SUSPICIONS RAGED. With the world apparently bent upon its own destruction, it was easy to believe that people were out to get you.
Troops felt it acutely. Thanks to Pétain’s Noria system, the ongoing horrors of Verdun were experienced by vast numbers of young French soldiers. While this meant they were often fresher than those against whom they fought, the trauma of battle became part of the national psyche.
The week’s fighting continued the attritional pattern of previous weeks. The Germans moved strongly on to the offensive, capturing Cumieres on 24 May and regaining Fort Douaumont. Two days later, the French regained a part of the Cumieres trench between Haudromont Wood and Thaumont Farm and threw back the Germans between Avocourt Wood and Mort Homme. Then, after another two days, the Germans got most of it back.
René Arnaud, with his battalion at Belval-en Argonne, described the tension preceding an attack on 23 May:
We tramped round, swapped rumours and discussed things. Truchet, the battalion doctor, standing there with his head bowed, legs apart and an anxious, restless expression on his face as, more nervous than ever before, he scratched his black beard with his left hand: ‘This is a disgrace! This slaughter should be stopped! They’re allowing thousands of men to be massacred just to defend a heap of out-of-date old forts. It is horrible! Oh, what a fine bunch of generals we’ve got’.
The conviction that leaders were incompetent and uncaring was one which afflicted most troops, at least intermittently. The inadequacies of the medical services helped to reinforce negative impressions, and certainly shocked Richard Norton, of the American Volunteer Motor Corps, when he first arrived in France. He described the inadequate preparations as “A terrible revelation!”, while acknowledging the complexities which attended them. Still, he insisted “it does not excuse putting persons in command of it who station a convoy such as ours where there is no water for radiators, where the cars sink to their hubs in a swamp, and who do not realise that a considerable amount of essence [petrol] is needed for keeping our cars in proper condition.”
The French, unlike the British, welcomed these American volunteers, with their twenty large ambulances, and affiliated them to French army divisions. At Verdun, the suffering of the wounded was unspeakable. Stretcher-bearers and ambulance-drivers worked round the clock but the numbers of injured overwhelmed them. The isolation of combatant units meant that a wounded man might not be picked up until about twenty-four hours after his injury. The two-wheeled carts usually used to transport the wounded proved often useless in the churned-up terrain and there was too little of almost everything — surgeons, ambulances, chloroform.
One doctor arriving in the early stages of the battle at a casualty clearing station had noted despairingly, “there is work here for a month”. Severely wounded men begged to be evacuated and dreaded being labelled ‘untransportable’ and their fears were well-grounded. Thousands of putrefying corpses contaminated the atmosphere and exposed many of those confined to the base hospitals to gas gangrene, a noxious and lethal affliction. In April 1916, one French regiment had thirty-two officers wounded of whom no fewer than nineteen died subsequently, mostly from gas gangrene.
Wounded British soldiers tended to fare rather better. The remarkable burgeoning of voluntary organisations on the British mainland ensured the Army in France was able to draw on them for both funds and equipment. Over time, an extraordinary network of treatment centres grew up on the western front, staffed by professionals assisted by thousands of volunteers. Major medical advances were made, including the new policy of treating those seriously wounded as soon as possible after injury, even in makeshift conditions, rather than sending them on a life-threatening journey elsewhere.
Noblesse oblige. Many a duchess established a hospital near the French coast where hundreds of wounded soldiers were treated. For those wounded troops who actually made it home, there were sometimes unexpected consolations. Edith Appleton’s diary for 23 May mentions:
I received a letter from an old patient of mine, telling me he is enjoying a month’s convalescence at a castle belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch in Dumfriesshire. They have the use of trout streams, tennis, bowls, croquet, and golf, and he says it is a glorious place. How kind of Lord B to lend it.
Many aristocrats gave over their houses for the convalescence of the sick and wounded. Lady Desborough went in for a spot of lateral thinking, allowing Taplow Court to be used as a place where exhausted nurses might recuperate.
Appleton herself, who was made of strong stuff, seldom complained about fatigue. Her resentments were focused upon the enemy. On 25 May she described a conversation with an elderly sergeant:
He was telling me about the different kinds of shells the Germans send over. There’s one kind called the ‘oil can’, whose duty it is to upset the nerves of the troops, and is the most feared of all. It looks like an oil drum and explodes with a terrific noise and vibration that is most unnerving, although it is not nearly as dangerous as the others. What the brutes do is send one of them over, and the infantry all run away from it to a dugout, then they send over a big one to destroy the dugout. Infernal inventive demons — may they suffer a martyrdom of conscience and die a slow death.
