REVENGE, ACCORDING TO The Godfather, is a dish which tastes best when eaten cold. During the second half of 1916, the Germans had been increasingly on the defensive following their attempts at the start of the year to storm Verdun. Now the French launched a searing assault upon them in their quest to reclaim the town and to avenge, once and for all, the dishonour which the enemy had sought to inflict upon them.
After preliminary bombardments beginning on 11th December, the attack was launched on 15th December along a six-mile Front. Though masterminded by General Robert Nivelle, the actual assault took place under the command of “Butcher” Mangin. The Germans put up a vigorous resistance, but they were exhausted as well as depleted. By 18th December the French had recaptured Louvemont and Bezonvaux, both lost in February, and pushed the line two miles beyond Douaumont. The famous fortress of Verdun returned into French hands, and the town was saved from the horrors of occupation. Verdun, not least as a transport hub, had a major strategic significance. It had also become a talisman of French sovereignty and independence. The battle was over – at last – although fighting would still flare up in the area occasionally.
In its moment of triumph, some of those in charge of France’s destinies behaved neither especially wisely or well. Nivelle’s was the name on their lips and, summoned to Chantilly on 15th December, he was given command of the French Armies. “Papa” Joffre was sidelined after his apparent failure at Verdun, becoming Technical Adviser to the French War Cabinet. Pétain, earlier dubbed the saviour of Verdun, was forgotten.
Nivelle, charismatic, charming, popular with the Allied politicians, seemed to be the man of destiny who could do no wrong. The French Press exulted, as L’Illustration confirmed:
Here is a chief in the Latin sense of the word, that is to say une tête confident. Hope rings a carillon of bells in our hearts.
Hindsight allows us to mock. Why is it that no one ever seems quite immune from the temptation to lionise someone relatively untested, and to invest in them such wild hopes? In transforming a relative rookie general into a wunderkind, French leaders were refusing to reflect upon the warning signs of low morale among their own soldiers. It did not fit the triumph of the moment to dwell on the fact that, on the road to Verdun, someone had scrawled Chemin de l’Abattoir – or that a whole division bound for the last offensive had made their way there, bleating like sheep.
The noiru system of drafting, which sought to ensure that no French soldier fighting in Verdun should serve in the front line for longer than seven or eight days, was almost certainly a huge part of the explanation for France’s victory. But there was an unseen cost: three-quarters of the French Army had served there and seen, eyes wide open, extremes of horror. Those who survived were no longer so bellicose as they might have been before they went to Verdun, nor so pliant. As events would prove, the cost of the battle was far greater even than the official statistics suggested.
These were bad enough. Final losses are estimated at round 377,231 French casualties of whom 162,308 were killed or missing. The counter-offensives in October and December accounted for 47,000 of these. During the ten-month-long battle, 337,000 Germans were killed, missing or wounded. For this, the Germans acquired, according to one commentator, “a piece of raddled land little larger than the combined Royal Parks of London”. According to Prince Max of Baden:
The campaign of 1916 ended in bitter disappointment all round. We and our enemies had shed our best blood in streams, and neither we nor they had come one step nearer to victory. The word ‘deadlock’ was on every lip.
Based on the knowledge that Haig had closed down the Somme Front some weeks earlier, some assumed that the period which ensued marked a time of respite. In relative terms, this has to be correct, but it also does a gross injustice to British soldiers along the Western Front. Consider these reflections from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Rowland Feilding of the Connaught Rangers. He had just returned from leave, which perhaps explains the sense of burning injustice when he contrasted the fate of fighting men and civilians:
December 14: I have for many weeks past been working to get some good company sergeant-majors out from home. One in particular I have been trying for — a Sergeant-major McGrath, reputed to have been the best in Kinsale. His Commanding Officer very kindly agreed to send him to me, although he wrote that he regretted parting with him. McGrath arrived the day after I returned from leave, and within half an hour of his reaching the fire-trench was lying dead, a heavy trench-mortar bomb having fallen upon him, killing him and two others, and wounding two more. Now, is not that a case of hard luck ‘chasing’ a man, when you consider how long others of us last? I never even saw him alive.
I visited the fire-trench just after the bomb had fallen. It had dropped into the trench, and the sight was not a pleasant one. It was moreover aggravated by the figure of one of the dead, who had been blown out of the trench on to the parapet, and was silhouetted grotesquely against the then darkening sky. But what I saw was inspiring, nevertheless. The sentries stood like statues. At the spot where the bomb had burst–within forty yards of the Germans — officers and men were already hard at work in the rain, and clearing away the remains of the dead; all — to outward appearance — oblivious to the possibility — indeed the probability — of further trouble from the trench-mortar, trained upon this bit of trench, that had fired the fatal round.
