TWO YEARS into the war, and people became hardened. To an extent, anyway, it became possible to absorb sights, sounds (and smells) which had been once unimaginable.
Rookie soldiers learned, mainly, to submit to military discipline, to march long distances without breaking step, to strip a rifle, to endure separation from their families, and to adapt to the rough intimacies of the dugout. Plunged into the melee of combat, those who survived were bound together by silence. After two years, men in all armies had fashioned a rough-hewn, unsentimental comradeship — of a nature and intensity unimaginable to any who had not shared extreme danger. It was an unspoken great fortune of war.
Civilians had changed too. They had steeled themselves to endure long hours of work, high prices, monotonous (if, in Britain, still relatively plentiful) food. They had borne the perennial uncertainty consequent upon the despatch of relatives and friends to the front.
Civilians in Poland and Russia lived far harder lives than most in the west, and it can be tempting for historians to believe that the intrusion of war added merely another hardship in a sea of suffering. That is inaccurate: Volga peasants transported to Galicia, for instance, were probably more deracinated and traumatised by separation than the most callow British farm labourer. Deprived even of rudimentary education, they were more dependent on strong and sympathetic leadership from their officers — and seldom found it. In the same way, it was the ineptitudes of government in Russia rather than the rigours of life which proved increasingly unendurable to its citizens.
To later generations, accustomed to peace and pampered by prosperity, the cheerful adaptability of soldiers and civilians commands awe. But it was not uniform and sometimes people — even whole societies — behaved badly or in ways which suggest the strains of war had not been perfectly assimilated. Some soldiers were not only heroes: they also drank, gambled, fought and fornicated, in ways which troubled everyone else left to pick up the pieces. Some wives and sweethearts were less then scrupulously faithful to their menfolk at the front; some men in reserved occupations exploited their privileged status and became profiteers.
British civilians, like everyone under strain, drew strength by noisily conforming to the orthodoxies of the time. The fate of Germans interned as alien enemies in Britain elicited from many a vengeful and mean-spirited side too little commented upon.
Richard Noschke had lived in Britain for twenty-five years, married an English wife and been a respected member of the company for which he had always worked. Rounded up and sent to an internment camp in Stratford, East London, he faced huge hostility even when working outside the camp as a gardener, as he described in a later memoir:
The railway was running alongside the piece of garden with constant trains passing by, filled with soldiers who on every occasion used the most fearful language, drawing their swords [bayonets] and threatening us in the most frightful manner, and if they could have got out of their train, I am sure they would have murdered every one of us, even so-called Gentlemen in their first-class compartments shook their fists at us when the trains passed by.
Once inside the camp, the abuse did not end: Car-men sitting high on their seats could see quite clearly inside the yard, but on nearly every occasion they spat at us and used every swearing language which was horrifying. All this constant insult from the trains and from the public could not escape the notice of the commanding officer and his staff, but no notice was taken to put a stop to it, they rather seemed to enjoy it.
Noschke was deeply hurt by the attitudes of his colleagues and friends:
I had made many friends, as I had spent the best part of my life over there, but I am sorry to say that nearly all, with very few exceptions, have turned against me, even my own direct family relations never sent me as much as a postcard all the time I was interned. Also my employer for whom I had worked for over twenty years and we were on the best of friendship, he made me many promises before I was interned, but never kept one of them.
A more primitive taboo, which struck very deep roots indeed, was the inability of societies (civilian or military — it did not much signify) to reintegrate those who had suffered terrible facial disfigurement. Explosive shells were not particular where they fell and the consequences, were often more terrible than can be imagined. An article entitled “Mending the Broken Soldier” appeared in The Times on 12 August with a description of the work being done by sculptor, Francis Derwent Wood. He and other artists were creating portrait masks to be worn by those who had suffered especially devastating facial injuries.
This is not a happy thought. The pioneering surgeon, Harold Gillies, had seen men after the Somme “burned and maimed to the condition of animals” and it was noted that, whereas amputees were overwhelmed with public sympathy and support, there was a tendency to flee from the sight of those facially disfigured. As one orderly remarked,
I never [before] felt any embarrassment … confronting a patient however deplorable his state, however humiliating his dependence on my services, until I came face to face with certain wounds of the face.