Given the extraordinary pressures under which she laboured, and the visceral horrors to which she was all the time exposed, it is reasonable to suggest her diary may have been her only opportunity to unburden.
It was certainly unflinching:
I sat beside my illest man, Madox, for a great part of the afternoon. He can neither read nor write, but has a good memory. He has been out here from the beginning, all through Mons, the battle of the Aisne, Marne — and … at Meteren near Bailleu — and apparently loved it. Our men were charging straight through a village, driving the Germans before them, and as they passed one house my man’s mate saw a bayonet being shoved out to kill him, so he turned his own bayonet backwards and dug it in the way the other was coming from, and killed his man. They all went onto the house and found a woman fastened to the table to make a screen for them — and behind her was a little child with both arms cut off. When they saw that, their blood was up and they killed all six Germans.
Maddox seems to have had his share of paranoia as well:
He swears their captain was a German spy, because when he got angry he spoke so furiously that they could not understand him. He says the men will kill him if they get a chance, and that an officer who is hated often gets killed by his own men when they go into action.
Murder, at least at the hands of his own men, does not seem to have been on the mind of Raymond Asquith, the Prime Minister’s son, who was now back with the Grenadier Guards in the Ypres salient. His wrote in irritable vein to his wife on 23 May:
As for me I am already more bored with this tiresome camp than ever I was with G.H.Q. We were allowed an easy time today but for the next week we live a terribly strenuous and wearisome life — a certain amount of drill and a great many “fatigues” — i.e. digging trenches, laying cables, fetching and carrying, hewing wood, and drawing water for other people. Personally I prefer anything to drill. But it does seem rather queer that with masses of men in France who have never come within sight of a trench, they should yet find it necessary to take a battalion which has just finished 2 months in the worst and most dangerous part of the line and is supposed to be coming out for a rest and use it to do odd jobs every day (including Sunday) from 6 a.m. onwards.
Officers tended to supervise and men to dig. They also enjoyed more private comforts well away from the eyes of common soldiers, as another letter from Sunday 28 May makes clear:
We have a parson attached to us now — a Cambridge don — who wanted to hold a service today in our battalion mess room, but the walls have been so thickly papered with French pictures of naked women that he had to confess the site inappropriate for any holy purpose.
Three days earlier, on 25 May, the Military Service Act had become law, making compulsion applicable to all men, including married men, though not those in Ireland — something widely resented by those on the mainland. The King sought to dignify the moment by recording his “appreciation of the splendid patriotism and self-sacrifice which they have displayed in raising by voluntary enlistment since the commencement of the War, no less than 5,041,000 men”.
It was indeed an impressive number — but evidently not fit for purpose. More boots on the ground were what counted and, meantime, no other alternatives suggested themselves. The day before, on 24 May, four new aircraft arrived in France to form No.70 Squadron’s ‘A’ Flight — these were Sopwith 1-and-a-half Strutter planes, which boasted the important development of being equipped with interrupter gear, allowing machine-guns to fire through the propeller, in addition to the Lewis gun mounted in the rear cockpit. In retrospect we can see this marked a phase in the war in which British gradually overturned the Germans in terms of aerial supremacy. But it was still a sideshow and destined, for decades, to remain so.
Italian troops had their full share of paranoia. They now endured a dire week against the Austrians, retreating between Astico and Brenta and in Sugana Valley in Trentino, and suffering an infantry battle for the Buole Pass for six days from 25 May.
Paolo Monelli, a law student now with the Alpini, was among those bearing the brunt of the fighting. The Italians were preparing to evacuate Asiago and, on 23 May, he noted:
What do they know and what do I know about what is happening? Nothing. We fight, we march, we halt, we are just numbers among the mass that pours forward, that manoeuvres along this mountainous front in the ice of the mighty Dolomite Alps, with a dull grudge in our hearts and a painful feeling of not knowing, of not seeing.
He believed that, somewhere out of sight, officers in comfortable billets were dictating his destiny:
Those mysterious gods who spin the threads of our fate … an officer who writes, a clerk who copies, an adjutant who leaves the room, a colonel who swears … this is the war. It is not the risk of dying, not the red firework display of a bursting shell that blinds us as it comes whizzing down… but the feeling of being a puppet in the hands of an unknown puppeteer.
So much for the troops. Commanders’ suspicions focused less on their soldiers, and more on politicians — especially upon foreign leaders whose loyalties seemed fickle. King Constantine of Greece was a particular butt for the Entente since, while Greece was a neutral, he was widely believed to favour the Central Powers.
On 26 May, despite an official protest from the Greek government, 25,000 Bulgarian soldiers, led by German cavalry, invaded Greece, and the Greek force at Fort Repel surrendered to them. Despite Falkenhayn’s assurances, Bulgarian soldiers began herding the local population into major cities. The Allies were convinced there had been a secret agreement between the Greek king and the Central Powers.
