Meeting between a British nurse and a French poilu near Souville, January 1918

THE EVIDENCE ALL pointed one way. Both sides were still hankering for victory. That meant — yet again — a big push.

It was well understood that the Germans were running out of men and matériel. It was also known they had invested too much to dare pull out now. As for the British and French, however loath their governments were to confront the thought, another massive exertion would soon be demanded of them — assuming they were to stay in the game.

By early 1918, the public mood had changed: the love affair with the war had long ago evanesced. In Britain and France, stern duty had replaced infatuation. In Germany and Austria, a winter of cold and privation had strained the bonds between the rulers and the people to the uttermost. Law and convention served to stifle dissent but, even so, the stakes were high. If the war did not end soon, public revulsion risked becoming revolution. Look what had happened in Russia.

America, having come late into the war, and protected by three thousand miles of ocean from what was happening in Europe, experienced war differently. But President Wilson of the United States was as impassioned by the prospect of peace as anyone. On the basis of a “study group” he had commissioned to study global policy, he now announced his famous “Fourteen Points” in a speech to Congress on 8th January. The intention was that these would form the basis of a lasting and equitable peace.

An American take on the Fourteen Points — Wilson brokers peace over the squalls of European powers

Some of his ideas were readily understood — granting Belgium her old independence, restoring Alsace and Lorraine to France and so forth. Other ideas, such as unrestricted free trade, favoured those powers with an advanced industrial and economic infrastructure — like the United States itself. Wilson was also high-minded: anticipating the received wisdom of post-war Europe, which blamed a sclerotic alliance system for the outbreak of war, he now advocated open diplomacy and a League of Nations, and an end to secret treaty-making.

He was also very much a man of the New World, disliking and distrusting the imperialism which had, as he saw it, enfeebled and corrupted Europe for centuries. For this reason, he called for the independence of Poland and of the component states in the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. There was nothing in that to which the British or French objected, save for the precedent: having dismantled empires in Europe, what would happen to those of the so-called liberal democracies? British India, for instance? French Indochina?

Those on the Western Front had more immediate preoccupations: despite dreadful weather, with snow and freezing temperatures, the reflex among top brass remained a determination to keep troops busy. The British held off strong enemy attacks near Bullecourt on 8th January and south of Armentières. The Canadians launched two successful raids north and south of Lens, while the French continued their stalwart defence of Chaume Wood near Verdun.

All, of course, resulted in death and mutilation. Nothing new there, perhaps — but there was a growing sense of unease among many men and officers that actions were being fashioned in order to maintain an offensive mindedness, and to stave off apathy, rather than because they linked to overarching strategy. The letters home of Lieutenant Colonel Feilding, a supremely disciplined soldier and impeccable patriot, are characterised by their customary concern for others, but also hint at impatience:

January 8  Once more I have vowed that never again if I can help it will I travel by the ‘leave’ train. I had forgotten to bring a candle, so, the cold being bitter and the windows broken, I shivered in the darkness. It is beyond my powers adequately to describe the horrors of the ‘leave’ train, the scandal of which still continues after three and a half years of war. Though timed to arrive at Divisional Railhead in the early morning we did not do so till the afternoon, and, after fifteen hours on the train, I reached my transport lies near Villers Faucon at 2 p.m. in a blizzard, having had nothing to eat since last evening.

January 10  A few minutes before four o’clock this morning the enemy tried to raid one of my Lewis gun posts which is placed, necessarily in an isolated position, well out in Noman’s Land, about 150 yards in front of the fire-trench, in a sunken road which crosses both lines of trenches. The raiders came across the snow in the dark, camouflaged in white overalls.

Smithsonian Magazine’s version of No Man’s Land

Haig was not so much bullish about what came next in the war as dogged. In London, he told the War Cabinet on 7th January that:

…I thought that the coming four months would be the critical period of the war. Also that it seemed to me possible that the enemy would attack both the French and ourselves… the best defence would be to continue our offensive in Flanders…

That was not what the PM wanted to hear. He had recently told the editor of the Manchester Guardian:

If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know.