Derwent Wood had suggested the idea of masks to hide such disfigurement and had been working on them since April 1916 in what would become known as the Tin Noses Shop. The Times article commented that these “will so far defy detection as to enable the owner to go out into the world again without shrinking” and thus “rob the war of its ultimate horror”. That prediction seems in retrospect not so much unduly sanguine as cruel and nonsensical. The isolation thrust upon those so disfigured imposed a lifetime of martyrdom. Governments knew it as well, making strenuous efforts to suppress the publication of photographs of those most afflicted. We may, on balance, be grateful these were ultimately unsuccessful.
This was the same week in which the press carried reports of new pensions and allowances supplementary to the State war pensions. Disabled men would be entitled to receive a maximum combined pension of 50/- (£2.50) weekly, and widows and children 40/- (£2). Disabled officers would receive £187.10/- per annum and widows of officers £150.
There was considerable anxiety among pressure groups (MPs included) to ensure that these sums would not depend upon private philanthropy, but would be funded by the state. Having sent its young men to fight, MPs were determined that the government should fund out of normal revenue — not private charity — the welfare of those who had been grievously injured in it. That seems very right and proper. But as the fate of the men condemned to live in face masks reminds us, sometimes people needed more than money.
There was also a growing sense, in and out of parliament, that the gravity of the times demanded the leadership of someone less routinely self-indulgent than Prime Minister Asquith. It did not help his cause that his opposition to women’s suffrage had not been overlooked. The suffragette, Ethel Smyth, had expressed the views of many when she had protested to the Archbishop of Canterbury: “It is disgraceful that millions of women shall be trampled underfoot because of the ‘convictions’ of an old man who notoriously can’t be left alone in a room with a young girl after dinner.”
Asquith’s unapologetic determination to enjoy society as well as manage affairs of state did not always redound to the advantage of his family. In a diary entry for 9 August, his daughter Cynthia described the fallout following the engagement of her friend Eileen Wellesley, daughter of the 4th Duke of Wellington, who had just got engaged to a penniless artist in the Flying Corps whom she had only known only for a fortnight:
Most romantic engagement. He used to fly over the sea every morning and drop a bomb enclosing a love-letter at her feet. She admits he says ‘tophole’ and ‘ripping’. I do hope it isn’t the glamour of the Flying Corps uniform, but she seems very happy. After the war they are going to live a Trilby life in Paris and both illustrate books and design posters. Eileen wrote to inform her mother, forgetting even to give his name, and she received the following priceless telegram: ‘So terrible you cannot even give the name. Dreadfully afraid it might be, worst of all, an Asquith. Mother.’ This delighted me.
For now, his usual round of social engagements persisted, particularly at weekends. On 12 August, he drove his confidante, Sylvia Henley, to the country for a party with his family and other guests. Perhaps state matters did prey on his mind for, as Sylvia reported to her husband on 14 August: “I motored up with the PM but he was almost completely silent. I can’t quite understand him. He obviously likes me as a companion, as every day I have driven with him … I suppose he is getting rag tired.”
It was not in Asquith’s nature, one might say, to wear his heart in his sleeve. His dress, as well as his demeanour, were being increasingly unfavourably compared to that of his energetic Minister of War, Lloyd George. Asquith, with “his long white hair sticking out behind and his red face”, had a comfortable if rumpled appearance. Lloyd George always presented smartly, conscious of his public image, as Charles Hobhouse had noted earlier in the year, always protesting against the “odious” photographers “and then smoothing his hair and adjusting his collar and stopping at a convenient corner to allow them to catch him”.
The war had come nearer home this week, whatever. On 9 August there had been a Zeppelin raid on the east coast, with ten killed and sixteen injured. Three days later came a hostile seaplane raid on Dover, with a further seven civilians injured. But the ability of the British to retort in kind had developed considerably. Despite the official bickering as to who should be in overall charge of the RFC, it had become a potent force by summer 1916 and from the original four squadrons in France, there were now twenty-seven squadrons with about 420 machines in operational service. Formation flying, bombing and close-escort operations were now common; aerial combat between rival pilots became a source of inspiration back home as tales of derring-do by handsome young aces were publicised. Pilots tended to demonstrate huge respect for their opponents — a remaining vestige of the chivalrous approach to fighting.
