YOU COULD NOT have made it up.
When on 8 May, in the fortress of Douaumont, a few rain-sodden German soldiers sought to console themselves by brewing coffee, they found themselves lacking a ready means of lighting a fire, and contrived an alternative. The idiot youths — who could have belonged to any nation — then stumbled upon the fuel reserved for flame-throwers. They chose badly: it was not so much flammable as explosive — and since cases of shells were recklessly placed alongside, the result was a firestorm. 679 German soldiers were killed, including the entire regimental staff of the 12th Grenadiers. In a refinement of awfulness, home troops fired on some of the 1800 wounded and soot-blackened survivors, believing them to be French colonial infantry.
Such cruelty was of a piece with the whole appalling Verdun offensive. The week witnessed a dire struggle for German possession of Hill 304, the bombardment for which had started on 2 May. Within three days they had achieved a foothold, but were thrown back soon after that — such was the minutiae of this blood and impermanent attrition. During April, German casualties had risen from 81,607 to 120,000 and the French from 89,000 to 133,000. Yet, throughout the initial three months of the campaign, the front on the Right Bank of the Meuse never moved as much as 1,000 yards. For the Germans who had advanced five miles on the first four days, that was galling.
Throughout the whole time, the bombardment never ceased. A French pilot, flying over the pulverised lunar landscape at Verdun compared it to “the humid skin of a monstrous toad”. Those who survived walked, as in the psalm, in the shadow of death. French soldier and writer, Jacques Meyer, remembered: “Everywhere there were distended bodies that your feet sank into. The stench of death hung over the jumble of decaying corpses like some hellish perfume.” Another French soldier wrote, “We all had on us the stench of dead bodies. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank, everything we touched had a rotten smell, owing to the fact that the earth around us was literally stuffed with corpses.”
Even so, in a way which is baffling to subsequent generations, the jostling for position and influence among the generals persisted. On 1 May, Joffre succeeded in removing the too-popular Pétain from command of the Second Army at Verdun, replacing him with General Robert Nivelle, who, with his ally Charles Mangin known by the men as “Le Boucher”, had been launching mini-offensives on the Right Bank. Pétain had worried at the human cost of these raids and stuck to his defensive strategy on the Left Bank.
Pétain was ‘promoted’ to be Commander of Army Group Centre. Unamused, he packed up his one-room H.Q. at Souilly and left. Orders were orders. And anyway his reputation at this point seemed unimpeachable. He had been a notably humane commander, making frequent surprise visits to the front, presenting medals in person after an attack, and visiting the wounded in hospital. Joffre’s sensitivity to Pétain’s popularity was intensified by the criticisms he himself was facing for having failed to maintain the defences at Verdun before the German offensive. He drew solace from Haig who, while hardly of an effusive disposition, knew as well as anyone the loneliness of operational command. His diary of 2 May records visiting Joffre who “was quite delighted to see me and when I made some ordinary remark about the day clearing up, he said: Il fait toujours beau temps quand vous venez me voir.”
The pathos of such an effusion should not be allowed to occlude the fact that Haig was playing politics. He had deliberately paid that visit before receiving a visit on 4 May from Georges Clemenceau, Chairman of the Military Committee of the French Senate. Its purpose, Haig noted, was “to get me to exercise a restraining hand on Gen. Joffre, and prevent any offensive on a large scale from being made until all is ready, and we are at our maximum strength…the French people are in good heart, but if there was a failure, after a big effort, it is difficult to say what the result on their feelings might be. I assured him I had no intentions of taking part prematurely in a great battle.”
Haig’s instincts for caution were commendably in contrast to those of the personnel now sent from London to restore control in Ireland. By imposing martial law throughout the country and sending General Maxwell as the Military Governor, Britain had sent an unmistakable message that Ireland was a conquered country — to be subdued by state-sponsored violence and repression. Maxwell had 50,000 soldiers at his disposal and sent Kitchener a despatch on 2 May, blaming political weakness for the rebellion and expressing the hope that “politicians will not interfere until I report normal conditions prevail”.
It was true that there was a political vacuum. Birrell, the Chief Secretary, had staged an honourable resignation. Asquith would have loved also to have sacked the dim Viceroy, Viscount Wimborne, but was held back for lack of a suitable replacement. But Maxwell was obtuse in the extreme as to the consequences of what he was doing. On 3 May, he announced his plan of arresting “all dangerous Sinn Feiners” nationwide. and on 6 May he reiterated the “importance of arresting those who are known to have taken (or have borne arms with intent to take) an active part in the rising”. In due course, 3,430 would be arrested, including 79 women.
