The root of the tragedy

THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION on Tuesday 7th November dominated headlines in the USA. The leaders of both parties had been confident of success after a hard-fought campaign but, in the end, the result was far closer than predicted. The headline in the New York Tribune of 9th read:

Wilson Leading: Result is in Doubt: Hinges on Minnesota and California. Wilson, 251; Hughes, 247; 33 votes are uncertain.

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The people chose safety. Wilson, the incumbent, had tried earnestly to craft a foreign policy in which the claims of national morality and individual self-interest might be reconciled. He was re-elected with 49.4 per cent of the popular vote to the 46.2 per cent gained by his opponent, the Republican Charles Evan Hughes. The Democrats gained 277 votes in the Electoral College; the Republicans, 254.

The truth  –  resisted by most isolationists – was that, in or out of the war, America was critically dependent upon European stability. Wilson, empowered by a fresh electoral mandate, was determined to bend his mind once more to initiating peace proposals. His initiative was tremulously, if discreetly, welcomed by the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. Just now, Hollweg believed the Central Powers held the whip hand and so could negotiate from a position of strength.
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That was, at best, questionable. What is clear is that the enthusiasm of the German military High Command to contemplate unrestricted submarine warfare indicated Germany was desperate to get the war over sooner rather than later. America, in that event, would almost certainly come in on the side of the Allies. Thus the pressure would be on the Germans to bring matters to a conclusion before the United States could build up their military might. It would be a desperate risk. Hollweg evidently believed that, if America came to fight on the side of the Allies, Germany would lose the war.

Wilson, famously, predicated his ideas of a new world order based upon a League of Nations whose members would maintain peace through arbitration and collective security. In a speech in the Reichstag in Berlin on 9th November, Bethmann-Hollweg insisted that, once the war were over, Germany would co-operate in establishing such an organisation. The Allies, by contrast, were unmoved. The invasion of neutral Belgium back in August 1914 was never far from their minds, nor the horrors which it had occasioned.

The British, in particular, considered Wilson’s analysis facile: there was a major difference, they suggested, between the overweening righteousness of the Allied cause and the iniquity of the Central Powers  –  one which the President had failed singularly to emphasise. Wilson was not particularly put off. Negotiating peace would require a massive climbdown by all parties, but he knew that the potential support and might of the United States were weighed by all the protagonists.

Peace seemed more than ever remote, however, when on 8th November, Cardinal Mercier released an impassioned appeal to all governments, including in the USA, lamenting the enforced deportation of unemployed Belgians to work in Germany, an action undertaken despite repeated assurances to the contrary. He cited an example of the German decree:

By order of the Kreischef every male person over seventeen years old shall present himself, Place St Paul, in Nivelles, on November 8, 1916, at eight o’clock (Belgian time), nine o’clock (Central time), bringing with him his identity card and eventually his card from the Meldeamt.

Only small hand luggage is permitted.

Those not presenting themselves will be forcibly deported into Germany, and will besides be liable for a heavy fine and to long imprisonment.

Ecclesiastics, physicians, lawyers, and teachers are exempt from this order.

The Mayors will be held responsible for the proper execution of this order, which must be brought immediately to the knowledge of the inhabitants.

Here rests the evidence that the forcible deportation of civilians in occupied territories was not an outrage perpetrated only by the Third Reich.

Désiré-Joseph Mercier, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Malines, made Cardinal in 1907, had long been a thorn in the side of the Germans occupying Belgium. With King Albert and his government in exile, he acted as a powerful symbol of resistance and was greatly admired for his courage. Outspoken criticism of German barbarity had left him briefly imprisoned in January 1915 and later placed under house arrest, but his writings had reached a worldwide audience and the Germans dared not take further action against him.

Mercier added:

Between the announcement and the deportation there is an interval of only twenty four hours… The naked truth is that every deported workman is another soldier for the German army. He will take the place of a German workman, who will be made into a soldier. Thus the situation which we denounce to the civilized world may be reduced to these terms: four hundred thousand workmen have been thrown out of work by no fault of their own, and largely on account of the occupation.

Groups of soldiers introduced themselves forcibly in the homes of these people, tearing the young people out of the arms of their parents, the husband from his wife, the father from his children; at the point of the bayonet they block the entrances to the homes, preventing wives and mothers from rushing out to say a last farewell to them; they align the captives in groups of forty of fifty and push them forcibly into freight cars, the locomotive is under steam, and as soon as a tram-load is ready, an officer gives the signal and they depart.

Thus are another thousand Belgians reduced to slavery, without previous trial, condemned to the penalty which comes next in cruelty to the death penalty — deportation. They do not know how long their exile is going to last, neither do they know where they are going. All they know is that their work will benefit the enemy.

The ruthlessness of the Germans suggests they were desperate. Maybe, this week, they were: with French successes at Verdun, an Allied conference looming in mid-November and winter imminent, Haig had been determined to achieve a major triumph in addition to the small gains made in the previous weeks, and this week he did. The British won an important victory on the Somme this week in the battle of the river Ancre. Until now, poor weather had delayed the attack, due to be carried out by Lieutenant General Gough and his Fifth Army, even though his divisional commanders had warned that the men were exhausted. The objective was the capture of Beaumont-Hamel and Serre on the heights north of the River Ancre, a tributary of the Somme.

