of-humour-failure:

I have no intention of quitting the throne because of a few hundred Jews and a thousand workmen. Tell that to your masters in Berlin!

It is not known how far the Kaiser clung to his idiosyncratic analysis when, on 3rd November, a naval mutiny began in Kiel. The German Admiralty had taken it into its head a few days earlier to order an attack, something viewed by many sailors as fatuous and suicidal. In consequence, the order to set sail was flatly disobeyed. As the mutiny gathered momentum, officers were imprisoned, revolutionary red flags were unfurled and an array of Workers’ and Sailors’ Councils was set up. To the horror of the authorities, other places — notably Hamburg — began to sit up and take notice. In these circumstances, the spectre of a revolution in Germany, something along Russian lines, seemed only too plausible.

German sailors wanting None Of It

The Home Front was imploding, but the Germans gave up their territory in France only when all choice had gone. The future French Cardinal, Yves Congar, then a schoolboy in Sedan, confided indignantly to his diary:

2nd November  The town is to be evacuated at 11 o’clock tomorrow. Forced evacuation is the worst part of the war for civilians, who find themselves with no roof over their heads and no food, tossed from one place to another. They want to drive us out so they can pillage or destroy the town. But we will stay, firm and unwavering in our duty and if we have to die, then we will die! Vive la France!

3rd November  Today is spent preparing ourselves, mainly burying things. We bury as much and as deep as we can: first our most precious possessions (jewellery, silverware, souvenirs, diaries,papers, gifts, anything valuable) and the rest, well, we leave it to fate. If we get it back, well and good; if we don’t, it doesn’t matter that much.

Congar buried his diaries, but the family decided to stay. They hid in their cellar, listening to artillery exchanges between the Germans and the approaching Franco-American forces.

Yves Congar as a young seminarian

The continued killing in France felt, to many, insane as well as vindictive. The crossing of the Sambre Canal on 4th November, for instance, was achieved only at huge cost: 2,767 men were sacrificed on that day alone. Engineers tried to construct a floating bridge while under machine-gun fire from the opposite bank, with the result that bodies piled upon land and in the canal. One of the fallen was 25-year-old Lieutenant Wilfred Owen MC, hit at the water’s edge while he was encouraging his men.

These last months of the war had seen Owen’s prodigious talent as a poet reach new heights, but suggest also a profound personal evolution. His last letter to his mother, in which he had described the cellar in which he was living, exudes passion and pride, as well as sensibility to the tragedy which was unfolding about him:

It is a great life. I am more oblivious, than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells. There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here… Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Not a badway to remember him: the young Wilfred Owen, shortly after his enlistment.

As always, grief was both unquantifiable and limitless. Captain Alleyne, the son of the great Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, died at home on 1st November, aged 24: influenza, aggravated by wounds received in action, was the cause. Two days earlier, Gunner Ned Parfett, aged 22, MM and mentioned in despatches, was collecting clothes from the quartermaster’s stores as he was about to set off home on leave. A stray shell hit the stores and he was killed instantly. His face was famous throughout the world as the newsboy selling papers on the sinking of the Titanic. Each of his three brothers, all serving soldiers, survived. Six Victoria Crosses were awarded for acts of phenomenal courage in the first days of November, two of them posthumously.

Ned Parfett

Yet the prospect of peace, whatever that might mean, infused many soldiers with a new determination to live. Private J.W. Drury, aged 19, a signaller in the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards, recalled that on 1st November:

… ‘Armistice rumours’ became frequent and everyone became more ‘edgy’ about ‘getting a packet’ near the finish and so took no risks… The strain was terrific. Everyone was fearful of a bad wound, blinding, or death, so near the end. Reckless men became cautious, taking no risks.

Captain Harry Graham, of 40th Division, wrote to his wife on 3rd November:

How I wish the Hun would chuck it before we lose thousands more valuable lives. I can imagine the man in the trenches being very disinclined to pop the parapet, with peace so close at hand.

