The Sapling

IT WAS OVER. On 10th November, the doomed Flanders offensive was closed down.

A final attack had been launched at dawn on 6th November and the Canadians captured the village of Passchendaele. Much good did it do. Allied casualties since 31st July amounted to around 250,000 — not an obvious steal for the five miles of ground which had been taken. German losses have been disputed but most estimates hover around 200,000, or more.

A few unfortunates, in a position to make comparisons, claimed that the awfulness of Passchendaele had exceeded even that of the Somme or of Verdun. Certainly the suffering was beyond anyone’s powers of description. Poet, soldier and statesman struggled, wide-eyed, to comprehend the awfulness of what had passed.

Ludendorff, the German commander, felt deeply the suffering of the troops who had been obliged to face the full brunt of British assault:

The world… did not see my anxiety, nor my deep sympathy with the sufferings of our troops in the West. My mind was in the East and Italy, my heart was on the Western Front…

In the West we began to be short of troops. The two divisions that had been held in readiness in the East and were already on their way to Italy, were diverted to Flanders… Enormous masses of ammunition, such as the human mind had never imagined before the war, were hurled upon the bodies of men who passed a miserable existence scattered about in mud-filled shell-holes… What the German soldier experienced, achieved, and suffered in the Flanders Battle will be his everlasting monument of bronze, erected by himself in the enemy’s land…

All very uplifting. But then came a reluctant admission:

And yet it has to be admitted that certain units no longer triumphed over the demoralising effect of the defensive battle as they had done formerly.

Shorn of euphemism, Flandern 1917 became embedded in German consciousness as a collective trauma. Gunner Carl Zuckmeyer would write later that:

We were stigmatised, marked, either to die or to live with the burden of a scarcely bearable, non-communicable memory that plumbed the darkest depths of our tortured souls.

It was not the case, however, that Germany enjoyed a monopoly of low morale. The formidable war correspondent, Sir Philip Gibbs, claimed after Passchendaele that:

For the first time the British Army lost its spirit of optimism, and there was a deadly depression among many officers and men with whom I came in touch.

Haig was also wrestling with the cost which his own determination to launch another offensive had exacted. In his Despatch, he considered that

What was actually accomplished under such adverse conditions is the most conclusive proof that, given a normally fine August, the capture of the whole ridge, within the space of a few weeks, was well within the power of the men who achieved so much.

As an apologia, this lacks a certain something. It was a nice idea, he seemed to be saying, only the nasty weather got in the way. And perhaps it was true: it had been the wettest summer and autumn in Flanders for generations. Where Haig deserves to be in the spotlight is for having insisted on pressing ahead with the battle notwithstanding.

The blame game — it is irresistible. Haig had relied upon Brigadier John Charteris, his Intelligence Chief, who had encouraged the belief that German collapse was imminent. Charteris now wrote:

We have now got to where, with good weather, we should have been in early September… Now, from the purely local point of view, it is rather a barren victory, and if the home people decide on a defensive next year, it will be almost lives and labour thrown away.

“Rather a barren victory.” There is an irrational desire, reading this now, to wave one’s finger under the Brigadier’s nose and ask him what the hell he thought he had been doing. But it is fatuous: Charteris was a professional soldier, not a callous blimp. He had been doing his job.

The sights and sounds of the battle which had finally ended would haunt survivors all their lives. Sergeant Cyril Lee remembered:

trying to help a lad in this copse about a hundred yards from our jumping-off trench. There was no hope of getting to him, he was struggling in the middle of this huge sea of mud. Then I saw a small sapling and we tried to bend it over to him. We were seasoned soldiers by then, but the look on the lad’s face was really pathetic — he was only a mere boy. It pricked my conscience. I felt I should try and do something more for him, but I couldn’t do a thing — had I bent a little more I should have gone in with him, and had anyone else gone near this sea of mud they should have gone in with him too, as so many had.