German planes dominated the Verdun area, but the RFC rapidly established total control on the Somme, with 185 aircraft in the area. The German General, von Below, acknowledged as much in a later memorandum:
The enemy’s aeroplanes enjoyed complete freedom in carrying out distant reconnaissance…With [this] the hostile artillery neutralised our guns, and was able to range with the utmost accuracy on the trenches occupied by our infantry; the required data for this being provided by undisturbed [aerial] trench reconnaissance and photography…[With] bombing and machine gun attacks from low height against our infantry, battery positions and marching columns, the enemy’s aircraft [left] our troops with a feeling of defencelessness against the enemy’s mastery of the air.
Violating airspace (not a concept which enjoyed much currency) demonstrated eloquently the impossibility of protecting civilians indefinitely from the rigours of war.
Even the British government — normally so conditioned to secretiveness — recognised the appropriateness of allowing a film to be made which sought to depict truthfully the life of those fighting on the western front. Two professional photographers, Geoffery Malins and John McDowell, has been authorised to film during the Somme offensive. From 25 June until 9 July, at great personal risk, they had captured the army’s preparations, the preliminary bombardment, the assault on 1 July, including soldiers going over the top (unknown to viewers, however, that part was staged for the camera) and then scenes with wounded and dying soldiers.
Lloyd George saw the film on 2 August, and described it as “an epic of self-sacrifice and gallantry”; it had its London premiere on 10 August at the Scala Theatre, Soho.
The following day, The Times acknowledged its importance:
In years to come, when historians want to know the conditions under which the great offensive was launched, they have only to send for these films and a complete idea of the situation will be revealed before their eyes.
One might cavil at the word ‘complete’, but the film’s existence, let alone its general release, was redolent of a quiet revolution of sorts.
It was perhaps as well, for the sensibilities of all parties, that the filming had not extended to Delville Wood. On 12 August, the 6th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry was sent to relieve the Lancashire Fusiliers in the front line trenches there. It was an area still contested by German and British and the scene that met them was appalling:
As the Battle progressed the wood was totally ravaged and the ground became littered with broken branches and tangled masses of bushes. The whole area was pock-marked with shell-holes, which both sides had turned as far as possible into post and machine-gun nests, intersected here and there by trenches and what had been roads through the Wood. It was a terrible place over which to fight.
The Infantry’s Official History recorded:
The stench from the decaying dead was awful, gas fumes hung about the shell holes and clung to the undergrowth, weird and ghostly in the semi-darkness were the gaunt long arms of torn and blasted trees or all that remained of them. The uncertainty of the whereabouts of the German trenches kept the nerves of both officers and men at high tension
Patrols were sent out during the night of 12/13 August to discover the enemy’s position. German patrols were, of course, similarly embarked upon the same task and the hand-to-hand fighting which ensued was among the war’s most terrible memories.
The fighting around Pozieres now claimed the life of the composer George Butterworth — a devastating loss to his friends and admirers. He had been shot in the head by a sniper during an attack on Munster Alley on 5 August in which he had led his company, the Durham Light Infantry, in the successful capture of an area in which they had dug a trench and — high praise indeed — named it after their commander.
Butterworth had admired his men, mainly Durham miners — tough men who were already highly acclimatised to tough jobs. His courage, natural leadership and tender heart had ensured his regard had been fully reciprocated. Indeed, he had been nominated for the Military Cross for his bravery in an earlier attack and “for commanding his company with great ability and coolness”. EJ Dent wrote that his death was ‘the greatest loss that our modern music has suffered, a death not only to his friends, but to all lovers of music present and future’. Butterworth was buried where he fell but his body was never subsequently recovered.
Courage and compassion — like gold, they never tarnished. They were toweringly embodied in the actions of Captain Noel Chavasse on 8 August — the only man during the Great War to win the Victoria Cross twice (known as VC and bar).
