The Sacred Spark

WE CAN SEE what they could not. Russia was on the skids.

While history has rather vindicated the idea that the Great War was won in the West, that does scant justice to the millions who fought and who died on other fronts.

Russia’s allies in the West viewed her uneasily: she was an autocracy, for one thing, and communicated a range of needs and incompetences for another. But they pitied her sufferings and were appalled by the idea of a German victory to the East. Hundreds of thousands of troops would thus be released for combat in France, and any geopolitical stability in central and Eastern Europe lost for a generation.

By the end of February, the Tsar was planning his return to military HQ (the so-called Stavka). He had been back with his wife and family for a couple of months, spurred there in part by his natural uxoriousness. The French ambassador, Maurice Paleologue, shrewdly observed: “Nicholas II does not enjoy the exercise of power. Conscience, humanity, gentleness, honour  –  these I think are [his] outstanding virtues … But the sacred spark is not in him.”

There was another, less flattering, explanation. Anna Vyrubova, a close confidante of the Tsarina, recorded from Tsarskoye Selo on 26th February:

All has been quiet on the front since mid-December, and the Tsar has felt his presence at headquarters to be superfluous. Each day he has received news over the direct line in the evening. The Tsar’s snooker room is full of military maps, so that no one, not the children, not the servants, not even the Empress has entered for fear of disturbing them. The keys were last seen with the Tsar.

Vyrubova was a menace, much blamed for her meddling and promotion of Rasputin. But, as she also noted, the problems were not only specifically military.

The recent snowstorms and the danger they represent to the supply question in the capital have given their Majesties great cause for concern.

And then, of course, there was politics. On 27th February, the Duma re-opened, peacefully enough at first: as its president, Rodzianko, commented, there were “no workers in evidence, only a huge number of policemen posted in all courtyards round about. To avoid increasing tensions the deputies initially confined their discussion to the problem of food supplies.”

That worked for a while, but then the moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky  –  a motor-mouth, if ever there was one –  launched into a speech calling for the removal of the Tsar:

There are people who assert that the Ministers are at fault. Not so. The country now realises that the Ministers are but fleeting shadows. The country can clearly see who sends them here. To prevent a catastrophe, the Tsar himself must be removed, by terrorist means if there is no other way. If you will not listen to the voice of warning, you will find yourselves face to face with facts, not warnings. Look up at the distant flashes that are lighting the skies of Russia.

The Imperial Duma

Incitement to assassination of the Tsar was treason, and Minister of the Interior Protopopov began proceedings to deprive Kerensky of his parliamentary immunity with a view to having him prosecuted. One assumes that Kerensky must have been somewhat alarmed at this prospect but he at least enjoyed Rodzianko’s private assurance: “Be sure we shall never give you up to them.”

Whether or not Rodzianko could deliver on that was, like everything else, up in the air. The author and human rights activist Vladimir Korolenko wrote from Poltava on 27th February:

I have the feeling that not only Russia but all of Europe is spinning out of control. It is as if the forces of traditional inertia have suddenly ceased to function. It is as if the locomotive of Europe has gone off the rails, is careening into a ditch, has burst into flames, and yet, herein is the joke, the engine-driver keeps shovelling in coal completely unawares.

It was a nice metaphor, but there was precious little coal anywhere in Russian cities  –  nor, indeed, much food. Therein lay the greatest danger. To those in greatest need, revolutionary plots and political programmes seemed metropolitan junkets, favoured by those with full bellies. What could they matter besides hunger and chill? The winter weather had already caused the virtual collapse of Russia’s railroads and, in the extreme cold and heavy snowfalls of February, 1,200 locomotive boilers froze and burst, deep drifts blocked the tracks and 57,000 railway cars were halted.

Petrograd, 1917

Much of urban Russia now felt besieged. As supplies dwindled to almost nothing, prices reached new heights: an egg now cost four times as much as it had in 1914, and butter and soap five times. In Petrograd, where the temperature had fallen to below 35 degrees, women queued for their daily bread ration while workers, mainly laid off from their factories due to the coal shortage, milled around the streets  –  waiting for something to happen.

It would too, if not just yet. On 27th February, the British ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, judged this a good moment to slip away to Finland for a ten-day holiday. Meanwhile, six million soldiers along the receding front enjoyed no such respite. Perhaps they fantasised about leave, or peace, but their most pressing concerns were food and ammunition. In their desperation to hunt down either, many proved both reckless and resourceful. Vasily Krakov, serving with the 7th Siberian Army Corps wrote:

Soldiers are busy bartering with local civilians; a piece of sugar gets them straw for bedding, and for one more they get not only a woman to lie in it with, but also venereal disease and syphilis.

Even these possibilities passed by some –  notably the 1,300 Russian soldiers captured by the Germans near Jakobeny on 27th February. A Russian counter-attack in Bukovina on 28th February brought some success and, on 3rd and 4th March, they launched gas attacks north of Lake Naroch. In military terms, these were straws on the wind.