What wonderful people are our infantry! And what a joy it is to be with them! When I am here I feel — well, I can hardly describe it. I feel, if it were possible, that one should never go away from them; and I contrast that scene which I have described (at 1s 1d. a day) with what I see and hear in England when I go on leave. My God! I can only say: ‘May the others be forgiven!’ How it can be possible that these magnificent fellows, going home for a few days after ten months of this (and practically none get home in less), should be waylaid at Victoria Station, as they are, and exploited, and done out of the hard-earned money they have saved through being in the trenches, and with which they are so lavish, baffles my comprehension. It is unthinkable: and that, I think, is the opinion of most officers who go on leave.
I can never express in writing what I feel about the men in the trenches; and nobody who has not seen them can ever understand. According to the present routine, we stay on the front line eight days and nights; then go out for the same period. Each Company spends four days and four nights in the fire-trench before being relieved. The men are practically without rest. They are wet through much of the time. They are shelled and trench-mortared. They may not be hit but they are kept in a perpetual state of unrest and strain. They work all night and every night, and a good part of each day, digging and filling sandbags, and repairing the breaches in the breastworks; — that is when they are not on sentry. The temperature is icy. They have not even a blanket. The last two days it has been snowing. They cannot move more than a few feet from their posts: therefore, except when they are actually digging, they cannot keep themselves warm by exercise; and, when they try to sleep, they freeze. At present, they are getting a tablespoon of rum to console them, once in three days.
Think of these things, and compare them with what are considered serious hardships in normal life! Yet these men play their part uncomplainingly. That is to say, they never complain seriously. Freezing, or snowing, or drenching rain; always smothered with mud; you may ask any one of them, any moment of the day or night, ‘Are you cold?’ or ‘Are you wet?’ — and you will get but one answer. The Irishman will reply — always with a smile — ‘Not too cold, sir,’ or ‘Not too we, sir.’ It makes me feel sick. It makes me think I never want to see the British Isles again so long as the war lasts. It makes one feel ashamed for those Irishmen, and also of those fellow-countrymen of our own, earning huge wages, yet for ever clamouring for more; striking, or threatening to strike; while the country is engaged upon this murderous struggle. Why, we ask here, has not the whole nation, civil as well as military, been conscripted?
The curious thing is that all seem so much more contented here than the people at home. The poor Tommy, shivering in the trenches, is happier than the beast who makes capital out of the war. Everybody laughs at everything, here. It is the only way.
Laughter – the last redoubt in warfare for many soldiers. Perhaps it came more readily to the British.
The terrible exigencies of war also extended this week well beyond the battlefield. Second Lieutenant Skeffington Poole became the first British officer to face a firing squad during the war when he was shot for desertion at 7.25 a.m. on 10th December.
On 18th December, the War Office sent a letter to his family supplementing the sparse information previously given by telegram that he had “died”, stating:
With profound regret I now communicate to you the circumstances of his death. Your late son absented himself from the command of his platoon whilst carrying out reliefs in the front line, and remained absent till found behind the fighting area two days later. He was tried by Field General Court Martial and sentenced to suffer death by being shot, and the sentence was duly carried out.
The expression of regret was a ritual courtesy, but the fact that an officer (as opposed to a ranker) had faced the supreme penalty hints at a subtle shift in some of the old military hierarchies.
The anguish of the Poole family is not hard to imagine. Many involved in his trial and medical board had recommended clemency and a reduction of his sentence to penal servitude: young Poole had suffered from shell shock earlier and his mental powers were described as “less than average”. The problem was not the need to temper justice with mercy, but to ensure that the punishment would discourage any opportunist imitators.
Plumer, GOC Second Army was not be swayed:
Despite the evidence as to the accused’s mental condition I should, if he had been a Private, have recommended that the sentence should be carried out. In view of the inherent seriousness of the offence when committed by an officer I recommend that it be inflicted.
Haig, by whom the sentence had to be confirmed agreed, writing in his diary on 6th December:
This is the first sentence of death on an officer to be put into execution since I became C-in-C. Such a crime is more serious in the case of an officer than of a man, and also it is highly important that all ranks should realize that the law is the same for an officer as a private.