In certain respects, he seemed a man who — before the war at least — had been unfairly blessed by the bounties of life, born into a distinguished family (his father was Bishop of Liverpool), and endowed with precocious talent. A brilliant athlete, with an Oxford Blue in both athletics and lacrosse, he had even been a competitor at the 1908 Olympics. When war broke out, he was already a qualified doctor, and had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in France from autumn 1914. His athleticism had been put to good use, since he was famous for his speed in rescuing wounded from the battlefields.
The occasion for his first VC came on 8 August, when he was with his battalion, the London Scottish, of the King’s Liverpool Regiment, during an assault on Guillemont which rapidly proved catastrophic. German machine-gunfire swept across the British troops as they pressed forward four times in vain. Of the 23 officers, 5 were killed, 5 were missing and 7 wounded; of the 600 men, 69 were killed, 27 missing and 167 wounded. Despite minor wounds in his back, Chavasse treated the injured then led volunteers into no-man’s-land to rescue the wounded. All night they worked under fire and bombardment.
The citation for his VC award mentioned, the most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise. His popularity was confirmed in soldiers’ letters describing “how eager he was, how ready he was to expose himself to dangers beyond those called for in the discharge of his duties, and how many a wounded soldier has brightened under the radiance of his cheery disposition … His battalion almost regard him as their mascot”.
Chavasse’s gallantry came on the same day as King George V travelled to Calais, meeting military and civilian dignitaries before visiting General Haig at his chateau at Beauquesne where he was joined by the Prince of Wales with whom he enjoyed an incompatibility worthy of so many royal Hanoverian fathers and sons. All three met President Poincaré and Generals Joffre and Foch. The King then visited Anzac and Canadian troops, a church in Cassel and a Casualty Clearing Station for the Second Army. On 10 August, he went to the Chateau de Querrieu where he presented decorations to French generals Fayolle and Balfourier.
The visit was noted in the diary of Stapleton Tench Eachus who wrote:
Raining and very dull this morning … The King visited the Chateau here at midday today, created quite a stir for a time, there were numerous French officers who were gathered round the front entrance
If that suggests qualified enthusiasm, it positively gushes by comparison to Raymond Asquith’s diary entry the previous day:
9 August The King came to see us this morning, looking as glum and dyspeptic as ever…
Accused of being dyspeptic by Raymond Asquith? Pot and kettle come to mind. Brave and brilliant as he was, he never seems to have been able to be anything other than helplessly mannered. His diary marks an absolute contrast to that of another brave and brilliant soldier now fighting in the east — Ludwig Wittgenstein.
As a member of an artillery regiment in the Austrian Army, Wittgenstein was being pursued by the victorious Russian soldiers of the Brusilov offensive. His diary recorded the harsh conditions in the Carpathian mountains, in the icy cold, rain and fog. He felt he was living a life full of torment.
Terribly difficult not to lose oneself. For I am a weak person. But the spirit will help me. The best thing would be if I were already ill. Then at least I would have a bit of peace.
He had already shown remarkable courage and been recommended for a decoration in the early days of the campaign when he had stayed at his post despite repeatedly told to take cover: “By this distinctive behaviour, he exercised a very calming effect on his comrades.”
He analysed his own character and found how easy it became to lose a sense of personal, even philosophical, identity when confronted with the realities of war:
Yesterday I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live. And it is difficult to give up life when one enjoys it. This is precisely what ‘sin’ is, the unreasoning life, a false view of life. From time to time I become an animal. Then I can think of nothing but eating, drinking and sleeping. Terrible! And then I suffer like an animal too, without the possibility of internal salvation. I am then at the mercy of my appetites and aversions. Then an authentic life is unthinkable.
In his diary entry for 12 August, he reproached himself:
You know what you have to do to live happily. Why don’t you do it? Because you are unreasonable. A bad life is an unreasonable life.
Such mental scrupulousness was unlikely to catch on, but Wittgenstein was a much admired soldier. Following several promotions, he was shortly to be sent to the regiment’s headquarters in Olmutz, Moravia, to be trained as an officer.