To Put A Bullet In One’s Head

Capturing the Riqueval Bridge — part of the critical breaching of the St Quentin Canal, September–October 2018

THE IDEA THAT Germany’s eventual defeat was a complete shock to her leaders and people is simply not true. Knowledge that Germany was on the skids was general – for at least a month beforehand.

This is not just a finnicky point over which historians can bicker. The whole idea that Germany was “stabbed in the back” set in train, to put it mildly, consequences. But a minimum test of its credibility was that its people had been suddenly betrayed by a cabal of (Jewish-inspired) politicians and fixers.

The evidence to flesh out such an extravagant idea, however, is conspicuous only by its absence. The whole direction of war, diplomacy, domestic politics and public opinion this week shows that people knew defeat was on the way.

First things first: Allied successes in the West continued impressively and unambiguously. The dramatic breaching of the Hindenburg Line at the St Quentin Canal on 29th September, in which nearly one million shells had been used, was enhanced on the following two days with attack after attack. By 2nd October, a breach seventeen-miles wide had been created permitting troops to flow through the gap. All week, the Allies advanced: Armentières fell to the British and St Quentin to the French on 2nd October. On 4th October, General Max von Boehn’s Army Group was forced to complete the abandonment of the Hindenburg Line. It was a devastating psychological blow, and testified to the immense pressure of the Allied assault.

German prisoners, 1918

The following day, another great Australian triumph came with the taking of Montbrehain. This was their last action before they were withdrawn to rest — having been continuously in action since March. Their commander, Monash, was justifiably proud of his men. In under seven months, they had captured nearly 30,000 prisoners. Between 8th August and 5th October, they had engaged 39 separate divisions, but sustained only 5,000 fatalities. Tough and resolute soldiers, with fine officers, the reputation of the Australian army was made — not a small point to a Dominion power, still carving out an identity independent of the mother-country.

A contemporary perspective: the Australians were rightly conscious of the responsibilities being placed upon them.

The British could point to their own heroes, of course. A singular kind of courage was observed this week when William Coltman was awarded the VC. He had worked non-stop for 48 hours, during 3rd and 4th October at Mannequin Hill, collecting wounded men who had been left behind during a retirement. This was literally death-defying work: as he searched out the wounded, dressed their wounds and carried them to safety, machine-gunfire spattered all around him. Laudable, one might think, but why singular? Coltman was a Christian pacifist — he had refused all along to kill another human being which was why, on enlistment, he had been allowed to become a stretcher bearer. He ended up by being the most decorated NCO of the war with the VC, DCM and bar. It says something pretty good too, that the authorities were able to see beyond their distaste for his principles into acknowledging his immense courage.

Another notable gong this week went to Wilfred Owen, who took part, with the Manchesters, in a ferocious night of fighting, including dreaded hand-to-hand combat. The citation for his MC suggests a man of great coolness under fire:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on 1st/2nd October 1918. On the Company Commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine-gun in an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

He told his mother about the action in a letter which marks the access of calm restraint his time in France seems to have afforded him:

I captured a German Machine Gun and scores of prisoners… I only shot one man with my revolver (at about 30 yards!). The rest I took with a smile… My nerves are in perfect order. I came out in order to help these boys — directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first…

Owen’s matter-of-factness seems to have been common among soldiers. Burgon Bickersteth, Brigade Intelligence Officer with the Royal Dragoons, was in the thick of the fighting around Montbrehain. A letter home from him this week was equally to the point:

About a hundred yards from where our Brigade HQ was established, there stood a German machine-gun in a shell-hole cunningly placed, from where our infantry coming over the ridge could be raked with fire. Round the gun in different postures lay a Boche officer, his NCO and four men, all dead, having fought to the last. They appeared, all of them, to have been shot, not bayoneted, so probably we must have got into action on their flank and knocked them out.

But these machine-gunners are brave men. The Germans are holding up our advancing troops almost entirely by machine-gun. Their infantry will not fight. Machine-gunners cover their retreat — and in most cases fight to the last.

German machine-gunners

The Americans had a conspicuously tougher week than their allies. On 26th September, they had launched what transpired as their greatest offensive of the war in the Meuse-Argonne area under General Pershing. Initial successes could not prevent heavy casualties. By the second week, tank and infantry cooperation was proving difficult, mainly because German artillery fire was playing hell with the tanks. They were also suffering resupply problems, partly due to the muddy conditions and difficult landscape. When Pershing re-launched his attack on 4th October, they abandoned any preliminary bombardment and just drove forward, sustaining heavy casualties.