A major artillery barrage in the previous days, twice as heavy as that which preceded the start of the battle on 1st July, was followed by the attack in the mist at 6 a.m. on 13th November. A “creeping” barrage was again used successfully as guns fired on areas in front of the waves of infantry and kept enemy gunners pinned down. Beaumont-Hamel was stormed by the 51st (Highland) Division and eventually taken at bayonet point as “the whirlwind method of intensive bombardment against positions measured almost to an inch by months of aerial study gave wings of victory to the charging army”.

Meanwhile the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, under Major-General Shute, for the first time took part in an attack on the Western Front and captured the German front line despite heavy resistance. Their aim was Beaucourt sur-l’Ancre and their success was due in no small part to the inspired leadership of 27-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealander, commanding Hood Battalion. Already famous for his exploits in Gallipoli where he had won the DSO for swimming across the Gulf of Samos in order to distract the Turks from the real attack, he now earned the Victoria Cross for rallying his disorganised battalion, leading a second assault and holding overnight the ground gained. The following day, he led an attack which captured 500 prisoners plus the strongly fortified village of Beaucourt. His VC citation would salute his “personality, valour and utter contempt for danger”.

Haig’s official despatch noted that:

Many of the enemy were driven into their dugouts and surrendered, and at 9 a.m. the number of prisoners was actually greater than the attacking force. St. Pierre Division soon fell, and in this area nearly 1,400 prisoners were taken by a single division at the expense of less than 600 casualties. The rest of our forces operating south of the Ancre attained their objectives with equal completeness and success.

Some Germans who surrendered encountered a calm humanity in their captors. Second Lieutenant E.F. Chapman recalled:

We were in some very rough trenches that had only just been dug. After we had been there about an hour, four Germans came over and gave themselves up. They may not have intended doing so — perhaps they had lost their way. Anyhow they didn’t mind being taken prisoner. They were shaking all over with cold or fright. I tapped my revolver and said ‘Sie verstehen?’ [‘Do you understand?’] and they said ‘Jahwohl!’ [‘Certainly!’]. I started telling them that I had been a student in Germany, and so enjoyed talking German again that I quite forgot that we were in trenches and very close to the Boche! War is so very strange and stupid when the people who do the fighting do not hate each other at all. War is the stupidest thing in the whole world.

Freiwilliger Reinhold Spengler of the 1st Bavarian Infanterie Regiment might have agreed. He wrote later:

For a young man who had a long and worthwhile future awaiting him, it was not easy to expect death almost daily. However, after a while I got used to the idea of dying young. Strangely, it had a sort of soothing effect and prevented me from worrying too much. Because of this I gradually lost the terrible fear of being wounded or killed.

In 1928 the German Reichsarchiv would produce a sober summary of the Somme campaign which, while it may underline the futility of war, rather argues against the idea that the Battle of the Somme was an Allied disaster:

It would be a mistake to measure the results of the Battle of the Somme by mere local gains of ground… The British and the French pursued a plan of exhausting the power of the defenders by the employment of ever-greater masses of artillery in constantly repeated attacks… [Our] grave loss of blood [in the battle] affected Germany very much more heavily than the Entente… The demand for self-sacrifice greatly surpassed what could be expected of the average man, the fighting largely fell on the shoulders of the best, most experienced troops, and not least the [junior] officer. The consequence… was a frightful death-roll of the finest and most highly trained soldiers, whose replacement became impossible. It was in this that the root of the tragedy of the battle lies.

Increasing skill and absolute ruthlessness in the deployment of artillery marked an important evolution in war. So too did the week testify to the increasing profile and significance of war in the air. This can be seen in the high cost to the Royal Flying Corps flying in the skies above the Somme and Verdun. According to Major-General Trenchard, by 24th October the RFC had already lost 660 machines since July.

There was a spectacular aerial battle near Bapaume on 9th November when a British raiding force of 16 single-seater B.E.2 bombers from Nos. 12 and 13 Squadrons, accompanied by 14 Nieuport Scouts of №60 Squadron and F.E.2s of №11 Squadron, were intercepted en route to attack the German ammunition dump at Vraucourt. Forty planes from the German squadrons, Jasta 1 and Jasta 2, pursued the intruders and succeeded in downing three planes. One of the pilots was Manfred von Richthofen who secured his eighth kill.

The to-ing and fro-ing of armies in the East still eluded any single interpretation whereas hindsight suggests that the Russians were in freefall. Still, by 11th November, they and the Romanians occupied Topalu on the right bank of the Danube and were advancing south, but simultaneously the Germans were also advancing south of Torzburg. In the Balkans, the Serbs proved once more a pugnacious asset to the Entente. With French artillery support, they made more progress towards their target of Monastir, seizing the village of Polog midweek.