The tenor of discussions between politicians and commanders sounds, to modern ears, flippant — even shocking. On 9th January, Haig recorded that, at lunch with Lloyd George,

We had a very cheery party. Conversation turned on the length of the war and some betting took place. Derby bet the P.M.100 cigars to 100 cigarettes that the war would be over by next New Year. L.G. disagreed. I said I thought the war would be over because of the internal state of Germany…

Sir William Orpen’s portrait of 17th Earl of Derby

As it turned out, Derby would be the one to pocket his cigars. Meanwhile, new dispositions were made for those required to do the dying. On 14th January, Sir Auckland Geddes, Director of National Service, introduced a new Man Power Bill. The main clauses stated that between 420,000 and 450,000 men would be required from munition factories, shipbuilding works and other facilities. Conscription would not be extended to Ireland, however — despite the manpower shortage, the political sensitivities were considered too great.

In Germany, Princess Evelyn Blucher, longed for peace:

Christmas was, of course, but a sorry season, although the unexpected and seemingly successful peace movement in Russia undoubtedly created a brighter atmosphere for people here than they have known since the war began. Brest-Litovsk, mingled with the divine proclamation of ‘Peace upon earth and goodwill among men’, moved our hearts to a new throb of hope.

The problem, as she saw it, was that:

Richard von Kuhlmann

The military party, the ‘raving Rolands’, are doing all they can to obstruct the peace movement, and Ludendorff and Kuhlmann have almost come to blows. [Ludendorff was widely and correctly perceived as a hawk, and Kuhlmann, relatively, a dove.]

There were some exciting scenes between them last week, and people have told me that the cold-blooded, strong-nerved, impassive Kuhlmann was almost on the verge of a breakdown. More and more he and his adherents are perceiving the fatal mistake of the U-boat war, and the madness of ever allowing things to go so far that America should enter the war… At any rate there is a breathless tussle going on, and things are being hurried along, I suppose, to avoid the American reinforcements in the spring, although the German soldiers are still inclined to scoff and jeer at the American soldiers…

At home, Cynthia Asquith found that her own views on ending the war were not unopposed:

11 January  I went for a lovely walk up on the hills with Beb, during which we discussed philosophy. Mr Balfour’s speech led us to a Peace Terms discussion at luncheon. I maintained my old argument that a draw would reduce the chances of another war, as everyone would be so exhausted and nauseated… Ettie [mother of Julian and Billy Grenfell] insisted on a ‘victory’.

Ettie Grenfell

If Lady Cynthia’s views on peace were inclined to provoke argument, there was a greater unanimity on the effects of rationing. Three days earlier, she had noted in her diary: “Had insomnia from hunger — the cold was awful…”

The following day, the subject recurred:

Beb and I lunched with Venetia [Montagu]… Lord Sheffield and Beb had great statistic talk. The latter very dissatisfied with his rations: ‘So this is my lunch?’ was his comment on the macaroni and egg which was all Venetia had been able to muster.

Being short of food tended to provoke choler. Indeed, the morality governing food was a little more complicated than the law sometimes pretended. Lieutenant Colonel Feilding’s wife was recorded by her daughter, Anita, as having “stood in a queue for over an hour to get a little extra butter and some cheese on the black market”.

The black market — how unconscionable! But perhaps not — when the food concerned was for the delectation of a returning soldier.

We shared her triumph as she came home with a parcel of roasting beef for Father’s first dinner.

The rigours of rationing were made worse by the weather. The winter of 1917/1918 was harsh. Living with other nurses at Etaples, Vera Brittain wrote to her mother on 10th January:

Here the cold is intense & to make matters worse our oil ration has temporarily run out… The other morning I came off duty in a blizzard to find that the wind had blown open my window which I had left shut, & my whole room & bed were covered several inches in snow, just like outside…

Vera Brittain

Her mother’s low spirits had clearly communicated themselves to her daughter, who sought now to encourage her:

…do if you can try to carry on without being too despondent & make other people do the same, & for goodness sake don’t talk about ‘going down-hill’, for the great fear in the Army & all its appurtenances out here is not that it will ever give up itself but that the civil population at home will fail us by losing heart — & so of course morale — just at the most critical time.

