FOR THE FRENCH, these were bad, bad days. Fighting along the Chemin des Dames continued, but it was slow and costly work. Because the much-vaunted Nivelle Offensive had so conspicuously failed, many were wondering what was the point of it all – of this latest feint, in particular, but also of the whole shooting match.
If in doubt, find a scalp. There was no doubt, at this moment, as to whose was required. On 15th May, Pétain, deemed the national saviour after his heroic work during the early days at Verdun, was made Chief of Staff. General Foch was given wide powers as the new Chief of the General Staff. Nivelle’s star had crashed and burned. The man himself now disappeared into the military ether although he would be resurrected before the end of the year as Commander of the French Army in North Africa.
Pétain had bigger problems on his plate than the bloody tussle along the Chemin des Dames. Reports of mutinous behaviour by soldiers in the frontline had started to multiply. Would this spread? An urgent judgement was required by both commanders and politicians, and the choices were unpalatable: if the authorities started to shoot anyone even suspected of stepping out of line, others might fear they had nothing to lose and mutiny might spread. If they were governed by caution and moved too slowly, the rank and file might sense a loss of nerve and seize the moment to rebel.
Viewed from this distance, nobody should be surprised. The French had suffered 3.3 million casualties since the war had begun. Of these, 1.2 million had died. They did not feel any longer as if they were winning and the most recent numbers seemed to bear this out: in the two joint Allied offensives now abandoned, the Allies had suffered 347,000 casualties against the Germans’ 288,000.
This was a dark night of the soul for the French. There was also no prospect of Britain continuing to field an army in France if her greatest ally were not completely committed to the struggle. The recent ructions in High Command had been enough to create the greatest unease and now, although details were sketchy, came rumours that morale in the French army was wobbling. On 18th May, Haig went to meet Pétain in Amiens:
I… asked him straight, ‘Did the French intend to play their full part as promised at the Paris Conference? Could I rely on his whole-hearted co-operation?’ He was most outspoken and gave me full assurance that the French Army would fight and would support the British in every way.
For “most outspoken”, read “incensed” or “mightily offended”. The reality of the French mutinies was that they were far more extensive than Pétain was going to let on, but the British could smell the fear. Two days later, on 20th May, Haig received a letter from Sir Henry Wilson, the Anglo-French Liaison Officer who had just had a long meeting with Pétain:
I told [Pétain] that… it was quite possible that the ill-feeling which I feared, might really come into existence unless he stated his whole case and made clear beyond all possibility of doubt exactly what he was prepared to do and that he neither could nor would do anything more.
There was at least some good news: the British finally captured Bullecourt on 17th May and went on to take parts of the Hindenburg Line, stretching from the village to one mile north-east of Arras four days later. It was a militarily significant acquisition, but conditions were dreadful. Beb Asquith recalled of this moment:
We slept in the open in heavy squalls of sleet and rain, and we often woke up in the morning lying in pools of slush; behind our battle positions the narrow country roads in this devastated area were congested with the advance of our army… transport arrangements broke down, and for many days we were without any bread and lived on iron rations.
Even Rowland Feilding, Commander of the Connaughts, seemed to have caught a touch of the pervading gloom. The cumulative sense of his letters to his wife this week show an uncharacteristic irritability:
May 15th I feel disappointed when I get a letter from you telling me of troubles with servants, whom war and the high wages of the munition works seem to have so thoroughly unsettled. I hate picturing you in the midst of such annoyances, especially as there is nothing I can say or do to help you.
May 18th [The Connaught Rangers had moved again, behind the lines, travelling partly by train via St Omer.] The train journey, as usual, was such as would try the patience of anyone unused to French railways in war-time. To sum up, it took us seven and a quarter hours to do 25 miles; and we travelled — both officers and men — in goods trucks. This morning (my birthday) we moved on again by foot, doing fifteen miles — a tiring march, since the day was hot and the men were heavily loaded up, besides being too fresh from the trenches to be in a fit condition for marching.
Being the splendid character that he was, however, the mood could not last:
May 20th The rest is already beginning to work marvels with the men, and although we have so far had only two days of it, the cheered-up look and the renewed freshness of the men in the battalion is surprising to see.
We had a football match this afternoon, and won it: and this morning (Sunday) we had Church Parade in an orchard. I must say I felt very proud of the battalion. The men had all groomed themselves up like new pins. The mud of the trenches had entirely disappeared. The brass was polished: the leather about the drums was well pipe-clayed: even the cookers and water-carts, the harness, chains, and limbers, were shining and resplendent. The spirit is there: of that there is no doubt; and it is wonderful.
There was nothing wonderful about the Russian Army just now. The weakness of the Provisional Government was palpable and undercut any strategic clarity in the upper echelons of the military. A letter to his parents from the future Deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, graphically portrays the impact of this degeneration, especially among Other Ranks:
Yesterday saw heavy fighting but only amongst the Russians themselves. A Russian officer came over and gave himself up. He was born in Baden but is a Russian citizen. He told us that whole battles are going on behind their lines. Their officers are shooting at each other and the soldiers are doing the same. He found it all too ridiculous. They can all get lost as far as he’s concerned. We invited him to eat with us and he thanked us…
There was a lot of noise coming from the Russian side yesterday. They were fighting each other in the trenches. We also heard shots from their infantry but they were firing at their own rear. Charming!
