This Year in France or Italy?

General Sir Hubert Gough, 1917

SOMETIMES IT WAS personal. There had been an ugly incident, on 4th August, when General Gough had inspected the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders who had been in the thick of the action.

According to one of the officers, Captain Christison:

…General Gough who was in command of the 5th Army, inspected our remnant. He remained mounted and said: ‘Well done, you did your best. I deplore your losses. I am sure you will all want to avenge their deaths so I am making you up with a large draft so that you can return and avenge your comrades.’

So far, so very stiff-upper-lip. But then:

A man in the rear shouted angrily: ‘You’re a bloody butcher’. He [Gough] rode off taking no notice, but after that he became known in the 5th Army as ‘Butcher Gough’.

Fair or unfair, that was the kind of story which was bound to spread. Gough’s position came under scrutiny a month later, by which point the tide of war on the Western Front had yet to turn in favour of the Allies. In the wake of failed offensives of the Fifth Army at Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck, Haig decided to relieve him of his command. The top job went instead to General Plumer, a man famous for his caution, and for his care of the men under his command. His first request to Haig was for a minimum of three weeks’ grace before any new attack was launched. Anxious soldiers could, for now, breathe a little more easily and Haig had the chance to reconsider tactics.

Haig never succumbed to panic. Steeped in the horror of battle, it would not be hard to understand why a man charged with its successful prosecution might have been in the grip of huge emotion. There was an admirable, almost a superhuman, quality to his sang froid. The trouble was the empiricial evidence of a multiple pile-up was, to most others, unmissable.

Lloyd George, of course, was all emotion. Once again, the two men squared off against each other, both filled with mutual incomprehension and mistrust. Once more, Lloyd George wanted to believe that the Southern Front held the key to an uncostly and rapid victory; once more, Haig was trying to hold him off.

Fuel had been added to the flames by a spate of recent Italian victories against the Austrians. The Daily Telegraph described the Italian successes of the previous week as “the unfolding of one of the most wonderful war dramas in history”. Shorn of hyperbole, this meant the Italian army had resisted an Austrian counter-attack on the Bainsizza Plateau on 28th August and taken 1,000 prisoners. On 31st August, there was heavy fighting at Monte San Gabriele, north-east of Gorizia when Austrian counter-attacks were repulsed, and a further slight advance on the Julian Front on 1st September when 340 more prisoners were taken. The Italians claimed to have captured 27,000 prisoners since 19th August.

Soldier on the Italian Front, 1917

This was a basis for believing that the Austrians were under serious strain but not that they were necessarily on the edge of collapse. It was enough, however, to tip the balance for Lloyd George. On 26th August, Cabinet Secretary Hankey recorded how the Prime Minister, on a brief break in Sussex,

suddenly decided to write a letter to Robertson about Cadorna’s victory, urging that Robertson should go to Italy to investigate, with a view to a big transfer of guns and the exploitation of a great victory. He also wrote to Bonar Law on the same tack, pointing out the great opportunity opened up, particularly in view of the failure of the Flanders offensive, consequent on the continuous rain.

Lloyd George was by now fully apprised of how little fun it was to be the leader of a country at war. Laid low by neuralgia, overworked and worried sick by the weather, he drafted a letter to President Wilson which appalled Hankey with its frank

…complaints against the military management of the war; his protests against Western Front policy; his desire to knock out Austria and Turkey; and a new, and not very well-thought-out scheme for an Allied Council and General Staff in Paris to direct the war.

It was not as if the Italians were gagging for this kind of vast diversion of Allied efforts. They appear not to have believed they were on the edge of a great victory. In truth, any decision would rest on how near, or far, the Germans were to buckling under the Allied onslaught – and that was tantalisingly hard to know. According to Hankey:

Maurice [Director of Military Operations]…told me that Haig, and still more Kiggell, his Chief of Staff, still believed that we could clear the Flanders coast – his reason being that there only remained five German divisions that had not passed through the mill, and that the reserves with which they were filled up were the poorest material. I am bound to say that I did not share this opinion.

A private letter I received about this time from a valued former member of my staff, now brigadier-general and a corps Chief of Staff, described the German shelling as heavier than he had ever encountered, and the difficulties of dealing with the myriad of machine-guns in wooded country as very great.

The cost of German resistance made for sober reflection. Out of the 22 British divisions so far engaged in Flanders (one of which had had the bad luck to be called into action twice) 14 had had to be withdrawn. Casualties for the whole month, according to the Official History, were 3,424 officers and 64,586 other ranks.

But the figures need interpretation. The fact was that 57,000 British soldiers had been killed or seriously wounded on the first day of the Somme alone. General Ludendorff, writing long after the war ended in My War Memories, acknowledged that he found the period after July 31st to be one

of tremendous anxiety.

In August fighting broke out on many parts of the Western Front. In Flanders the Entente attacked again… The 10th August was a success for us, but on the 16th we sustained another great blow… The 22nd was another day of heavy fighting. The 25th August concluded the second phase of the Flanders battle. It had cost us heavily… The costly battles in Flanders and Verdun imposed a heavy strain on the Western troops.