Maybe the desperate narratives on the western front serve as some mitigation for the myopia of the British government at this moment. The political cost of Maxwell’s blood spree was certainly absorbed by them only slowly and unwillingly. 184 Irishmen were tried by courts-martial held in camera, without defence counsel; ninety death sentences were passed and fifteen men would be executed between 3 and 12 May. The rebels were charged with “waging war against His Majesty the King, with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy”.
In succumbing to a crude show of strength, the British now furnished the rebels with a rich martyrology. The fourteen men executed in Kilmainham Gaol over the next days died with flawless courage and, very often, in a spirit of Christian resignation and charity which humbled their captors. Joe Plunkett, dying of a tubercular condition, had spent the week before the Rising in a nursing home following his latest operation. His marriage to Grace Gifford, planned for Easter Sunday, had been postponed, but the authorities permitted it to take place in Kilmainham Chapel the night before his execution. He later told his priest: “Father, I am very happy. I am dying for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland.”
On 3 May, it was the turn of Thomas MacDonagh, Padraig Pearse and Tom Clarke. According to the diary of Major SH Lomas who led the firing party of Sherwood Foresters:
We paraded at the time appointed, marched to Kilmainham Jail. At 3.45 the first rebel MacDonoghue was marched in blindfolded, and the firing party placed 10 paces distant. Death was instantaneous. The second, PH Pierce whistled as he came out of his cell … The same applied to him. The third, J.H.Clarke, an old man, was not quite so fortunate, requiring a bullet from the officer to complete the ghastly business.
Another account recorded simply: “They all died bravely but MacDonagh died like a prince.”
That same day Redmond protested to Asquith that, “If any more executions take place in Ireland, the position will become impossible for any Constitutional Party or leaders”. Asquith expressed surprise to Lord French (i/c Home Forces) at the rapidity of the trial and sentences and asked him to tell Maxwell “not to give the impression that all Sinn Feiners would suffer death”. He insisted that no woman, including Countess Markewiecz, should be executed without his express permission and also that “the greatest care should be taken that the extreme sentence is not carried out except on proved ringleaders or persons found to have committed murder”.
Too late. A further nine executions would follow in the next five days. Even Lord Wimborne was moved to warn Maxwell on 8 May of the possibly “disastrous consequences” which would arise from the executions, particularly of the most recent three who had been “comparatively unknown insurgents”, as, “in popular estimation nearly a hundred others are liable to the same penalty with, it will be held, in many cases more justification”.
Redmond also warned the General: “The feeling is becoming widespread and intensely bitter. It really would be difficult to exaggerate the amount of mischief the executions are doing.”
Meanwhile Padraig Pearse, long an advocate of the need for blood sacrifice to inspire the Irish people and rescue them from their apathy, wrote a poignant last letter to his mother:
I have just received Holy Communion. I am happy except for the great grief of parting with you. This is the death I should have asked for if God had given me the choice of all deaths, to die a soldier’s death for Ireland and Freedom. We have done right. People will say hard things of us now, but later on they will praise us. Do not grieve for all this but think of it as a sacrifice which God asked of me and of you…..I have no words to tell you of my love of you and how my heart yearns to you all. I will call to you in my heart at the last moment.
How much, one wonders, did the British really mind? Fighting a war for survival on so many fronts sapped patience and encouraged leaders to invest less in the future. You drew consolation, vicious or otherwise, wherever you could.
On 2 May, five Zeppelins set out to attack dockyards and other sites in Scotland but bad weather including fog and strong winds caused some to fail to reach any targets. In all, around one hundred bombs were released, resulting inevitably in death, injury and property destruction. Then came the payback, meagre as it was: on its delayed return from the raid, L-20 ran out of fuel and ditched in shallow waters off Stavanger, Norway. Some crew escaped, others were arrested by the Norwegians, one of whom had destroyed the airship with a shot from a flare pistol.
Immediately, the damaged Zeppelin became an object of fascination. As one observer noted: “Who should turn up but a dozen Canadian nurses? They had come up on the landward side and waded through to it. What a sight they did look, skirts up around their waist wading through mud and slime up to their knees.” Two days later, another Zeppelin L-7 was destroyed by British warships off Schleswig coast, and on 5 May yet another by Allied warships at Salonika.
These episodes were good for souvenir-hunters but, as an index of the progress of war, said nothing. Nobody had the last word. On 8 May, off Fastnet Rock, Ireland, the SS Cymric, a steamship requisitioned as a troop and cargo transport, was hit by three torpedoes fired by U-20, the submarine which had sunk the Lusitania. Four crew were killed in the explosion in the engine room and the rest were saved, but the precious cargo of vital ammunition being brought from New York was lost.