This had been penned from the South Eastern Front on 19th May. Another witness to the implosion was Maurice Paléologue, the superbly informative French Ambassador in Russia. He was, of course, far removed from the brutal indignities of the front line, and was currently squaring up to the fact that he had been recalled to France. Like many of Heads of Mission, he seemed to have gone native: the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet were presently competing for influence and, in the eyes of the Quai d’Orsay, His Excellency was way too thick with the Romanovs, who were no longer even relevant.
He seems to have succumbed to a violent emotionalism as he penned his final despatch, fearing that Russia was “entering upon a very long period of disorder, misery and ruin” and anticipating “the final bankruptcy of Russian liberalism, and the approaching triumph of the Soviet”. He recalled the words of the village idiot in the opera Boris Godunov: “Weep, my holy Russia, weep! For thou art entering into darkness.”
Guff was evidently in generous supply in the French diplomatic corps in Petrograd. As Paléologue’s train left Finland Station on 16th May, a colleague voiced the common feeling that a whole world had ended:
Farewell, all that panache, the glitter of gold decorations, the wiles of diplomacy, the lavish dishes, the tricolour livery, the powdered footmen and their white stockings! Farewell belles lettres, those ‘clever’ dispatches and pompous, melodious phrases! It’s back to simplicity for us! We’ll never again see the ambassador’s car pulling up outside the residence of the charming Princess Paley, as, in times gone by, people used to see M.de Chateaubriand’s coachman dozing on his seat outside Mme. Recamier’s door. We would never ever forget that we were all there, eyewitnesses to the greatest upheaval in history!
The French were lucky: they could get the hell out. Russian grandees did not enjoy such advantages. Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin’s murderers, had fled to the Crimea taking two precious Rembrandts with him.
Old Masters were not enough to ensure safety, however. He holed up at Ai-Todor, an estate belonging to the Tsar’s brother-in-law, along with the Dowager Empress and a few others, but even there he was not safe. On 16th May, he noted:
The residents of Ai-Todor are daily exposed to insults. Twenty five soldiers and sailors, beasts and savages to a man, have taken up residence in the manor. The commissar has announced to my parents-in-law that they are now under arrest.
The forces of moderation were clearly on the back foot. On 16th May, in an effort to improve the government’s mandate, Prime Minister Prince Lvov invited several socialists into the Cabinet: Kerensky became Minister of War and the Admiralty, replacing Miliukov who had resigned.
Just then, the new minister looked like a man whose hour had arrived. Charismatic, energetic and a considerable speaker, he seemed (to bourgeois eyes, anyway) the essence of new Russia. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse working with the Russian Army at the Front, noted in her diary:
I saw a picture of Kerensky this morning and was surprised to see how young he looked; clean-shaven, with an oval face, his appearance was striking in contrast with those heavily whiskered and bearded generals and politicians. One of our doctors, who had been a fellow undergraduate with him at St. Petersburg university at the beginning of the century, told us that he had a way with him which made even his tutors ‘sit up and think’.
Such powers of attraction were insufficient, however, to impress Lenin, of course. He wanted:
a complete change of the Soviets’ policy, no confidence in the capitalists, and the transfer of all power to the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. A change of personality will change nothing; the whole policy must be changed.
Lenin’s outrage was echoed exactly by Leon Trotsky, who had arrived in Petrograd on 17th April. The ex-Menshevik was now busily trying to buff up his Bolshevik credentials and this seems to have increased his natural stridency. In fact, he was only in Russia at all because the British had released him from internment in Canada. Not that this inclined him to any feelings of gratitude: informed that the British Ambassador had reported he was one of a group “going [to Russia] in pursuance of a plan fully arranged and subsidised by the German Government”, he exploded:
This information… caps the climax of the conduct of the British Government towards Russian emigrants, a conduct made up of violence, sneaking falsehood and cynical slander.
Such vapours may elicit now a patronising smile, since the story of what would happen to Russia, and to Trotsky, is known to us. At the time, there were widespread and rational fears that the political and social strife which had suddenly engulfed the country could, all too easily, move west. In Britain, there had been a rash of strikes which seemed to corroborate the possibility: 250,000 engineers were on strike until a settlement was reached on 19th May; the staff on London buses had downed tools, and weavers in the north were threatening to do the same.
Some of this unrest was down to sheer resentment incurred by the high wages paid to munition workers. Bulging pay packets may have incentivised production but they aggravated those not included in the largesse – troops included. And, of course, Britain being Britain, envy, mutual suspicion, and class contempt were never far away. Cynthia Asquith’s diary for 18th May records a dinner party with the younger son of the Duke of Marlborough:
… dinner in a gorgeous marble room at the window of which children of the proletariat were flattening their noses and kicking up a row. At intervals they were chivvied away by footmen. It was a strange junction of east and west and smacked of pre-revolution…
Many Britons had become distinctly nervous of what the other classes were up to. The King and Queen showed considerable determination and courage at this testing moment. On 14th May, they had embarked on a tour of industrial centres in the north, very much with a view to raising national morale: the Vickers shell-filling factory in Morecambe was on the itinerary for 16th May, the Hydraulic Engineering Company in Chester on the following day, and the shipyard at Barrow. On 18th May, it was the turn of East Cumberland National Shell Factory in Carlisle – the first visit to the city of a reigning monarch for 300 years.