In spite of all the concrete protection they seemed more or less powerless under the enormous weight of the enemy’s artillery. At some points they no longer displayed the firmness which I, in common with the local commanders, had hoped for. The enemy managed to adapt himself to our method of employing counter-attack divisions…

I myself was being put to a terrible strain. The state of affairs in the West appeared to prevent the execution of our plans elsewhere. Our wastage had been so high as to cause grave misgivings, and had exceeded all expectation.

Field Marshall Erich Ludendorff

Reminiscences are seldom a source of dispassionate analysis, but these certainly appear to corroborate Haig’s insistence that the Allies were on the edge of a breakthrough. On the other hand, the Germans were more than capable still of waging vigorous counter-attacks: on 30th August, the British repulsed an attempted night raid on British lines south-west of Lens; next day, they were forced to evacuate their advanced posts north of the St Julien-Poelcappelle road but later managed to repel attacks at Havrincourt and near Craonne. On 2nd September, there were four German attempts at recovering lost positions at Hurtebise on the Aisne.

Espousing such huge hopes for the Italians is, in part, a good barometric indication of how little faith was placed any longer in (what could only now be called euphemistically) the Russian war effort. This turned out to be a dramatic week on the Eastern Front and, in some ways, a turning point in the war. While the Romanians continued to offer fierce resistance in the Ocna valley, in the Focsani region their Russian comrades simply deserted. A whole division simply pushed off in the face of the enemy.

The Germans, not unreasonably delighted by this further evidence of crumbling morale, mounted a concerted attack on Riga, and dropped 90 bombs on Russian shipping in the Gulfs of Riga and Finland on 28th August. On 1st September, the first German troops entered the city.

Sailors of the German High Seas Fleet prepare for an attack on the Gulf of Riga

As the fighting continued, the city was finally evacuated on 3rd August with the Russians blowing up forts and bridges as they retreated. German warships broke into the Gulf of Riga on the same day and began shelling Livonian villages and 9,000 prisoners fell into German hands. The disintegration of the Russian army seemed complete.

In fact, the nature of the catastrophe engulfing Russia went way beyond a military rout. On 28th August, Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva wrote that she could see no hope:

From the three sides of the abyss: ahead is the victorious procession of Emperor Wilhelm towards unresisting Russia; to the right – return to the old general on a white horse, who suffocates life in the name of victory; to the left – the insurrection of the Bolsheviks, anarchy, sea of unnecessary blood, the destruction of Russia and the Revolution.

There was little with which to argue there. The Provisional Government’s tendentious claims to leadership had been underlined by its hosting of the so-called Russian National Conference, which had just closed in Moscow. Reflecting upon it, Ambassador Buchanan confided to his diary on 29th August:

so far from securing national unity, [it] has rather accentuated the differences existing between different parties, and we shall probably be faced with another crisis before many weeks are passed.

Whether because his job was impossible, or (this seems more likely) his reputation had always been inflated, Kerensky seemed unable to stop the rot. Vladimir Nabokov, father of the great novelist, had listened to the Prime Minister’s peroration at the conference and been appalled:

His was not a calm and weighty speech befitting of a statesman, but the scream of a megalomaniac, hysterical through and through. You could feel his intense, zealous desire to make an impression, to be held in high regard. In his closing speech, he seemed utterly to lose all self-control and spouted a load of absolute nonsense which had to be carefully excised from the shorthand transcription.

Grim as his own position was, Nicholas II was well out of it. He was keeping himself busy in Tobolsk by chopping logs and arranging his photograph albums. His mother, the dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, safe in the Crimea, had heard from a friend that her son and family:

…had to spend an entire week on board the ship because those rascals didn’t even bother to prepare a house for them. How outrageous, how scandalous! And it is frightfully cold there! The poor things! How awful and despicable it all is!

The Tsar and Tsarevich chopping wood

From the vantage point of a loving mother and grandmother, her indignation is understandable. It does little, however, to rehabilitate the claims of the Romanovs to have any meaningful claim to rule anything greater than a vegetable patch.

This was a week in which the British had their own domestic miseries. While their seaplanes continued their campaign against German-held bases in Belgium, bombing aerodromes near the Belgian coast and the docks at Bruges, they took far greater punishment than they inflicted. Deterred from daylight raids by the increasing efficiency of British defences, the Luftstreike now switched to nocturnal bombing and at 11 p.m. on 3rd September, four Gotha planes dropped a total of 46 bombs on Chatham and nearby towns. They cannot have imagined how diabolically successful they would be. At the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, known as HMS Pembroke, 900 ratings were asleep in the Drill Hall. This was a temporary accommodation base, its use necessitated because of an outbreak of meningitis in the nearby barracks. A bomb crashed through the glass roof scattering shards of lethal glass over the men and then exploding on contact with the floor.

