The professionals

CHRISTMAS 1916 FELT radically different. The exhaustion was so much greater. 1916 had been the year of the Somme and of Verdun. In sheer quantitative terms, there were no precedents for either.

The fact that Germany had now thrown out feelers for peace might be read as evidence that she had had enough. Neutral countries  – notably Switzerland and Holland  – were keen that the peace proposals should be seriously considered. Many wondered if Germany were not on the verge of collapse. Even The Times  – that bastion of sober inner-circle thinking  –  considered its peace proposals were “an official admission that the German masses are tired of the war”.

She was tired, yes. Inclined to give up? Not a chance.

The peace proposals were so much kite-flying. While the wisest heads within the Central Powers were deeply worried about the depletion of men and materiel, they were way too committed to disengage unless offered a superbly generous deal. The German people, just like those of France and Britain, shared fully in the conviction that the war must be fought out to an obvious conclusion.

The British authorities were equally determined. Lloyd George took the opportunity of his first speech to the Commons as Prime Minister on 19th December, to head off any nascent interest in peace.

I am very glad that the first answer was given by France and Russia, for they have unquestionably the right to give the first answer to such an invitation. The enemy is still on their soil; and their sacrifices have been greater…

The last sentence was undeniably true, but it was an austere message to deliver at the end of 1916. His motive was not very different to Churchill’s famous peroration in 1940 with its invocation of blood, toil and tears: to make peace without fulfilling the country’s war aims, Lloyd George was asserting, was unthinkable:

It is equally true that any man or set of men who, from a sense of weariness or despair, abandoned the struggle without achieving the highest purpose for which we entered it would have been guilty of the costliest of poltroonery ever perpetuated by any statesman…

The new Prime Minister

The only acceptable peace terms were: “Restitution, reparation, guarantee against repetition… Let me repeat again — complete restitution, full reparation, effectual guarantees against repetition… Meanwhile we shall put our trust in an unbroken Army rather than in a broken faith.”

Woodrow Wilson

The Allies were not going to stop at anything far short of unconditional surrender. This was an idea far beyond the understanding of the newly re-elected American President, whose recent election slogan (“He kept us out of the war”) was widely considered to have been a vote-winner. In a note for peace he despatched on 18th December, Woodrow Wilson had invited the belligerent Powers to state their peace terms and suggested an “interchange of views”.

That was pushing it. By claiming that “the objects which the belligerents on both sides have in mind are virtually the same”, he blew it. King George V, on hearing this, was reportedly moved to tears of indignation. By contrast, Haig’s Second Despatch, covering the battle of the Somme from July to November 1916, which was published on 23rd December, embraced a version of the future in which there was merely more of the same.

Haig, unlike Wilson, knew his audience, however. He took great care to emphasise:

the happy relations which continue to exist between the allied Armies and between our troops and the civil population in France and Belgium. The unfailing co-operation of our Allies, their splendid fighting qualities and the kindness and goodwill universally displayed towards us have won the gratitude, as well as the respect and admiration, of all ranks of the British Armies.

In a literal sense, of course, that was nonsense. All kinds of irritation and mistrust obtruded, at every level. His effusions were a device calculated to urge realism on the French military. Loosely translated, they might read: “We need you; you need us; we are both in this for the long haul. Big battles lie ahead.”

In December 1916, these lay some way off. Haig concluded that:

The enemy’s power has not yet been broken, nor is it yet possible to form an estimate of the time the war may last before the objects for which the Allies are fighting have been attained. But the Somme battle has placed beyond doubt the ability of the Allies to gain those objects.

He offered no excuse nor apology for the huge offensive just ended, although he was prepared to acknowledge that the new Armies had experienced a massive burden:

We were compelled either to use hastily trained and inexperienced officers and men, or else to defer the offensive until we had trained them. In the latter case we should have failed our Allies. That these troops should have accomplished so much under such conditions, and against an Army and a nation whose chief concern for so many years has been preparation for war, constitutes a feat of which the history of our nation records no equal.