The most critical time is of course now, before America can really come in & the hardships of winter are not yet over…

The important part of this exchange is that it was happening at all. All the old gung-ho, the smile-boys-that’s-the-smile seemed to have evaporated, and something altogether more nuanced and (really) more credible to have replaced it. This was also evidenced in a fascinating letter home by Geoffrey Bickersteth, who had read his brother’s account of the execution of a nineteen-year-old soldier:

The description of that boy of nineteen’s execution in Julian’s last letter makes my blood boil. I think it is the most pathetic thing I have ever read in my life. How can these things be? The irony of a man dying with such magnificent courage after being condemned for cowardice! And the shrieking injustice! How about those Generals who failed in their duty at Cambrai — a failure which cost the lives of thousands of brave men? Were they shot? No — given soft billets in England probably.

Yet young soldiers had been executed by their own side on and off since 1914. Something seemed to be stirring beneath the surface of people of all sides which made them, only now, re-assert a sense of what was and was not bearable.

On that front, there was little comfort to be drawn this week either on land or sea. On 12th January, in appalling weather, two M-class destroyers were despatched from Scapa Flow on a “Dark Night” Patrol. They were recalled, because a blizzard was raging and the seas became mountainous, but not before the leading destroyer HMS Opal, her crew blinded by the snow, sailed straight into cliffs of Hesta Head, South Ronaldsay. Alas, she was immediately followed by HMS Narborough, both ships being smashed within 15 minutes.

This incident provoked a terrifying body-count of 188 men, all swept away to sea. The single survivor was Able Seaman William Sissons who, somehow, managed to swim ashore, sheltered on a ledge, and kept alive by eating shellfish and snow. Although he failed in his attempts to climb the cliff, he managed to signal to a destroyer searching for the missing ships and was rescued after 36 hours.

Nature’s cruelties were not exhausted. That same day, a catastrophic pit explosion at the Podmore Colliery in Staffordshire killed 155 men and boy miners. In Scarborough, Wilfred Owen shortly afterwards wrote The Miners.

The centuries will burn rich loads

With which we groaned,

Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids,

While songs are crooned.

But they will not dream of us poor lads,

Lost in the ground.

In Britain and France, and indeed in Germany, the sacrifice of young men could never be normalised. It was a bargaining chip — a desperate one — for peace. The payback was that everyone, young and old, should be free to live out their days. By contrast, Russia’s determination to achieve peace seemed to have become no more than a tactical device to allow her new masters to indulge in a frenzy of violence.

Peter Wrangel, a successful commander who had left the army after the revolution, was now in Yalta and reported on 8th January:

Around noon, the Soviet authorities published proclamations stating that the local Soviet was, as of that moment, the only power in town and demanding that all citizens surrender any weapons they might have. Towards the evening, a ship arrived and the sailors who disembarked started conducting house-checks under the supervision of the local Soviets.

Rumours also were now circulating of Bolshevik atrocities in Sevastopol and Kilia. These were fully borne out in reality, and the Bolshevik bloodlust was fanned by an assassination attempt on Lenin on 14th January. He was returning to the Smolny Institute with his sister at the time, when shots were fired at his car. His companion, the Swiss communist, Fritz Platten, was the only casualty, sustaining a rather prosaic injury on his finger. Years later it would transpire that White officers had planned this attempt. Lenin would face, in time, a further 13 such attempts on his life. For now, he was uninjured and unfazed.

The take-over of foreign businesses proceeded apace, as well as that of the banks. One massive acquisition this week was that of the Putilov iron and steelworks — a totemic institution in the history of early Russian capitalism.

Putilov Works

The new government was also busy seizing private property. Perhaps this short story in Petrogradskaya Gazeta on 11th January was designed to be instructive:

A few days ago in Siversky, peasants proposed to a Mr B., the owner of the dacha, that he vacate his property. Not long ago, the newspapers reported on a special ‘decree’ issued by the Smolny Institute, revoking the property rights for the owners of dachas. The dacha owner either did not read the article or did not believe it. However, the ‘decree’ turned out to be a fact.