Cyril Lee

Gibbs asked his readers:

What is Passchendaele? As I saw it this morning through the smoke of gunfire and a wet mist it was less than I had seen before, a week or two ago, with just one ruin there — the ruin of a church — a black mass of slaughtered masonry and nothing else…

Reckonings began. The offensive had been conceived with the aim of capturing German submarine bases on the Belgian coast — a prospect now so distant as to be laughable, save that there was no longer any stomach for mirth.

Lloyd George fully shared his fellow citizens’ grief, but to his own was added rage and frustration. He had never wanted this offensive — not really: a defensive war would have been his preference, and indeed that was what he had been discussing with his Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, a month earlier. “Build up our strength,” he had suggested, “and wait until 1919 before the big push.” By then the Americans would have arrived in the kind of numbers which promised to overwhelm the Germans.

American soldiers were already fighting and dying, however. The first in France to fall were Corporal James Gresham and Privates Tom Enright and Merle Hay, killed near Artois on 3rd November. Two days later, General Bordeaux, Commander of the French 18th Division, had attended their funeral — a solemn occasion with flag-draped wooden coffins, a gun salute and a tribute from the French general.

For the young men and their families, their deaths were an unqualified tragedy. But it was clear that it would be many months before America had much military impact on the fighting.

Meantime, Lloyd George was constrained by politics. If he had fired Haig before the offensive, he would have risked being seen as a bumbling amateur getting in the way of a professional soldier, and the British had never taken kindly to their politicians getting ambitions in that direction. If he had intervened while the offensive was underway, the civilian backlash risked being overpowering. It would have been tantamount to telling tens of thousands of families that their sons and husbands had just been sacrificed for nothing. Lloyd George, presiding over a shaky coalition, did not believe he could survive that.

Haig in heroic pose  —  to be fair, he never sought to cultivate this kind of image

But he was strong enough to extract one concession. At the Allied Conference in Rapallo on 7th November, delegates agreed to the formation of a Supreme Allied War Council for the Western Front. The Prime Minister made a passionate speech in Paris en route home on 12th November when, according to Hankey, “you could have heard a pin drop most of the time. It was a wonderful oratorical performance.” It was an indictment of the lack of unity in counsel and in action by the Allies, and a plea for its immediate rectification.

A rousing speech was all to the good, but these seem slim pickings after many months of horror. Were there any substantive gains from the battle? It has been argued that Passchendaele had showcased the extent to which the deadly power and increased accuracy of British artillery contributed to a damaging of morale of the battle-weary German troops. The destruction wrought by bombardments meant that not even the dead could find any peace as Kanonier Gerhardt Guertler of 11 Bavarian Corps Artillerie observed:

In the newspapers you read: ‘Peacefully they rest on the spot where they had bled and suffered, while the guns roar over their graves, taking vengeance for their heroic death.’ And it doesn’t occur to anybody that the enemy is also firing; that the shells plunge into the hero’s grave; that his bones are mingled with the filth which they scatter to the four winds…

Strategically, there is a case to be made that the battle had not been fought in vain. It poleaxed the British, but perhaps it broke the Germans — the German Army anyway. It was, as Ludendorff had observed, running out of men and, although the Russian front was melting like butter on a hot stove, the Americans were now turning out in number on the side of the Allies.

Passchendaele brought the manpower problem to a crisis. The Germans, some of them anyway, believed the moment had now come to adopt a strategy of va banque — an all-out massive attack before the Americans could arrive. Ludendorff wrote:

…it had become apparent that the holding of the Western Front purely by a defensive could no longer be counted on, in view of the enormous [resources] which the Entente now had at its disposal… Against the weight of the enemy’s material [our] troops no longer displayed their old stubbornness; they thought with horror of fresh defensive battles and longed for a war of movement.

This thinking was uppermost in his mind when he met with his generals and their principal staff officers at Mons on 11th November, keen to capitalise on Russia’s collapse and to plan for what would become Operation Michael, scheduled for spring 1918.

In terms of the week’s narrative, one must wonder whether the end of Passchendaele ought really to dwarf the Bolshevik Revolution? One could argue the battle was an ugly few months whereas what now happened in Petrograd was infinitely more momentous. Never mind (to quote John Reed) ten days that shook the world — this was the red dawn destined to last for over 70 years.