General Haig

The praise was heartfelt, but this was no order to stand down. Rather, the new Armies… “have learned many valuable lessons which will help them in the future”.

The future! A terrifying prospect, one might think. In the east, there had been fierce fighting all week as Mackensen’s Danube Army made great progress near Braila. Russian forces continued to retreat from Dobruja and, on 23rd December, they retired to Bessarabia. The full extent of the implosion taking place was not yet apparent to commanders, let alone the Tsar, but it soon would be.

On the other hand, events unfolding in northern Sinai offered a real window of hope for the otherwise beleaguered Allies. After advancing towards, and then occupying, El Arish on 21st December, they took Magdhaba after a fierce battle on 23rd December, destroying the opposing Turkish force, and capturing over 1,000 prisoners as well as guns and stores. The Allied force consisted of the Imperial Camel Corps, the Anzac Mounted Division and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade  – some 6,000 men in all  –  under the command of Sir Henry Chauvel. It sustained 146 casualties, with 22 fatalities, an eye-poppingly modest total. The opposing 2,000 Ottomans lost 400 casualties with over 100 dead. This victory would significantly and positively influence the future Allied campaign in Palestine.

Allied troops in Palestine

One can make a strong case for discerning within the new premiership of Lloyd George a desire to professionalise the execution of war. A spirit of empiricism seemed to be sweeping through Whitehall: the old pre-war ministries were deemed insufficient for purpose, and in addition to the creation of the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of Shipping was founded.

So too was the Ministry of Pensions. Newspapers had been happier to trumpet headlines about fallen heroes than Whitehall had been to stump up the necessary cash for their hard-pressed wives (or widows) and families. The new government recognised that a state system of administration was required to meet with speed the needs of dependants. As matters stood, too many were forced to go, cap in hand, to private charities in order to put food in their mouths. Nothing could have been more humiliating and alienating. The new ministry ensured that disbursements such as separation allowance, disability pensions and widows’ pensions at once came under government control.

The new Prime Minister’s despatch in this matter reflected a fundamentally greater empathy with and awareness of the lives of ordinary citizens than that of his predecessor. For the same reason, he was disposed to moot more nationalisation of shipping and a greater control of food supplies. There had been a very poor harvest in 1916, and Lloyd George told MPs he was determined that “over-consumption by the affluent must not be allowed to create a shortage for the less well-to-do”.

In his speech to the Commons on 19th December, he suggested that in wartime there must be “an equal readiness to sacrifice from all”  – not exactly an Asquithian sentiment. But, believing the war still had a long way to run, he was also anxious to identify initiatives which would reconcile the mass of people to the hardships which lay ahead. It was with this in mind that he now discussed plans to further tackle private profiteering and claimed that, since the Munitions Act, 80 per cent of the profits of controlled firms had been annexed and prices considerably lowered.

That alone would hardly kill off profiteering. But, by building the idea of a national struggle, he was moving crabwise to achieving a consensus whereby individualism of all kinds would become more difficult. He asked for powers to transfer able-bodied men from one labour activity to another where their skills would be more useful to the country, arguing that “the nation is fighting for its life, and it is entitled to the best services of all its sons”.

For the same reason  –  that it was a waste of resources, material and moral  – he lamented the misunderstandings between the British and Irish. These had been, he said:

for centuries… such a source of misery for the one and of embarrassment and weakness to the other… It was a quagmire of distrust which clogged the footsteps and made progress impossible.

For anyone who followed the summary “justice” carried out with apparent relish in the wake of the Easter Rising just eight months earlier, Lloyd George’s Olympian sentiments might stick slightly in the throat. On the other hand, his analysis was fair enough.