Haig and Plumer were neither brutal nor unthinking – it was the times. Under English and military law a man who could tell right from wrong was responsible for his actions and could be sentenced to death. Poole knew exactly what he was doing and therefore was culpable. Poor, frightened man – there cannot be a single reader whose heart does not wring in compassion for his plight, nor for that of his inconsolable family. Steeped in the mores of the times, they sought to conceal the unhappy truth, including from Poole’s own father who was “old and very ill, and we do not want him to know”.
There were other signs of change. On 12th December 1916, the Army Council approved the expansion of the Royal Flying Corps to no fewer than 106 front line squadrons – a great demand upon the British aero-engine industry. The RFC had developed exponentially over the previous year. On the Western Front, the number of aircraft had risen from around 230 in January 1916 to more than 900 by December. In the same period, the number of officers and other ranks grew from just over 16,000 to almost 55,000. On 16th November, Haig had formally requested that twenty additional air squadrons be deployed to France by the spring of 1917.
More machines, but also more casualties: In the second quarter of 1916, total aircraft wastage was 198: 134 through accidents, 33 through attrition and 31 through enemy action. Mortality rates were extremely high. Aircraft were not even fitted with parachutes. Young pilots often had no more than 20 flying hours in their training logbooks; often their first sight of a machine gun would be when they arrived at a front-line squadron. The commander of the RFC, Major General Hugh Trenchard, the RFC’s general officer in the field, had a simple attitude towards maintaining morale, insisting on a “no empty chairs” policy. Whenever a pilot was killed or wounded, his empty chair would be immediately filled by a new recruit. It was the times – there lay a dangerously seductive apologia for virtually everything.
The brutal attrition of war in the West was in contrast to the accumulating evidence that Rumania and of Russia were imploding in the East. The ground lost this week reads like a litany of disaster: Although, with Russian help, the Romanians began the week by rallying on the Jalomitsa, Falkenhayn’s forces entered Buzeu two days later, and by the end of the week, the armies of both nations continued to fall back.
The possibility that Russia might, sooner rather than later, be lost to the Allied cause had not yet impressed itself. Rather, the enormous losses of the German army in 1916 (amounting to over one million men in the West) fomented among a few German politicians the terrifying thought that the war might, after all, be unwinnable. Proceeding from that, the logic was to send out peace feelers.
But it was a fraught business: any kind of official endorsement risked ruining public morale, both at home and on the Front. Even were the greatest secrecy observed, there was every reason to believe that the French, traumatised by invasion and bereavement, would reject any terms other than complete surrender. Britain was identified as being more receptive to a sober case made through a neutral government.
Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg spoke to the Reichstag on 12th December:
The most formidable war known to history has been ravaging for two and a half years a great part of the world. The catastrophe that the bonds of a common civilisation more than a thousand years could not stop, strikes mankind in its most precious patrimony; it threatens to bury under its ruin the moral and physical progress on which Europe prided itself at the dawn of the twentieth century. In that strife Germany and her Allies, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, have given proof of their indestructible strength in winning considerable success at war. Their unshakable lines resist ceaseless attacks of their enemies’ arms… The latest events have demonstrated that a continuation of the War cannot break their resisting power.
They do not seek to crush or annihilate their adversaries. Conscious of their military and economic strength and ready to carry on to the end if they must the struggle that is forced upon them, but animated at the same time by the desire to stem the flow of blood and to bring the horrors of war to an end, the four Allied [Central] Powers propose to enter even now into peace negotiations.
If, notwithstanding this offer of peace and conciliation the struggle should continue, the four Allied Powers are resolved to carry it on to an end, while solemnly disclaiming any responsibility before mankind and history.
Provoked by such cant, and mindful that Bethmann had struck a far more abrasive tenor when war had broken out two and a half earlier, the British government was unimpressed. Germany still occupied vast territories seized since the war began and Britain would not negotiate away the land of its allies. The “peace proposal” was, however, discussed by the War Cabinet on 18th December, and a decision was made to provide a formal response later in the month.
Truth was, however great the yearning to end the slaughter, there was no mood for peace with Germany. According to The Times on 16th December, such a prospect was “morally impossible”. As the new Prime Minister asked: “Who then, with the exception of Germany, could derive any advantage?”
Lloyd George, elevated at last to the position he had for so long coveted, was an object of general fascination. While many in London were aghast at his assumption of the highest office in the land, his supporters in Wales had never doubted that he was born for greatness. His mentor, Richard Lloyd, wrote that “The man is greater than the office he holds.”