The looming suspicion of Russian collapse was vitiated to some extent by an accumulation of indicators that the USA might, finally, be on the edge of committing herself to the cause of the Allies. This was still nothing like a certainty, but –  goodness knows –  she was facing some provocation. First had come Germany’s announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare. Now, this week, came news in the American press of the text of the Zimmermann Telegram. This contained German offers of aid to Mexico in acquiring territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, if Mexico (and perhaps Japan too) would start a war against the United Sates.

It would have been open to the British to step forward at this point and come clean about how the existence of the telegram had come into the public domain. The trouble was that, to do so, they would have had to blow open the secret that British naval intelligence had cracked the German codes. This, very understandably, they did not wish to do. On the other hand  the stakes were high: if the American public could be worked up sufficiently, the President might declare war on Germany.

Admiral “Blinker” Hall of Naval Intelligence was prepared to reveal his hand a little and the telegram was duly shown to American Ambassador Page in London on 24th February. He, unlike some on his colleagues, was convinced of its authenticity and passed news of it on to the President.

It should be remembered that Wilson had only just been re-elected, very much on a platform of peace, and was within a few days of being sworn in for another four years. On 28th February, he released the text to the media. As was surely inevitable, there were a lot of very outraged citizens in the days which followed. Some of the furore was directed at Mexico, who hotly denied any foreknowledge of the telegram’s incendiary contents. But it was a problem for many of the American public to know how far to believe it: quite apart from there being many German Americans, there was a rump of isolationists who were ready to believe the Press was peddling fake news and spinning alternative facts.

Luckily for the British, and most unexpectedly, Zimmerman himself killed off the conspiracy theorists. Asked about the telegram’s authenticity at a Press conference by an American journalist, he recklessly answered: “I cannot deny it. It is true.”

So whither now the United States? Having been sworn in on 3rd March, President Wilson delivered his second inaugural address two days later, asserting that “We stand firm in armed neutrality.”

From a British perspective, the only word which mattered was the last one. But he then rekindled hopes by insisting the US was ready to engage in

[a] more active assertion of our right…

We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not…

Wilson was not, however, a free operator, and Congress would need to be brought on side. That seemed more than ever unlikely when, on 3rd March, he tried to order the arming of all American merchant ships. The anti-war minority in the Senate was having none of it and the plan was kicked into touch there and then.

Wilson addressing Congress, 1917

British and French commanders had to expend most of their energy on fighting Germans and seem not to have been unduly bothered by what was happening across the Atlantic. Much of their emotional energy this week seems to have been absorbed by a vicious turf war between the French and British commanders and the British Prime Minister. Or, put more simply, Lloyd George wanted Haig to come under Nivelle’s command, and Haig very much did not.

Haig was on the back foot, however. Following his recent press conference, in which he had been grossly misrepresented by the French Press, he had definitely not been flavour of the month in Downing Street. To his eyes, this was unfair, and he had told Derby that:

If Ll. G. has a man in his eye who will run this great Army better than I am doing, let him appoint him without more ado. You will find that I am sufficient of a patriot to withdraw as a man, and I trust gracefully!

He repeated the sentiment in a letter to his wife on the same day, 22nd February, adding that he would be “so happy to come back to my darling wife and play golf and bring up the children”.

Derby hastened to assure Haig that his future did not rest with a mashie niblick. Indeed, Derby said, Haig enjoyed “the complete confidence of the Army, the Nation  –  and for what it is worth of Yours ever” and that the incident was closed.

That was not quite true. Lloyd George hated Haig’s Western Front obsession, as he saw it. His distrust had by now moved into active dislike; he might not have the power to sack the man, but he wanted him side-lined  –  and humbled. During the Calais Conference, which took place on 26th and 27th February, it emerged that the Prime Minister had decided to give Nivelle command of the British forces as well as the French for the forthcoming offensive.

For Haig, this was an unconscionable humiliation as well as demotion. He and Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, both threatened resignation. Had they persisted, Lloyd George would certainly have been in hot water since he had acted without prior discussion with the War Cabinet. Hankey, Cabinet Secretary and ever-skilful fixer, came to the rescue, however, hammering out one of those very British compromises: the subordination of the British Army would be only for the duration of the Nivelle offensive; were Haig ever to consider the safety of the army was imperilled by orders from Nivelle he could appeal to the British government.

The old fixer: Sir Maurice Hankey

It was a tawdry struggle and one from which Lloyd George, in the long term, would emerge tainted. King George V sent Haig a soothing letter, reassuring him of the “absolute confidence”. Whatever balm this provided was much needed, all the more so after another arrived –  this one from Nivelle  –  penned on 27th February. In the words of its mortified recipient, it was

the type of letter which no gentleman could have drafted, and it also is one which certainly no C. in C. of this great British Army should receive without protest.

These spats notwithstanding, this was a week of relative progress for the British. Following the capture of Kut el Amara, Maude’s troops regrouped and continued the pursuit of the retreating Turks, taking prisoners as they went. On 28th February, Turkish losses in Mesopotamia for the preceding three months were reported to be 20,000 and they were continuing to fall back towards Baghdad. In the West, the British advanced steadily near Gommecourt and Puisieux with GHQ announcing on 1st March the capture of eleven villages and 2,133 prisoners in the last month.