Late on 6th November, Lenin left his hiding place in a Vyborg flat and travelled by tram — an agreeably prosaic touch. He deemed it prudent to stay disguised, and wore a bandage round his head, rather as though he was suffering from toothache. Once arrived in the Smolny Institute, he initiated the uprising. Prospects of success had been boosted by the defection of the 8,000 troops of the Petrograd garrison, and Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Committee now sent out Red Guards to seize the Central Telegraph and Post Offices and the Telephone Exchange. The State Bank, railways stations and the main electric power station were soon in Bolshevik hands. Kerensky, seeing which way the wind was blowing, beat a hasty retreat from the Winter Palace. He had to commandeer a car in order to do so, since all his official ones had been sabotaged.

Red Guards at the Smolny Institute

At 10 a.m. on 7th November, Lenin, impatient as ever, unilaterally issued a press release:

The Provisional Government has been deposed. Government authority has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet.

The seizure of the Winter Palace was scheduled to begin at a signal from Aurora’s guns. That part risked being problematic since the guns seemed reluctant at first to work– a perfect metaphor for this highly contrived episode. Eventually, they were coaxed into life, and a crowd of Red Guards, soldiers, sailors and others rushed forward to storm the building. Those members of the Provisional Government still inside were bundled off to the Peter and Paul Fortress. Members of the Women’s Battalion were carted off to the Grenadersky Barracks. Later, the British intervened on their behalf, and they were transferred to Levashovo.

Women’s Battalion of Death

Inside, the revolutionaries were waylaid less by fiery opponents than the prospect of loot. Gilded rooms were there, surely, to be ransacked. Some soldiers exhorted restraint — ”Comrades, this is the people’s palace. This is our palace. Do not steal from the peoplebut they do not seem to have been very successful. A French observer noted:

the rabble had passed by furniture, paintings, porcelains, and bronzes of great value, and had even looked uncomprehendingly at a vitrine full of ancient Greek jewellery wrought in pure gold but they had hustled one another to cut leather coverings off seats of modern chairs in anterooms [to repair their boots] and in the emperor’s sitting room [to] knock down gilded plaster from the walls, sure it must be real gold.

Damage to the Winter Palace

As revolutions go, it seemed (at the time anyway) pretty anticlimactic. The firing had ceased by 2.30 a.m. and only seven had been killed: two cadets, four sailors and one female soldier; 50 more had been wounded.

An American, Captain Crosley, was mystified:

I have never before seen a revolution in which the government put out of office has been defended by armed women and children alone.

The next day, the British Embassy counsellor, Francis Lindley, recorded:

This morning we woke up to find the town in the hands of the [Bolsheviks]. I am glad to say there is none of that infernal careering about and shooting in the air at present.

The absence of shooting, however, would not last. Lenin’s address the next evening to the Congress was met with rapturous applause. One of the witnesses was the American socialist John Reed who seemed, however bowled over by events, to have been underwhelmed by the hero of the hour:

…this short stocky figure with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging little eyes, a snobbish nose, a wide generous mouth, a strange popular leader, a leader purely by virtue of intellect, colourless — humourless, uncompromising and detached.

Forget the war, Lenin told his audience. He wanted peace without annexations and reparations and proposed a three-month armistice with Germany. Terms scarcely mattered since the social revolution begun in Russia would spread to France, England and Germany.

His speech was greeted enthusiastically with a rendition of the “Internationale”. Later, the new government was announced and bourgeois-sounding “ministers” were rejected in favour of a Council of People’s Commissars with Lenin as President, Trotsky in charge of Foreign Affairs and Stalin of Nationalities. Even now there were disagreements, portents of the furious factionalism which was to prove such an enduring motif of the revolutionary left. Trotsky and Kamenev decided to abolish the death penalty for the army, but Lenin slapped them down then and there: “What nonsense! How can you have a revolution without shooting people?”