More usefully, it looked as though Serbia might again become an ally. The government was now established in Salonika and, thanks to French organization on Corfu, the twelve shattered divisions of the Serbian army which had arrived in February had now been revitalised. It took six weeks from the beginning of April to ship them Salonika, six strong divisions overjoyed to be returned to the fight and keen to join their French and British allies there. One hundred and twelve thousand soldiers, with Flora Sandes’ Morava Division amongst them, were sent to training camps in the hills.
The sight of ageing, weather-worn veterans with their hand-me-down French rifles and motley uniform induced some patronising smirks, but the desperate need for fresh soldiers tended to stifle criticism in Britain. The Cabinet agreed on 29 April that National Military Service should now be extended to married men and Asquith introduced the Bill on 2 May. It was an astonishing volte-face compelled by dire necessity: compulsion of any kinds was anathema for Liberals of Asquith’s generation, and the move was not calculated to shore up his already crumbling political base.
As Hankey recorded: “[T]he people who wanted compulsory service did not want Asquith, and those who wanted Asquith did not want compulsory service. Nevertheless Asquith faced the situation with his usual courage.” The Bill passed its second reading and would become law on 25 May.
The British public mainly viewed the matter pragmatically — a means of winning the war. Back in January, conscription for bachelors in January had prompted hundreds of young Irishmen in England, such as Michael Collins, to return to Ireland where some were now involved in the Rising. Many COs were found alternative employment on farms, or served at the front as stretcher-bearers and ambulance drivers. There were a number, however, who (from a range of motives) refused any service at all and they faced rough handling. Howard Marten from London was one of a group of COs who found himself transported to France on 8 May where, as they were reminded, disobedience was a capital offence.
There were big class tensions here. How dare any uppity individual of no birth discount the privileges of rank and station? Marten did, and seemed undaunted by the risks he ran. “We never saluted anybody”, he recalled. “We never stood to attention. Well, that was a frightful crime in the eyes of the military authorities.”
He and three others were told to attend a court-martial in Boulogne where he might have run into the departing form of Winston Churchill. The latter, having rushed back to his battalion after the Secret Session on conscription, was aching to return to political life in London. He had fought bravely, goodness knows, but now needed a reason to return to Westminster for good without compromising his honour. His luck held: after heavy losses suffered by Scottish regiments, several battalions had to be amalgamated, including his Royal Scots Fusiliers. In the reorganization, a senior colonel had prior claims, so Churchill lost command of the 6th Battalion.
Always adept at sidestepping uncongenial rules by which others were bound, Churchill lunched with Raymond Asquith at G.H.Q. on 3 May. The latter told his wife, “He was rather sentimental about the spring and rather dismal about the War; says it would be madness to have an offensive this year and that we must wait until the Russians have 7 million men and look for victory in the autumn of 1917.”
The former First Lord was known to enjoy a good luncheon and, in vino veritas, to discourse expansively. At this stage, nobody much was listening to him. Churchill’s vision of Russian superiority in men, moreover, rather glided over their crisis in armaments. In late April, the French Government had warned the British of a very serious shortage of munitions in Russia. In early May, according to Hankey, “the question of Russian credits became acute”, and on 4 May Lord Kitchener was invited to travel to Moscow as an emissary for the government.
Germany’s plight was butter, not guns. On 1 May, illegal anti-war demonstrations took place in a number of German cities including Jena, Dresden and Berlin. Here, in Potsdamerplatz, Karl Liebknecht, one of the leaders of the Spartacus League, addressed a huge crowd, outlining the suffering being endured by soldiers and their families. He stressed the food shortages noting “that our police is weighing the bread, that butter is out of the market, that fat, meat and margarine have reached a price that is beyond the probable reach of the working man”. The police immediately arrested Liebknecht, which prompted a three-day walk-out by 50,000 workers in protest, the first major internal disorder in Germany. His situation was about to get a whole lot worse: he would be sentenced initially to two and a half then increased to four years’ imprisonment.
The British were not in clover, but at home they suffered far less gravely than most of mainland Europe. For this reason, they worried terribly about their menfolk taken prisoner. The surrender at Kut-al-Amara the previous week had resulted in the capture of thousands of British and Indian soldiers by the Turks. Lord Kitchener had stated that the “gallant garrison” had “consisted of 2,970 British and some 6,000 Indian troops” — a significant under-estimate, it later transpired .
In the absence of hard news, the nearest to comfort came in a message telegraphed to the Tigris Army Corps by the King:
Despite your great gallantry and determination under the most trying conditions you were defeated by floods and bad weather, and not by the enemy, whom you pressed back. I have watched your efforts with admiration. You have done all that was humanly possible.