Somewhat anticlimactically, such greatness could not prevent his being laid low by the common cold. This kept him away from most meetings as Hankey mentioned in describing the frantic activities of the new administration:
December 13th. No time for diary these days. This was my day — breakfast alone with Ll. G. at 9.15a.m., War Cabinet at 11.30; lunch in the office dictating conclusions the while; War Cabinet at 3 p.m.; dictated conclusions during the tea interval; War Cabinet at 6p.m. Killing! Ll. G. only at first War Cabinet.
December 14th. Ll.G. has crocked and can’t see anyone for twenty-four hours… Only one War Cabinet.
December 17th. On the 16th I saw Lloyd George who was still in bed, and discussed the war
Austen Chamberlain, a Cabinet minister, wrote to his wife on 14th December:
I profoundly distrust [LL.G.] — no doubt a man of great energy, but quite untrustworthy; who does not run crooked because he wants to, but because he does not know how to run straight.
There was surely a whiff of envy, and of class disdain, in these words. Others were more excited. Vera Brittain, writing to her mother from Malta on 12th December 1916, made that very clear:
We are all very excited about the Fall of the Government, and very glad, as it is bound to make a change in the prosecution of the War, & it could hardly be a change for the worse! We are anxiously waiting for details.
Lloyd George had written a rushed note to his brother back on 9th December:
Presided over my first War Cabinet. Found it embarrassing to be addressed as Prime Minister by all the members. Completed my list except one or two small ones I am holding over… Love to all. Tell Uncle Lloyd that he is responsible for putting me in this awful job.
Perhaps he protested rather too much. Few PMs have come to Number 10 by accident, and Lloyd George was not one of them. On the other hand, it was only now he confronted fully the awesome nature of his new responsibilities. He also had to face, as is the way of many British Prime Ministers, the resentment of his predecessor.
In the case of Asquith, this was muted by shock, delayed fatigue and an emotional temperature that inclined towards the cool. Basing himself at Walmer Castle and suddenly released from the burdens of office, he suffered a complete physical collapse and was confined to bed for four days. He wrote to one of his confidantes, Sylvia Henley, on 15th December:
I think I was really tired, as for a couple of days I was completely indifferent to the outside world, and not only didn’t read a newspaper but was quite incurious as to what it might contain. Violet has been with me all week. Margot hurried here on Monday with Parkie [the family doctor] but the sense of “being out of it” was too much for her, and by cock crow on Wednesday she rushed back to London where she has been ever since, apparently.
Indeed she had. Composed of material more fissile than that of her husband, Mrs Asquith’s demeanour over the following days fell somewhat short of sang froid. Having received a courteous note from Mrs Lloyd George, urging her telling her to take her time in leaving Number 10, she duly spun matters out, convinced that her husband would shortly be restored to power.
It was an illusion, of course, but consistent wth the pathology of bereavement. She described herself as being:
…wounded & stabbed to the heart. Me an absolute wreck! morally disgusted & shocked — the Gov. Smashed to atoms in the greatest war & at the most dangerous moment in the life of this country & men put in its place of the lowest possible type (a Press Government — Ll.G., Northcliffe, Rothermere, Aitken, Carson, etc.)
There was more (much more) of the same. More interesting than the screeds of bile is her fear that the peace feelers put out by Germany would redound to the credit of the new Prime Minister:
Germany went on her knees and was brought to her knees… through Henry’s guidanc … It is a curious irony of Fate! that the great “War-man” who has betrayed and tried to crucify his master under the plausible and perpetually advertised “Firmer Prosecution of the War” — our Present Prime Minister should be the man whose first job is to deal with peace proposals.
Asquith’s reaction was altogether more circumspect:
The moment is well chosen — Christmas, and every nation dog-tired of the war. Everything depends on the terms, what they are.
Being “dog-tired” described a quality of spirit as well as of an exhausted human frame. Once again, Vera Brittain (in the same letter to her mother written on 12th December) captures impeccably a thoughtful and alert soul at this exhausting and desperate moment:
I do wonder if I shall ever see [her brother] Edward again; it is very hard that we should be the generation to suffer the War, though I suppose it is very splendid too, & is making us better & wiser & deeper men & women (at any rate some of us…) than our ancestors ever were or our descendants ever will be. It seems to me that the War will make a big division of “before” & “after” in the history of the World, almost if not quite as big as the “B.C.” & “A.D.” division made by the birth of Christ.