Perhaps he was right. There would be shooting soon enough. In Petrograd, rumours flew that Kerensky was on his way with the Cossacks and had taken Tsarskoe Selo, the summer palace of the Tsars just south of Petrograd. Some self-styled “moderates” fashioned a “Committee for Salvation of Country and Revolution” with a view to procuring a government elected by the Constituent Assembly. The vote was due to take place in only a couple of weeks. Rashly, they encouraged a company of cadets to make a stand at the Astoria Hotel.

Rather like the tragic boys seeking to stop Russian tanks in Berlin 30 years later, the defiance of these young warriors did them no good at all. According to Countess Nostitz:

Routed out, they clambered to the top and fired into the ranks of the Bolsheviks in a last desperate attempt to check their advance. Hopelessly outnumbered, they fought on until their ammunition gave out, then stood, their round childish cheeks chalk-white, waiting for death. It was horrible to watch the Bolsheviks playing with them as a cat plays with a mouse, prolonging the moment of suspense, carefully singling out their living targets till they had shot them all down, one by one.

Kerensky’s efforts at a comeback were every bit as useless. Having rallied eighteen Cossack companies under General Krasnov, he got to Tsarskoe Selo. However once there, the General appeared to have second thoughts. He had 1,200 men under his command, but 50,000 Bolsheviks and workers prepared to face him. Deciding martyrdom held little appeal, he withdrew to Gatchina. Kerensky, luckily for him, also managed to disappear. He resurfaced a few months later in France.

In fact, casualties at Petrograd were comparatively few compared with the thousand and more killed in Moscow. Here too, young cadets were called upon in the effort to prop up a government which was already functionally dead, and, here too, they died in droves. After days of fighting, the Kremlin fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Armed soldiers carrying a banner reading “Communism” march along Nikolskaya street towards to the Kremlin Wall in Moscow

The Allies seemed, just now, sadly diminished. Russia was broken. Italy, a newer and less considerable power, was also in dire straits. Having been forced to abandon their positions by the Tagliamento river, Italian soldiers retreated to the Livenza river on 7th November, but the Germans chased them towards the Piave. Seventeen thousand of them were outflanked and simply surrendered. It was an ignominious episode.

Allied politicians, meeting in Rapallo for their conference, paid a visit of solidarity to the Italian king, at his headquarters at Peschiera, as described by Hankey:

The little man seemed plucky and in good heart but a pathetic figure with his country tumbling about his ears. He was, however, facing it bravely.

The implosion of their allies was profoundly worrying for Britain and France. Only the prospect of America held out much reason for optimism. That and the fact that Britain seemed just now to have weathered the worst of the U-boat menace. That thought apart, it took a special kind of steeliness and steadfastness to get much fun out of life.

In that context, any observer of this time must be devoutly grateful for Cynthia Asquith, whose diaries this week offered their usual brilliant alchemy of courage, pathos, and close observation.

6 November …Maud Russell drove us home in her landaulette… Hazel Lavery came, too. She gave some good Margot quotations: ‘Why do you neglect your boys so? I never see you with them!’ — she hasn’t got any, and ‘Why are you losing good looks so soon: you aren’t forty yet, are you?’

9 NovemberLunched with Lady Salisbury. Kitty was there: her boy Bobby in the Coldstream was back on leave. She had ridiculous story that the guns used in London during air-raids were German. Lord Colum Stuart suggested that the Irish should be conscripted to fight in Italy on the plea of the Pope being in danger…

Lieutenant Colonel Feilding’s letters home leave one in no doubt that he too was a star — a serving soldier, of course, rather than a social gadfly. He was also a child of his class and of his time, come to that, but his supreme qualities — his courage, his compassion and his perfect humility — are a balm to the soul.

10 November  The Italians, like the Russians, seem to be going to let us down. I have always felt that this war would end in a duel between ourselves and the Germans, and it looks more and more like it every day. We shall certainly win. Although the enemy has concentrated his best troops against us here on the Western Front, in a preponderance which far eclipses anything he has attempted elsewhere, we are undoubtedly ‘top-dog’. It is a compliment to think he so respects us.

And it makes me feel more and more proud of Britain: for, though we have our individual rotters in plenty, you can always count on our people, collectively. They will not let you down.