Haig was pleased by that, but still pining to be allowed his offensive in Flanders, rather than serve as Nivelle’s sidekick. He was also unnerved by the withdrawal of German forces, confiding to his diary on 23rd February:

Important developments have been taking place on the 5th Army front. The enemy has fallen back on a front of 18,000 yards and has abandoned the villages of Warlancourt, Pys, Irles, Miraumont and Serre. Our advanced guards met with little opposition. The question to decide is whether the enemy has begun a big movement in retreat, or whether he has merely evacuated the ground… for local reasons… In favour of the first conclusion is the information gained from a prisoner of the 5th Foot Guards that ‘the Germans intend to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line’…

As yet, he had no idea of the complex and powerful fortifications which would constitute the stronger shortened line from Arras to Laon, and knock out the salients which had been targets for Allied attacks. As Ludendorff wrote later:

The decision to retreat was not reached without a painful struggle. It implied a confession of weakness… But as it was necessary for military reasons we had no choice… The retirement proved in a high degree remunerative.

Crown Prince Rupprecht

Remunerative or otherwise, the “scorched earth” policy which accompanied the withdrawal laid Ludendorff open to charges of the most desperate cynicism and ruthlessness. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the other senior commander involved, had threatened to resign, calling it a foul and unnecessary act of war. The newly vacated area was turned into a wasteland: roads, railways, bridges and communication lines were destroyed; wells were poisoned and villages razed to the ground; orchards and woodlands were felled and livestock was slaughtered. One hundred and twenty-five thousand civilians were marched away to work in occupied France; only the elderly, women and children were left in a devastated landscape, whose remaining buildings had been booby-trapped to kill or maim Allied soldiers advancing through the territory

For some soldiers, it was hard to punish people in whose homes they had been billeted for over two years. According to a local, one “wept when he told me that the village was to be destroyed”. One correspondent reaching the area was surprised to see young French mothers with flaxen-haired babies of German fathers and had presumed atrocities were responsible. The women’s response was curt: “They had no need to use violence in their way of love-making. There were many volunteers.” They rubbed their thumbs and fingers together as though touching money. “You understand?”

It is not hard to understand the compromises to which an occupied people might resort. Hunger, solitude –  want of all kinds  –  are reminders of the extent to which people clung to life. Living in the midst of daily terrors, there were risks to be run.

Captain Paul Tuffrau was a veteran, who had been fighting since September 1914, and who had been wounded twice and decorated at Verdun. He knew all about risks and about keeping the odds in your favour. But, as his diary this week reveals, sometimes people would not be told:

5 March, Louvemont.  The special shells [containing liquid gas] the men call ‘shells on wheels’ are whizzing by continuously. They explode silently and have no smell but can be deadly. They killed several men yesterday. One of my men refused to put his mask on because he couldn’t smell anything. All of a sudden, he was dizzy, foaming at the mouth and his skin went black, then he went rigid and died. On my rounds a little later, I am seized by vertigo. The sentries tell me that the special shells had been dropped here ten minutes earlier.

Gas attack

It is a chilling vignette but, this being wartime, we should not be surprised. Death stalked everywhere. On the night of 27th February, the French minelayer Cassini, sailing in the Straits of Bonifacio off Corsica, hit a mine laid by UC-35 under Ernst von Voigt. The munitions bunker exploded and the flames spread so quickly that the old ship sank in two minutes. All of the 107 souls on board went with her.

Even in wartime, one could never annihilate the limitless individuality of men and women. During the time both had spent in the trenches, the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had emerged as strong personalities. At his worst, Owen was an oedipal milksop who whinged about everything; at his best, Sassoon was a devil-may-care firebrand. Yet in truth, the two men were also young and, like their poems, works in progress. A warm letter from Owen this week, now back with his battalion near the village of Le Quesnoy, shows a fast-maturing robustness:

this is a glorious part of the Line, new to us, and indeed, to the English (sh!). Most comfortable dug-outs, grass fields, woods, sunshine, quiet. True we are in reserve today, but I hear the very front line is a line, and a quiet one… It was an astonishing way I had your parcel. A man rose up from a hole in a field holding it above his head. It was a fine moment. I soon rushed down & tore it open. Socks most specially valuable, as my servant forgot to put any spare in my Trench Kit. Likewise, I took no Cigarettes, hoping to find 50 in the Parcel. Lo! here are thousands! How good of you all! I shall not touch the goodies until the very frontline is reached. The post is waiting to go. Yours as ever, but slightly happier than usual. W.E.O.

Sassoon had lost none of his ardour, but this week saw him properly cross. Having rejoined the Infantry Base Depot on 27th February, after being hospitalised for German measles, he had been enraged by the sight of grey-haired senior officers over-eating in Rouen restaurants. He now found himself imagining them returning, replete, to their desks, where they would “make lists of young men who are going up the line, or to read lists of young men who have been killed and wounded”.

The fruits of this angry rumination can be found in Base Details, completed on 4th March:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,

I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,

And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,

Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,

Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’

I’d say — ‘I used to know his father well;

Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’

And when the war is done and youth stone dead,

I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

‘Youth stone dead’