Later the same day he wrote again, more plaintively: “Oh, I am weary of this war!”

A century earlier Carl von Clausewitz had written that war was “merely diplomacy by other means”. It was a dinky phrase, but gave little clue as to what was happening now. In these last days, such conventions and constraints, which had characterised the conflict in the west until now, however unsteadily, seemed abandoned. From noon on 31st October to noon on 2nd November, the Canadian Heavy Artillery used 2,149 tons of shells in the assault on Valenciennes, but it was not merely firepower which accounted for German losses. The Canadian commander, General Currie, noted unsentimentally in his diary:

I know that it was not the intention of our fellows to take many prisoners as, since they have lived amongst and talked to the French people here, they have become more bitter than ever against the Boche.

The British Private Robert Cude’s diary contains some uncomfortable passages:

29th October:  We watch a Jerry aeroplane, up a tremendous height, and engaged with two of ours. It is all over in a minute or two and the Jerry dashes to earth. We see one of the airmen fall out, and the parachute opens, but the other was not so fortunate and he falls like a stone. We watch him all the way down, and he falls in our garden. We find that his parachute was on upside down. Serves him right. He was a magnificent specimen of an officer of the German army and he must have been 6ft 3in in height. I think that every bone in his body was broken, for we can roll him up just like a carpet. He has not a cent on him however, and nothing to identify him with.

His absence of squeamishness may have been the response to a mind brutalised by years of war. But there was anger as well. Two days later, on 31st October, he was part of a group which took the village of Englefrontaine:

…I observe a girl of about twenty years crying bitterly, and I speak to her. It is the old, old story, with the addition that they shot her brother in front of her.

An extract from Cude’s notebooks

Suspicion and recrimination also infused the attempts of the Allies to come up with a framework for peace. From the end of October, political and military chiefs held a series of challenging meetings in Paris and Versailles, discussing armistice proposals. For the British, Wilson’s Fourteen Points and, in particular, the demand for “freedom of the seas” was a serious stumbling block. Naval supremacy had for long been embedded into the nation’s sense of itself, and to abandon it now risked making victory seem hollow indeed. When the conference broke up on 4th November, Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, was moved to write approvingly of the Prime Minister:

Never in my long association with Lloyd George did I see him rise to greater heights, nor express the national sentiment with greater vigour, dignity and authority than in those quiet conversations at the Quai d’Orsay and the Rue de l’Université [the residence of President Wilson’s representative,Colonel House].

Haig, however, was not reassured. He wrote to his wife on 1st November:

I am afraid the Allied Statesmen mean to exact humiliating terms from Germany. I think this is a mistake, because it is merely laying up trouble for revenge in the future. Also, I doubt if Germany is sufficiently low yet to accept such terms. However we shall see. Personally I feel that there are many good officers in Germany like myself for instance who would in a similar situation rather die than accept such conditions.

Haig — the voice of a dying breed?

Haig’s voice was incontestably that of a caste and a class which would struggle to comprehend the realities of a world emerging from war. Many officers and most soldiers had had enough. The fine print of any peace agreement did not interest them that much. Their attitude was to leave that to the desk-wallahs.

Anyway, it is not hard to argue that, by now, war was hardly the most pressing danger. By late October, so-called Spanish flu was laying waste everywhere. Fate, in all its capriciousness, seemed ill-disposed to surrender abrupt and violent death: if it could no longer be sanctioned under the aegis of war, disease would suffice.

An anxious letter this week from Mrs Barnett of Walthamstow to her husband serving in Mesopotamia tells a larger story:

Things here are in a terrible state, this new flu as they term it is quite a plague and taking people off as they walk along the streets, in fact the undertakers can’t turn the coffins out or bury the people quick enough. There’s families of 6 or 7 in one house lying dead, it’s really terrible dear and makes one nervous of going out, nearly every house along here the doctors are on constant call but so far we have escaped and I do pray that we shall be spared it for your dear sake…

Robert Saunders, a schoolmaster in rural Sussex, noted:

There have been several distressing deaths in this district, of mothers, who while nursing other members of the family, suddenly died of heart failure caused by Influenza. Everybody is trying some remedy or other, the Chemists are flourishing, but after all the only safeguard is bed and nourishing food…

He was too sanguine. Rest and refreshment helped, but they were no safeguard. The young and healthy people, often under 35, seemed especially susceptible to the flu. It was also wholly democratic in its attentions ;  Bath, for instance  – that bastion of affluence and respectability — suffered proportionally more than the sprawling slums of Birmingham.