Americans in action, 1918

One unit attacking the western edge of the Argonne was a 600-man battalion drawn from various regiments — later famed, by no means cheerfully, as the “Lost Battalion”. On 2nd October, led by Major Charles Whittlesey, it advanced easily into the forest. That part went well. It was only when they dug in for the night that it became apparent they were totally surrounded by the enemy. The next day, under relentless fire from the Germans — who held the high ground — the Doughboys held their fire until they were in range and then loosed a hail of bullets. That was enough to persuade the Germans to fall back, although snipers continued their attentions. At this stage, tragedy and farce both intruded: Whittlesey sent a pigeon-messenger requesting urgently needed supplies and, presumably because his message was misunderstood, the embattled forces found themselves facing friendly fire.

In desperation, the last pigeon, Cher Ami, was sent with a message giving the exact position and asking for the bombing to stop. Very much against the odds, it worked. Cher Ami, despite being badly wounded, got through and the barrage stopped after four hours.

By then, 80 men had been left dead or wounded. Whittlesey went tirelessly around his men, comforting the wounded and encouraging others but, by the fifth day, 6th October, the battalion was out of food, starving and sleep-deprived. American aeroplanes dropped food packages, but — more farce — these were dropped largely behind the German lines. The following day, Whittlesey asked for volunteers to attempt to get a last message through to Pershing. It was a suicide mission but one of them, Abe Krotoshinsky, managed to get through the lines and led a relief company back to his friends.

Charles W. Whittlesey

Of the original 600, only 194 could walk out with their rescuers. One hundred and seven had died, and all the others were wounded. Tragic and glorious, this episode was illustrative of what could go wrong in the heat of battle — to any army. The British and French had amassed a hundred such incidents. Pershing’s diary for this week hints that he, and perhaps some of his senior commanders, felt exposed by this demonstration of American fallibility.

On 1st October, he recorded that Foch “seems to have become restless because of the temporary stop in our advance”. Two days later, came a letter from Foch, in consequence of which Pershing’s fury boiled over in the sanctuary of his diary:

The Marshall quite overstepped his bounds of authority in writing such a letter to me… I will not stand for this letter which disparages myself and the American Army and the American effort…

The spat subsided as rapidly as it had begun. At heart, Pershing seems to have been embarrassed by the slow progress in the Argonne. One suspects also that the difficulties the Americans were encountering occasioned some schadenfreude among British and French commanders.

Not that the British and French were short of their own tragedies — above all, at sea, which accounted for the lives of at least 1,360 people this week, just among the Entente powers. On 4th October, a Japanese merchant ship carrying passengers and cargo was torpedoed by UB-91 off the southern coast of Ireland, en route from Liverpool to Yokohama. Of the 320 on board, only 28 survived. Twenty bodies were washed ashore at Angle, Pembrokeshire, where they were given honourable burial.

Two days later, a second catastrophe occurred off the coast of the remote island of Islay, where the American troopship Tuscania had been torpedoed and sunk in February. This time, the victim was Otranto, an armed merchant cruiser acting as a troopship, en route to Glasgow and Edinburgh, which collided with HMS Kashmir, part of the same convoy. The tragedy was entirely a consequence of the weather. Winds measuring Force 11 on the Beaufort Scale had created a dreadful storm. Navigation, in consequence, had to be done with dead reckoning — there was no other option, but it was fraught with risk. While Kashmir escaped more or less unscathed, the collision caused a massive hole in Otranto which flooded below decks, knocking out the electrics. It was impossible to launch lifeboats and the vessel was swept towards the cliffs and coast of Islay.

With supreme bravery, Lieutenant Francis Craven and his crew attempted a daring rescue, repeatedly bringing their ship, HMS Mounsey, back alongside the stricken vessel, permitting people to jump from one ship to the other — a desperate remedy. Men who fell between the two ships were crushed, while others broke arms and legs landing on Mounsey’s deck. Three times, Craven ferried his cargo of dead, wounded and terrified men to safety on his increasingly damaged vessel, delivering the last survivors to Belfast. His intervention that day saved around 600 souls.

Others were not so lucky. A huge wave eventually smashed the Otranto in two, and around 11 a.m. she sank in Machir Bay, three hours after the collision. Islanders of all ages rushed to the rescue but only 21 men could be dragged from the turbulent sea and, of these, two subsequently died. By the next morning, wreckage was widespread along the coast and hundreds of bodies lay stacked up on the rocks, many battered beyond recognition.

One survivor, Dave Roberts, later described his experiences:

The waves carried me away from the ship, then one about as high as a house came over me and whirled me around like paper in a whirlwind. I went under. A Scotch lad got hold of a sailor and me and took us to a cottage. All I had left on was my underwear, pants and shirt — one sock. When we got to the shore, they put us to bed. It sure was fine, two pair of woollen blankets. The people there could not have treated us any better.