And, just as Haig had heaped praise upon the French, so Lloyd George now showered compliments upon the Dominions for their unfailing support. Well he might, given the scale of the sacrifice of their sons. He even proposed an Imperial Conference at an early date. There were a range of motives behind this, for sure, but the synchronisation of strategy, provision and planning was now understood to be the sine qua non for eventual Allied victory.

Although it had not yet been widely understood, one of the key instruments of war in 1917 would be attempts to starve the civilian population. At Christmas time, it was the Central Powers who were experiencing far greater hardship. Appallingly cold weather and chronic food shortages provoked riots across the country, and the diary of the schoolgirl, Piete Kuhr, in Schneidemuehl, East Prussia is instructive:

Piete Kuhr

23 December: The third war-time Christmas. German Admiralty wants to promote the so-called ‘Total U-Boat War’ round the whole world as a giant protective fence against Allied attacks. No one talks about peace anymore. On Christmas Eve we shall have turnip and potato puree with horsemeat balls and mustard sauce. Willi [her brother] and I fetch our mother from the station today. We’ve heated our place as much as we could so that Mummy [who worked in Berlin] doesn’t freeze. We’ve been warming up her bed with hot-water bottles since this morning.

Christmas Day at the Formby Golf Club in Liverpool offered altogether more ample fare. Siegfried Sassoon, confined to home shores and in a towering temper, noted:

They say the U-boat blockade will get worse and there will be bad food-shortage in England in 1917. The sideboard [at Formby]… doesn’t look like it yet; enormous cold joints and geese and turkeys and a sucking pig and God knows what, and old men with their noses in their plates guzzling for all they’re worth…

Siegfried Sassoon

Here was first-hand evidence of pink-faced men doing well out of the war. Lloyd George was right to be worried.

A more edifying tableau came from the pen of Signalman Tench Eachus, based at General Rawlinson’s headquarters in the Château de Querrieux:

24/12/16 Bright sunny day, the sort of weather which forces one to hope in spite of oneself. Bully-beef and cheese for breakfast, in consequence of the bacon being reserved for cooking with the turkeys tomorrow. Attended divine service with our relief which was held in the canteen and commenced at 9.30 a.m. General Rawlinson commanding the 4th army also attended and sat in front close to where I was sitting. He is a soldierly looking man and carries three rows of colours on his tunic… On duty at 1 p.m. until 5 p.m… Spent the evening at a little farm down the road. The French people do not keep up Xmas as we do. They have no knowledge of plum pudding and all the other Xmas luxuries so dear to the heart of the English. There are no decorations or preparations of any sort.

25/12/16 Fine rather dull… Only bully-beef for dinner, so that until 6 pm when we all gather together to take part in the Xmas dinner which is being got ready at ‘L’école des garcons’, we must make ourselves believe that we are not hungry. It was however to say the very least certainly worth waiting for. When we entered the tables were decked out with spotlessly clean washable material and the room was gay with bunting and various sorts of decorations, the whole with the aid of brilliant, electric lights presented a very pleasing and inviting appearance. The first course consisted of turkey, ham and vegetables, which was followed by roast beef and vegetables. Afterwards came plum pudding with sauce. The drink consisted of beer, grenadine, vin rouge, a little whisky etc all of which there was an abundant supply. We had as much as we could possibly eat and had a nice sort of comfy feeling afterwards. The colonel and officers called in during the repast and spoke a few words of cheer. The feast was followed by a concert, the singers being found from among the soldiers present. Nuts, apples and oranges washed down with divers waters, also cigars and cigarettes were freely distributed among the men…

One should never understate the importance of plentiful hot food and drink. But the immeasurably impressive Lieutenant-Colonel Rowland Feilding, on the front line facing Messines with his Connaught Rangers, alludes to additional sources of inspiration:

Though this is Christmas Day, things have not been as quiet as they might have been, and though we have not suffered I fancy the battalion on our right has done so to some extent. In fact, as I passed along their fire-trench, I saw them at work, digging out some poor fellows who had been buried by a trench-mortar bomb… The Chaplain came up and said Mass for the men this morning… The men manning the fire-trench of course could not attend, but it was not a case of driving the rest; — rather indeed of keeping them away. The intensity of their religion is something quite remarkable, and I had under-estimated it… like most soldiers, and many others, they will shirk fatigues if they get the chance, these men will not shirk what they consider to be their religious duties, and about 300 turned up…

In the evening I went round and wished the men – scarcely a Merry Christmas, but good luck in the New Year, and may they never have to spend another Christmas in the front line! This meant much repetition on my part, passing from one fire-bay to another, but I was amply rewarded. It is a treat to hear these men open out, and their manners are always perfect.

I have a good many recruits just now. Some of them went into the line for the first time last night. I visited them at their posts soon after they had reached the fire-trench, and asked them how they liked it. They are just boys feeling their way. They wore a rather bewildered look. This evening I asked them again. They were already becoming veterans. They are all going to have their Christmas dinner on the 30th, after we get out.

Contrast his experience with that of Jager Hermann Keyser, 9th Jager Battalion, who wrote to his family on 24th December:

Christmas Eve! It is ten o’clock in the evening. I write you these lines with thoughts of longing for home and days gone by. So much has changed in the past year. The war goes on with no hope for a soon-to-come peace. How ironic that man calls this holiday a time for peace. I can only wish it will happen during the coming year. Nothing would make me happier than to be together with all of you under the Christmas tree. For the first time in my life there is no tree, no singing, nothing.

German card, postmarked 1916

Piete Kuhr found there were additional sorrows on Christmas Day. Like so many others, perhaps, she experienced the anti-climax which sometimes followed elaborate preparations:

25 December: It seems that Mummy doesn’t love me as much as she used to. She asked me if I still kept up my war diary. I was afraid she wanted to read it; then she would read all the nonsense about Werner Waldecker [a Fokker pilot for whom, earlier in the year, she had nurtured a brief sentimental attachment]. Luckily, she only said ‘Hm!’ I know my mother has always loved Willi better than me, but I am Grandma’s favourite. We never talk about our love for each other, but we know it in our hearts. Mummy thinks I have become as thin as a rake, but who has not lost weight in this war? Willi’s legs are like sticks. We queue for one loaf of bread.

Christmas was inevitably a time in which sorrow, as well as joy, flooded in. Vera Brittain continued to mourn for her fiancé, Roland Leighton, killed one year earlier, and saw no prospect of happiness ahead:

23 December: The anniversary of Roland’s death — and for me farewell to the best thing in my life… Now I am in Malta, working hard to try to make other people happy for their Christmas in exile, & in so doing, happier than I have been for months. …I wonder where He is — and if He is at all… One recovers from the shock, just as one gradually would get used to managing with one’s left hand if one has lost one’s right, but one never gets over the loss…

Vera Brittain

With great seriousness and humility, King George V attempted to offer a royal benediction to all his people. His Christmas message was carefully crafted to convey appreciation as well as to enjoin fortitude:

I send you, my Sailors and Soldiers, hearty good wishes for Christmas and the New Year.
My grateful thoughts are ever with you for victories gained, for hardships endured, and your unfailing cheeriness.
Another Christmas has come round and we are still at war. But the Empire, confident in you, remains determined to win.
May God bless and protect you.
George R.I.

He sent an individual card to all the sick and wounded service personnel in every hospital, casualty clearing station, hospital ship or train, in all theatres of war, at home and abroad.

At this Christmas-tide the Queen and I are thinking more than ever of the sick and wounded among my Sailors and Soldiers.
From our hearts we wish them strength to bear their sufferings, speedy restoration to health, a peaceful Christmas and many happier years to come.

Inscribed in gold letters on a white card embossed with the Windsor insignia, such a trophy would have been undoubtedly an object of immense pride and the source of strong emotion to most recipients. Two and half years into the war, for all its legion horrors, the overwhelming majority of the British people still identified passionately with the Crown.