Newspapers began now to report what was happening with a degree of candour. On 1st November, The Times reported that:

Yesterday there were 1,445 members of the Metropolitan Police Force and 130 members of the London Fire Brigade on the sick-list with influenza. During the twenty-four hours ending at seven o’clock yesterday morning, forty-four persons were stricken with sudden illness in London streets and were removed to hospitals in the LCC ambulances. In Battersea undertakers have been compelled to refuse to take orders for funerals. One undertaker has declined twenty orders.

Military hospitals in France found themselves inundated with cases — a change from the usual staple of patients wounded by guns and gas. According to Mary Dobson, US Army Nurse, US Base Hospital №63, Savenay:

When we got to Savenay I was put in charge of the flu cases, because I’d had it and they thought I’d be immune to the infection. It was raging there, because all the people that had come in were bringing it right with them.

They’d said that there wasn’t any in the USA, but we knew better because Camp Grant was full of it when we’d left there three weeks before. Half of these men that we were nursing had been brought in straight off the boat. We had a great big ward full of boys dying, a lot of them. They just died within twenty-four hours after they got there.

And this was no more than a light horsd’oeuvre by comparison to what lay ahead. In Berlin, Princess Evelyn Blucher’s diary this week tumbles over with news of the panic which followed Austria’s unilateral peace and the reports of violent disorder there. Notwithstanding that, or the fears of imminent revolution, she emphasises that the greatest terror of the time was the Spanish flu — or, as it was often called just then, the grippe:

In addition to the news of burning castles, destroyed crops, dismembered countries and the approaching enemy, friend Death is making havoc among the population at home in the form of the grippe. There is hardly a family that has been spared. From our housekeeper in Krieblowitz I hear that the whole village is stricken with it, and the wretched people are lying about on the floors of their cottages in woeful heaps, shivering with fever and with no medicaments or anyone to attend them…

As the Grippe took hold, there was a fear that coffins would run out.

Herr B, who has just arrived from Hamburg and lunched with us today, says it is like the plague there, 400 people dying in one day; and as they have not enough coffins to put the corpses in, they have used furniture vans to carry them to the cemetery, and on the way there an accident happened to one of them; the van fell over and the bodies fell out and were strewn all over the road. How ghastly!

The full tragedy of the times still washed over a few people. A letter from Clementine Churchill, written on 29th October, to her husband, who was then Minister of Munitions, shows breathtaking insouciance:


Clementineand Winston Churchill, during the Great War.

Meanwhile my Darling do come home and look after what is to be done with the Munition Workers when fighting really does stop. Even if the fighting is not over yet, your share of it must be, & I would like you to be praised as a reconstructive genius as well as for a Mustard Gas Fiend, a Tank juggernaut & a flying Terror…

I have got a plan — Can’t the men Munition Workers build lovely garden cities & pull down slums in places like Bethnal Green, Newcastle, Glasgow, Leeds etc., & can’t the women munition workers make all the lovely furniture for them — Baby’s cradles, cupboards etc? Do come home & arrange all this…

Such light-heartedness reads pretty offensively now, although no doubt it was written in sincerity and love. An earthier record of the moment comes from the Glaswegian diarist, Thomas Livingstone:

1st November  Eggs are now about 6/6 per dozen (not per 100)…

2nd November  Seeing the war is nearly over, we went to the Cinerama at night…

4th November  Austria out of the war…Germany’s doom sealed.

Those Were The Days: the Kaiser with son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, back in 1916.