An Allied journalist watching from a nearby summit was impressed:

Every gun the Bulgarians could bring to bear was trained on the advancing troops but the Serbs are past-masters of mountain fighting and know how to take advantage of every scrap of cover. We could see them crawling through the ravines, working their way along the dry watercourses, in and out of the boulders and trees, everywhere that nature had provided barriers against the bullets and shrapnel of the enemy.

The Morava Division led the attack, though the British-born Serbian officer Flora Sandes missed the initial battle as she and the Fourth Company she commanded were still on extended reserve. To her delight they were summoned back to the front for the next phase of the battle. If the two remaining strongholds still held by the Bulgarians, Hill 1212 and Hill 1378, could be taken, then the Bulgarians would be forced to abandon Monastir in the valley below. Both armies were instructed to fight to the last man.

“Fight to the last man.”  What could reconcile a frightened soldier to that dismal fate? The demand to sacrifice one’s life in the name of the state invoked patriotism, belief in the war’s raison d’etre, and the wish to honour the loyalty of one’s brothers-in-arms. Each exerted an impact upon most men on the front as, of course, did the dismal fate that awaited those who risked mutiny.

But, by the early twentieth century, the instincts of deference in many western nations had been dulled. A century of industrialisation had resulted in ordinary people becoming more affluent, more opinionated, and more individualistic  –  people who, increasingly, were not going to roll over at the government’s beck and call.

The ability of the British government until now to manage this dexterously was impressive: its population was overwhelmingly at one with the government in calling for the war’s vigorous prosecution. But this week came a warning that His Majesty’s Government were on notice as well.

Rising prices and food supplies had long been a source of disquiet. The Call, a weekly “Organ of International Socialism”, carried an article in its issue of 9th November headed, “Food Prices: How Much Higher?”:

Each futile nibble at the question of food prices by the Government is followed like a mocking echo by an extra spurt upwards in the cost of living… Mr Runciman’s appeals for economy are becoming positively farcical. At first we were asked to consume less meat. The request to observe one meatless day a week must have appeared as a grim jest to those who are only able to observe one meat day a week. Now we are asked to eat less potatoes. Soon no doubt we shall be asked to eat less bread. It must be inferred from all this that the only thing this Government is prepared to do for those who complain of the difficulty in procuring food is to ask them to eat less…

The only solution is the one we have consistently advocated. The Government must take control of the food supply, and arrange for its distribution through the municipalities and Co-operative societies at reasonable prices.

It was a faultless analysis which shows a lamentable remoteness of many of those in high authority. Increasingly, the idea that considerations of wealth and class should be allowed to dictate how well and how much one ate seemed insupportable at a time of national sacrifice. The Call had interpreted and articulated public opinion, in this instance, far more accurately than the government. Assuming the war was going to last much longer, and that the government wished to retain moral authority quite as much as political power, something would have to be done.

One must distinguish sharply between anything which threatened to undermine the legitimacy of government, and irritation at its perceived inefficiencies and double standards. It is a distinction made more easily in hindsight than at the time. Rowland Feilding’s letter to his wife on 9th November remarked testily that the significance placed by so many Generals upon the smart appearance of serving soldiers  – length of hair and so forth  –  did not necessarily extend to those of their own staff:

It has often struck me as extraordinary, seeing the pain which is caused to Generals by seeing the least spot of dirt about the camp or personnel of a tired trench-worn battalion of infantry, that the same Generals should be so blind to the defects in their own entourage, where there is no possible excuse for such laxity. Yet, so far as my experience goes, there is generally to be seen in such cases an uncouthness which would be difficult to match.

Indeed, if I ever meet one of my men on the road, unshaved or with flowing hair, or otherwise unmilitary, I immediately conclude that he is ‘detached’ from the battalion, and employed on some ‘Staff’ job: and I am hardly ever mistaken.

Actually, it was not only generals who minded. Nurse Edith Appleton  –  not someone to lose focus on what was important  – showed herself to be curiously vexed by a particularly unkempt group of patients when writing her diary on November 13th:

Am nearly driven crazy with these 150 terrible Australians. They are not ill and are the dirtiest and most untidy men I have even had dealings with. All that and only two orderlies to cope with the lot.

In the interests of fairness, it is important to remember that the lives of those behind the lines were devoid neither of risk nor significant pressure. Stapleton Tench Eachus at Château de Querrieu, the headquarters of General Rawlinson and his Fourth Army, wrote in his diary for 9th November:

Sunny pleasant day. I will endeavour to give a short description of the formation and disposition of our (the 4th army British) signal office. The hours are divided into 3 groups, which are worked by three separate reliefs of about 40 operators in each relief. There are in all 30 circuits to be manned… Attached to the signal office there is also a very busy and important telephone exchange. There are approximately about 250 wires, which come into this office, including telephone, test and Morse wires. The total average of messages daily which are dealt with here reaches over 5,000 which is more than the other 3 armies put together. It is certainly equal to ten to 12,000 telegrams in a civil office owing to the length of the great majority of military messages. It may easily be gathered from this that we never have a very cushy time. Hostile aeroplanes were active again in the evening. One dropped 3 bombs near Guillemont station at 10.30pm…

 

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