The Drill Hall

The devastation was total: 90 men were immediately killed in the explosion or by being ripped to shreds by the glass. With so many injured, the death toll would rise to 138 and there were others who, though terribly wounded, would survive. The rescue attempt which followed was as bad as could be imagined. Sailors and staff worked for 17 hours going through the rubble. Ordinary Seaman Frederick Turpin recalled:

Everywhere we found bodies in a terribly mutilated condition. Some with arms and legs missing and some headless. The gathering up of the dismembered limbs turned one sick… It was a terrible affair and the old sailors, who had been in several battles, said they would rather be in ten Jutlands or Heligolands than go through another raid such as this.

It proved very difficult to identify the dead but, on 6th September, a mass funeral would take place with full military honours. Ninety-eight coffins would be carried in a procession of 18 lorries. There might have been some black humour to be drawn from the fact there had been an air raid drill earlier in the day. In the real thing, however, the evidence pointed to the town being woefully unprepared: there was no blackout in force and the anti-aircraft guns were not manned. Planes from the Royal Flying Corps were scrambled to pursue the bombers but in vain: all four returned safely to their bases in Belgium.

The youngest rating to die in the raid was Archibald Hay. He had been born in Edinburgh and, when working there, aged 16, had been presented with a white feather by a woman who thought he was both older and shirking his patriotic duty to fight. He had subsequently run away from home and joined the navy. He was just 17 at the time of the raid.

The white feather treatment hearkened back to the first days of the war, and to the saccharine moral certitudes to which, at that time, some people had unwisely resorted. Truth was, those who were closest to the fighting were often those who showed by far the greatest understanding of what conflict, injury and death might mean to others. These included the so-called Madonnas of Pervyse, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, still nursing between Ypres and the coast at Nieuport-les-Bains. A British officer, Major Christian, had tried to make them leave during the build-up to the 31st July offensive, because as Elsie remembered:

He informed me he was setting up his guns, and couldn’t possibly be expected to fire them across trenches with women in them. He’d never known such a damned ridiculous lot of nonsense in his life.

His fulminations made not the least difference. The women, by now the most famous women on the Western Front, refused to budge. In an article for home consumption, Mairi described one young British officer whose sanity was probably saved by Elsie’s Knocker’s nursing skills:

The British put a field battery plumb opposite our post near the side of the road… and the Germans put on a big show… and the shelling was very severe… When the fire died down for a bit, the gun crew brought over a young subaltern who had only been 48 hours on active service… and he was an absolute wreck. He was crying his eyes out and calling for his mother… She got this boy onto the camp bed and put her arms around him and he cried and cried… and was with him two solid hours and she wouldn’t give him morphia until she fed into his subconscious that he was not a failure.

The Madonnas of Pervyse, 1917

Official acknowledgement seemed readier by now to support this kind of tender encouragement than it had been. It was no more than common sense, really: heavy artillery fire especially drove many – men who were neither shell-shocked nor abject cowards – into a state of temporary collapse. With careful handling, they often recovered quite quickly. In June, a new system had been introduced to help in assessing whether men had true shell-shock or just needed good food and rest to recover from the horrors of battle. “NYDN” (Not Yet Diagnosed, Nervous) was to be used for such cases and N0.62 Casualty Clearing Station at Haringhe became the centre to which all such cases were sent for one month’s rest and observation.

Those who emerged from battle without their wits having become demented also suffered. The young Lieutenant Edwin Vaughan managed to write what would be his final diary entry on 28th August, having – against all the odds – survived the appalling fighting of the previous day.

I found that I was alone in my tent, which I entered soaked in mud and blood from head to foot. It was brightly lighted by candles and Martin had laid out my valise and pyjamas. As I dragged off my clothes he entered and filled my canvas bath with hot water. Doggedly driving all thoughts out of my head I bathed, crawled into bed and ate a large plateful of stew. Then I laid my utterly vacuous head upon the pillow and slept.

At about 9 a.m. I dragged myself wearily out to take a muster parade on which my worst fears were realized. Standing near the cookers were four small groups of bedraggled, unshaven men from whom the quartermaster sergeants were gathering information concerning any of their pals they had seen killed or wounded. It was a terrible list. Poor old Pepper had gone – hit in the back by a chunk of shell; twice buried as he lay dying in a hole, his dead body blown up and lost after Willis had carried it back to Vanheule Farm. Ewing hit by machine-gun bullets had lain beside him for a while and taken messages for his girl back home.

Chalk, our little treasure, had been seen to fall riddled with bullets; then he too had been hit by a shell. Sergeant Wheeldon, DCM and bar, MM and bar, was killed and Foster. Also Corporals Harrison, Oldham, Mucklow and the imperturbable McKay. My black sheep – Dawson and Taylor – had died together, and out of our happy little band of 90 men, only 15 remained… The only officers who are left are Berry, Bridge, Coleridge, Samuel and MacFarlane, in addition to the CO and Mortimore.

So this was the end of ‘D’ Company. Feeling sick and lonely I returned to my tent to write out my casualty report; but instead I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future.

For the 19-year-old Vaughan, after only eight months in France, enough was enough. Any relief afforded by confiding his thoughts to his diary had dissipated in the wake of the appalling realities of life. Although he would be promoted Captain in October, he would write no further diary entries.