It sounds absolutely deadly dull. Still, at the time, there were large and enthusiastic crowds. Lloyd George, that onetime firebrand, was not joking when he later acknowledged that
…In estimating the value of the different factors which conduced to the maintenance of our home front in 1917, a very high place must be given to the affection inspired by the King and the unremitting diligence with which he set himself in those dark days to discharge the function of his high office.
The threat of civil unrest also came from across the water. The PM had just offered an Irish Convention – a conciliatory and seemingly generous initiative which marked a sharp departure from the bloodlust of some of the occupying forces a year earlier. In truth, the government was extremely mindful of the emergence of Sinn Fein as a nationalist political force. Its new prominence offered Catholic nationalists an alternative to the Irish Parliamentary Party still led by John Redmond.
Now Sinn Fein had its first MP: Count George Plunkett, who had sacrificed three sons in the Easter Rising, (one executed, two imprisoned by the British), had won the Roscommon by-election in January. The release of all political prisoners still languishing in British jails without trial after the Easter Rising had become a potent raison d’être. There were about a hundred of them and Michael Collins, the ruthless but brilliant organiser behind the scenes, had nominated Joseph McGuinness, a prisoner in Lewes Jail, for the South Longford by-election. On 9th May, with the successful campaign slogan of Put him in to get him out, McGuinness was elected as an MP by a margin of only 37 votes and after a recount too. It was a famous victory but offered a clear portent of future troubles.
By the side of civil strife, did war ever feel easier? Almost certainly not. The terrifying dangers endured by those at sea, while the U-boats plied their trade, offered nothing by way of mitigation. Nearly 100 vessels were lost this week, including neutral ships from Norway, Brazil, Denmark and Sweden, and around 400 people perished. The Germans suffered too: one of their destroyers hit a mine in the North Sea and sank on 16th May with the loss of 25 crew. On 21st May, a French boat, Molière, rammed and sank UC-36 in the Bay of Biscay. Twenty-six submariners died.
The week was also the occasion of a spectacular last stand when the skipper of a British drifter refused to surrender having been told to do so by an Austrian cruiser during the Battle of the Straits of Otranto in the Adriatic on 14th-15th May. This was real David and Goliath stuff: Joseph Watt, aboard the Gowan Lea, ordered full speed ahead and urged his men to give three cheers and fight to the finish. Understandably irritated, the cruiser duly turned its formidable guns on the drifter, inflicting – inevitably – many casualties. When it moved away, Watt helped to carry the dead and wounded onto another drifter, later being awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions. Such brazen indifference to death, on the part of both captain and crew, has an allure which feels untarnished by time.
Courage and skill were, of course, exhibited by protagonists of all nations – yet their precise anatomy was different in every case. Brave and brilliant men and women were as various as everyone else. That could be awkward for those tasked with propaganda, since received wisdom was that heroes should be young, good-looking and devil-may-care.
The extent to which perception and reality might differ is well illustrated by the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Just now he was on extended leave, and doing what one might expect of a national hero – being photographed in Berlin by the Sanke firm which wanted to print thousands more souvenir postcards for his legion of admirers, and being courted by publishers to write his memoirs. The image being pumped out was that of a rampant lion in flying kit – which is precisely what the German authorities wished to convey.
But a closer examination of the same man during the same week presents also the profile of the sensitive brother and son. He had been deeply distressed at the injuries sustained by his pilot brother, Lothar. The latter, before being badly wounded on 13th May, had amassed a dizzying score of 24 aircraft downed in just over six weeks.
And, even when Manfred reached the family estate in Silesia, he could not shake off the crowds. His mother recounted later:
Scarcely had the news of his arrival spread than a flood of floral bouquets and small presents rained down upon us. The whole city seemed to be mobilized. I knew how very much Manfred opposed being honoured. But now it could not be helped, and he found himself reluctantly in [this] role… Delegations came and went. The Jung-Deutschland, the Youth Defence Corps, the local elementary school, speeches, serenades, the City Council sent an oak sapling decorated with Marshal Niel roses (a regional speciality); military bands resounded — and again I see Manfred as he busies himself with the children; how they are devoted to him, how it gives him such joy to look into so many young faces glowing with enthusiasm.
Richthofen, like Albert Ball, possessed the capacity to concentrate entirely on the task at hand. Many people missed that, because he was such a private character – but his mother was not to be fooled:
For him, the totally dedicated front-line soldier… he longed for the din of the propeller, the laughter of the machine-gun, the strict but refreshing life with his comrades out there in the barracks and tents. He wanted to conquer anew every day, at the risk of his own life. That was his nature.