The police sergeant on Islay, Malcolm MacNeill, was the grandfather of the future Labour Defence Minister of the 1990s and 2000s, Lord George Robertson. MacNeill’s melancholy responsibility was to attempt to identify the bodies and, in due course, to correspond with relatives in the US.

Robertson found the notebook in which his grandfather had listed details:

In them, in meticulous copperplate, he records descriptions of the bodies washed ashore, savagely battered by the rocks. Many were identifiable only by their tattoos or the military tags they wore. One entry reads ‘25-year-old male. Tattoo of ‘Mum’ on right arm. No other identifying marks.’ There were so many dead bodies that their descriptions filled 81 pages in his notebook.

Three hundred and sixteen bodies were recovered and buried in Kilchoman cemetery, although in 1920 the US Government arranged for the bodies to be repatriated or buried in the American cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. The final death toll is now believed to be 470.

So many deaths. So much dying. Edith Appleton, nursing at Le Tréport, was able to snatch a moment on 1st October to reflect upon this, and the very different narratives which accompanied people’s passing:

We had one man brought in dying two days ago, but something is very kind to the dying. He laughed and seemed delighted to see us, and said, ‘Oh, it’s good to be here’, and he died smiling. He must have thought we were his home people.

I have just taken a poor old Irishman from the mental hut. He has one leg off at the top of the thigh, the other foot wounded, one hand wounded and one eye, and his throat is badly cut. He did that himself as he lay on the field. He had lain there a long time and couldn’t move on account of his wounds, then he heard a creeping barrage coming towards him. He couldn’t bear it, so he groped for his razor, cut his throat — and knew no more.

Traditional scruples surrounding suicide, along with so many other moral certainties, had been undermined by the horrors of war — even if the law still insisted the attempt to do away with oneself remained a crime:

I don’t blame him and nobody would, but of course he is now under arrest. Anyway, he is getting on well now.

His ultimate fate remains unknown — a dishonourable discharge, perhaps? Or, poor sap, did he face a spell in the Glasshouse? As the war entered its death throes, it was in some ways never more dangerous. When the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, arrived in Paris on 4th October, the prospect of peace seemed only to serve to pile on the friction between allies. Now that Bulgaria had surrendered, the French favoured a push towards Romania, still occupied by the Germans. The British disagreed, and wanted to switch the Salonika army under General Milne towards Constantinople.

So far, so unsurprising. The real drama came the next day, 5th October. Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, recorded:

Clemenceau sprung upon us the announcement that the Central Powers had asked for an armistice.

It was true too. The German and Austrian Notes, decoded for Clemenceau by his intelligence services, made it clear both powers wanted out.

What had happened? While the demoralisation of the Austro-Hungarians was an open secret, the Germans had hardly blinked in the prosecution of war over the past four years. But the spectacular victory on the St Quentin Canal had exploded the last rational grounds they had to hope that the drift of war might return in their favour. No longer.

The prospect of defeat brought into sharp relief the absence of meaningful leadership in Germany. Chancellor Hertling had resigned the previous week. A new Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, had been appointed in a last-ditch effort to reassure conservatives and simultaneously pander to popular dissent. As brother-in-law to the Kaiser’s daughter, Prince Max had the social pedigree to reassure those who minded about such things. He also had respectable credentials as a liberal, and as a politician who had long been in favour of peace.

But the system which had brought Prince Max to prominence has become glaringly ridiculous. In a move as capricious as any of his long and inglorious reign, the Kaiser had — completely unilaterally — introduced democratic rule to his country. His lurching expedients elicited only the dismay of conservatives and the contempt of the Left. Their credibility was further undermined by the fact that they were so glaringly opportunist — being introduced against the shocking backdrop of national catastrophe.

Prince Maximilian of Baden

On 2nd October, Major von dem Bussche addressed party leaders in the Reichstag, outlining the shocking truth that Germany could not win the war. Further action, he asserted, would only weaken the German army with “most disastrous consequences both for the prospects of peace and for the military position”.

It must be noted this took place nearly six weeks before the Armistice was signed. At the time, however, many listeners were dumbstruck. Presumably sincerely, the Prussian Minister claimed that:

There’s only one thing left now — to put a bullet in one’s head.

This kind of campery can be assumed too easily as evidence that the minister spoke for the nation at large.

Assuredly, he did not. Princess Evelyn Blucher, from her estate in Krieblowitz, had a very different take:

The crash has come at last, and although so long expected, it seems very sudden to most of these people who insisted on always looking at things through spectacle couleur de rose. The strangest thing to me is the panic which seems now to have seized on those very men who, until now, have borne the responsibilities of all the calamities of the last four years with such stoical optimism.