Fear and loathing extended also to those at home deemed unreliable — the Irish primarily. Uncomfortable details were emerging throughout the week which suggested both excess and incompetence following the Easter Rising on the part of the British. Testimonies of botched executions, in particular, proliferated. One priest had told the widow of Eamon Ceannt that “in every case it would appear as if it were necessary for the officer in charge of the firing party to dispatch the victim by revolver shot”.
Captain H.V. Stanley confided to a fellow officer:
I was the Medical Officer who attended the executions of the first nine Sinn Feiners to be shot. After that I got so sick of the slaughter that I asked to be changed. Three refused to have their eyes bandaged … The rifles of the firing party were waving like a field of corn. All the men were cut to ribbons at a range of about ten yards.
General Maxwell was undeviating in his severity. The bodies of the executed had been transported to the cemetery in Arbour Hill Military Barracks and placed in a pit of quicklime, without coffins or funeral rites. He even refused to release the bodies of Padraig and William Pearse for a Catholic burial, in spite of a piteous request from their mother. “It will have to be done in all cases if done in one” he told Asquith; adding (not inaccurately) that such graves “will be turned by Irish sentimentality into the shrines of martyrs and there will be a constant irritation in the country caused by annual processions etc. to them”.
Such inflexibility was used perhaps to offset uneasy consciences — not Maxwell’s, assuredly, but those of some politicians on the mainland. Maxwell noted that, ‘a feeling of revulsion has set in’. He personally felt it was a mistaken persecution complex which led the Irish to feel victimised:
Ireland is groaning under the tyranny of martial law. It is all eyewash for so far they have not felt it. But all the cranks and faddists scream before they are hurt…Every rebel that was killed in Dublin they now say was murdered by soldiers in cold blood.
Privately, he admitted to Kitchener that there were ‘one or two other cases’ to be looked into while claiming in public that ‘under the circumstances the troops as a whole behaved with the greatest restraint’. Sir John French, now in charge of Home Forces, sought to reassure Maxwell about such ‘regrettable incidents’, observing that ‘the only wonder is there have been so few of them’. He added, ‘You must not think too much about what goes on in Parliament. We soldiers have always to put up with that’.
Asquith, with a politician’s sleight of hand sought to rescue triumph out of disaster, telling the Commons on 25 May ‘that we now have a unique opportunity for a new departure for the settlement of outstanding problems’ and appointing Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, to undertake a ‘mission of peace and reconciliation’ to reopen negotiations in Ireland about implementing the Home Rule Act.
Such apparent broad-heartedness on the part of the PM owed less to generosity than to the widespread concern of the dominions and of the United States concerning the military repression underway in Ireland. Asquith dared not risk alienating them — a point either overlooked or simply ignored by the rump of Unionists who howled treachery on the part of the Government.
Lloyd George’s new brief also gave him a perfect opportunity to sidestep a proposed trip to Russia, intended to sort out the desperate shortage of supplies there and to grapple with increasing distrust of the German-born Tsarina and her despised sidekick, Rasputin. On 27 May, Kitchener, now in charge of the delegation, agreed to fill in for him. It also marked a decisive moment in the relative importance of the PM and the still reasonably young Pretender.
Sir George Riddell, owner of the News of the World, noted in his diary:
There is no doubt that Lloyd George is growing [to] believe more and more every day that he (LG) is the only man to win the War. His attitude to the PM is changing rapidly. He is becoming more and more critical and antagonistic. It looks as if Lloyd George and Northcliffe are working to dethrone Mr.A.
Asquith was too detached a character, perhaps too coolly intellectual, to submit easily to paranoia. Just now his main worries concerned the straitened state of the nation’s finances. On 23 May, he told Parliament:
The highest average expenditure in the last financial year was between £4..3 million and £4.4 million per day, whereas in the last fifty days which have passed since 1st April we have reached £4.82 million a day.
In today’s currency that be around £210 million per day. A Vote of Credit for £300 million was then approved, albeit with great misgivings. But what else was to be done?
War, and especially grief, unhinged minds. So much is well known, as is the grief to which the vastly popular poet and author Rudyard Kipling succumbed following the death of his son John at Loos the previous September.
No doubt this explains a disturbed letter sent by him to the Daily Express on 24 May, although he spoke for many when he wrote it:
One thing we must get into our thick heads is that whenever the German man or woman gets a suitable culture to thrive in, he or she means death or loss to civilized people, precisely as germs of any disease mean death or loss to mankind. There is no question of hate or anger or excitement in the matter, any more than there is in flushing out sinks.