Taking stuff — businesses, homes — quickly became a habit. The great Russian operatic bass, Fyodor Chaliapin, was in Petrograd on 8th January:

I bought 15 bottles of wine from a ballerina that I knew and had a taste of it with a friend of mine. As it turned out, the quality of wine was below average… [Later] Young soldiers [arrive], armed with rifles and bayonets, and two civilians with them. The civilians report that they arrived by order of the local revolutionary committee to conduct a house check. They lift the rugs, shake the curtains, fan the pillows, look into the furnace. Of course, I had no ‘literature’ of any kind, neither capitalist nor revolutionary. Only 13 bottles of wine… I tried to talk the dear guests into having the wine or drinking it right there with me — the good people resisted the temptation. They took the wine.

At Brest-Litovsk, negotiations to get Russia out of the war were complicated: the Central Powers were determined to capitalise on the secessionist ambitions of the Ukraine; Trotsky also failed in his ambition to get the conference moved to Stockholm.

Even so, Count Czernin, the Austro-Hungarian negotiator, recorded on 9th January that

Trotsky is undoubtedly an interesting, clever fellow, and a very dangerous adversary. He is quite exceptionally gifted as a speaker. With a swiftness and adroitness in retort which I have rarely seen, and has, moreover, all the insolent boldness of his race [the latter remark was presumably an unflattering allusion to Trotsky’s Judaism].

Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk, 7th January 1918

Perhaps to relieve the tedium of negotiations, the Germans sent celebrities to impress the Russians: the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, was there, as well as his brother, Lothar. Manfred was particularly intrigued by the presence of Anastasia Bitsenko, an iconic revolutionary who had spent a great deal of her life in Tsarist gaols. He wrote to his mother:

I almost got Frau Bitsenko as a table companion. It would have been a grand, amusing conversation. I would have enjoyed it, for she had also hunted down some of her enemies. Although they were ministers and grand dukes and the like, whom she had had banned to the penal colonies in Siberia, nevertheless, there would have been a common point of conversation.

These kinds of contrived occasions make for good copy, but they also elicit impatience. While these clowns fiddled, Europe burned.

No one understood this better than Rowland Feilding, who had just returned from leave. Time after time, his letters home are a touchstone of reasonableness and compassion — qualities always elusive, and never more so in a world which was given over to despair.

Lieutenant Colonel Feilding

Back in the line, he discovered that there had been a couple of recent incidents in which wiring parties had been fired on mistakenly by their own side, and the new Brigadier had made a “good deal of fuss”. In consequence, sentries became even more cautious.

12th January The double sentries on duty in the sunken road heard, but in the darkness did not see, a movement in front of them. Hesitating to shoot, they challenged. The immediate reply was a volley of hand-grenades. Private Mayne, who had charge of the Lewis gun, was hit ‘all over’, in many parts, including the stomach. His left arm was reduced to pulp. Nevertheless, he struggled up, and leaning against the parapet, with his injured hand discharged a full magazine (forty-seven rounds) into the enemy, who broke, not a man reaching our trench. Then he collapsed and fell insensible across his gun.

The second sentry’s foot was so badly shattered that it had to be amputated in the trench. The doctor has just told me that he performed this operation without chloroform, which was unnecessary owing to the man’s numbed condition, and that while he did it the man himself looked on, smoking a cigarette, and with true Irish courtesy thanked him for his kindness when it was over.

Words cannot express my feelings of admiration for Private Mayne’s magnificent act of gallantry, which I consider well worthy of the V.C. It is, however, improbable that he will live to enjoy any decoration that may be conferred upon him.

The incident of the morning before last had so filled me with pride of the battalion that I confess I have been aghast at receiving — instead of any acknowledgement of the successful and heroic repulse of the German raiders by Private Mayne and his companion —  the following memorandum, which has been circulated in the Division. I quote from memory:

‘Another instance has occurred of an enemy patrol reaching within bombing distance of our line. This must not occur again. Our patrols must meet the enemy patrols boldly in Noman’s Land,’ etc., etc.

How simple and how grand it sounds! I think I can see the writer, with his scarlet tabs, seated in his nice office 7 or 8 miles behind the line, penning this pompous admonition.

So Private Mayne, it seems, will go unrecognised and unrewarded. In the meantime he has died, and I can only say, ‘God rest his soul’!

Sentry on duty, First World War

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