…On the whole a great sigh of relief escapes from the lips of the tormented nation on this eventful Sunday in October 1918, when the new peace programme has met the eyes of the world. ‘This means peace!’ you can hear at every corner of the streets, where people stand hurriedly reading the unusual news. And ‘peace’ smiles in the eyes of every little shop-girl in the baker’s or grocer’s shop as she hands you your loaf of coarse half-baked bread, or bag containing 100gms.of lard.

For the wealthier classes and the militarists things bear a different aspect. They could very well support another year or so of war materially, as they are not half-starved and overworked like the greater mass of the people. For them the metamorphosis from rosy dreams of world-power and expansion and increased wealth to the gloomy realities of an impoverished, humiliated Germany is all too overpowering.

Even among the Allies, the likelihood that the war would soon end produced more fractiousness than euphoria. For many Serb soldiers, the armistice with Bulgaria was a bitter let-down. The Englishwoman fighting in the Serbian Army, Flora Sandes, explained:

There we were, stopped by our allies in the full flush of the victory we had been through so much to gain, on the borders with Bulgaria, and yet not allowed to go any further.

They might not have liked it, but strategy and deep suspicions had conspired to frustrate them. French African Colonial troops were sent instead into Bulgaria as the occupying force. The Allies were worried that the Serbs might revenge the atrocities allegedly committed by the Bulgarians during their occupation of Serbia.

Bulgarian signatories of the Armistice, 1918

Sandes, hardly an impartial witness, ridiculed the suggestion:

The idea that [the Serbs] would have revenged themselves by killing women and children… is not to be thought of. Though I have sat and listened to the men making blood-curdling threats to the address of the next Bulgar they caught alive, what they actually did do when they found a wounded Bulgar was to give him a cigarette and a drink from their own much cherished water bottle. This I have seen over and over again.

Grand strategy was rearing in the Middle East as well. The Turks, knowing their cause was helpless, had been quietly withdrawing their troops from Damascus, including Germans, from the city and a large column with soldiers from the 146th Regiment left on 30th September. Later that day, Feisal’s Arab guerrilla soldiers entered the city with Allenby’s agreement and, despite British reluctance, were poised to take charge of running the city. T.E. Lawrence recorded that:

Damascus went mad with joy. The men tossed up their tarbushes to cheer, the women tore off their veils. Householders threw flowers, hangings, carpets, into the road before us; their wives leaned, screaming with laughter, through the lattices and splashed us with bath-dippers of scent.

T.E. Lawrence in Damascus: he was never slow to grab the limelight

The following day, in a supremely cynical act of realpolitik, the British and French recognised the belligerent status of their Arab allies in Palestine and Syria. The full hollowness of this gesture became apparent when, in the eventual peace settlement, the Middle East was carved up between them under the fig-leaf of “mandates” held by the League of Nations.

Arab forces in Damascus

Lloyd George’s recent brush with influenza had left him physically lowered during the dramatic days he now spent in Paris. Still, he was sufficiently recovered by 5th October to write to his mistress, Frances Stevenson:

This is not a love-letter — it is a purely business communication… Instructions how to behave on my departure for & during my absence on the Continent.

1 Look today as if you rather liked my going — cheerful jolly, otherwise we shall both be miserable…

2 After I have left & the whole time I am away you must not get depressed or miserable. Act as if you were right down glad to get rid of an old bore who is always hanging about your room when he is not wanted.

3 Get rid of the cold as soon as you can.

4 Don’t be in too great a hurry to get well. It leads to fretting and impatience & over-persuading nurses & doctors to let you do things you ought not to — and ultimate disappointment.

5 Seek nor desire any substitute for me (vide First Commandment for paraphrase of this).

6 Never forget that there is a fond old man who will not be too full of affairs for a single moment of his journey to find room — & the best room in his heart for you.

He was right. It was not a love- letter — too cool and pragmatic for that. Ambition, politics, and rampant egoism seem to have charged the old reprobate more than any visitations of eros. Meanwhile, his wife remained at home.

Just A Fond Old Man?

Many wives had good reason to contemplate the prospect of peace with a degree of ambivalence. Some had become used to being breadwinners, and feared the loss of independence and status it afforded. Others feared that war had turned their husbands into strangers, and the thought of these strangers sharing their homes was not always reassuring.

These were apprehensions for which, in an intensely inhibited society, not often well-educated, language was not easily found. In her final diary entry, Cynthia Asquith, who suffered from fewer of these

disadvantages than most, tried to explain her own feelings:

7th October  I am beginning to rub my eyes at the prospect of peace. I think it will require more courage than anything that has gone before. It isn’t until one leaves off spinning that one realises how giddy one is. One will have to look at long vistas again, instead of short ones, and one will at last fully recognise that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war.

Apprehension and sorrow — Cynthia Asquith

Comments are closed.