WE MIGHT START by going official — although number-crunching made nobody more cheerful.
After two months of fighting on the Somme, the British issued official figures: captured Germans: 266 officers and 15,203 men. Also taken: 86 guns and 160 machine-guns.
Or we might forget the numbers and offer a statesman-like overview of the battle for Delville Wood which ended on 3 September with an Allied victory, albeit a very costly one. The initial assault by the South African Brigade had resulted in five days of ferocious fighting and catastrophic losses: only 143 exhausted survivors were left out of the 3,150 in the Brigade. British troops then supported the South Africans as the Germans maintained bombardments and counter-attacks.
The trouble with all that statesmanship is that it pays a very insufficient salute to a battle whose horrors surpassed any powers of a pen-portrait. Troops hated fighting with bayonets almost more than anything, save perhaps being forced to burrow their trembling, fragile bodies against those belonging to the dead and putrefying. In Delville Wood, these terrors were commonplace.
Captain S.J. Worsley, DSO, MC, remembered:
Every semblance of a trench seemed full of dead-sodden, squelchy, swollen bodies. Fortunately the blackening faces were invisible except when Verey lights lit up the indescribable scene. Not a tree stood whole in that wood. Several, including myself, had dysentery, and that in a ghastly battered trench with no prospect of medical attention. After all, we stood and lay on putrefying bodies and the wonder was that the disease did not finish off what the shells of the enemy had started. There was hand-to-hand fighting with knives, bombs, and bayonets; cursing and brutality on both sides such as men can be responsible for when it is a question of ‘your life or mine’; mud and filthy stench; dysentery and unattended wounds; shortage of food and water and ammunition.
Philip Gibbs, the war correspondent, recalled that:
The ghostliness of the place left its mark on the minds of men who were not troubled much by the sights of battle. Many would wince at the mention of Delville Wood. Those slashed trees, naked trenches, smoking shell holes, and charred timber, intermingled with bloodstained bundles, once held life, and now make a nightmare.
These were the typical memories of all who fought there. One German officer wrote that the wood
… had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worse of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair.
The South Africans’ courage in holding the wood to the bitter end became legendary. A hundred years later, all that seems clear is that such sights and sounds must have poisoned the lives that remained to those who had somehow survived.
By what strange and perverted values could any government claim justification for demanding such sacrifice from its young men? For a very few of them, there was maybe an element of calculation. Tom Kettle was one of thousands of Irishmen who believed that fighting for Britain would eventually earn them Home Rule in Ireland. With the Irish Brigade at the Somme, on 3 September, Kettle wrote his political testament to be published in the event of his death:
I have mixed much with Englishmen and with Protestant Ulstermen, and I know that there is no real or abiding reason for the gulfs, salter than the sea, that now dismember the natural alliance of both of them with us Irish Nationalists …
In the name, and by the seal of the blood given in the last two years, I ask for Colonial Home Rule for Ireland — a thing essential in itself and essential as a prologue to the reconstruction of the Empire. Ulster will agree.
Politics was not a matter of much interest to most fighting troops. Yet its many shortfalls meant that everyone going up to the line during these weeks had to confront solemn thoughts.
The German soldier, Paul Hub, having recovered from wounds received at Ypres in May 1915 was now being sent to the Somme with his 247th regiment. He wrote to his fiancée, Maria, on 29 August:
We are moving out. All the signs are that we are going to the Somme. We won’t be down there for long. Normally a regiment spends two or three weeks there before being relieved. Not many people can cope with more than that. …God willing, I will survive this hell.
Having mourned the loss of his two brothers, Otto and Robert, both killed on the eastern front in 1915, he was all too aware of the dangers he faced:
I am not worried for myself but feel sad for you and my parents. If I die, you will be all alone again and my parents will lose a third son. I hope to God it doesn’t come to that.
While those in the field contemplated their eternal destiny, commanders on all sides weighed strategy with grave attention and as much detachment as they could muster. Having been subjected to intense pressure in recent days from Joffre to initiate another joint offensive, Haig was adamant that he could not participate in any large action until 15 September.
This was when he planned to use tanks to help his infantry. On 31 August, he urged that they be “used boldly and success pressed in order to demoralize the enemy and, if possible, capture his guns”. Others were more sceptical. CIGS Robertson spoke for many when, on 29 August, he described tanks as “rather a desperate innovation”.
Forget lions and donkeys — there was a method behind the apparent madness of battling on. The British had heard of poor morale and food shortages back in Germany and believed that peace feelers had been proffered to France. They were probably open to the idea that the enemy was ready to crumble, especially when they calculated German losses on the Somme by the end of August to be 200,000 with 43 divisions engaged in the battle.
In fact, it was worse than they knew: according to the later German Official Account, 49 divisions had been engaged and the casualties were 243,129. British losses by the end of August were listed at 196,277 and the French had lost 70,351. The Allies also knew the Germans had lost heavily at Verdun and in the east.
This was the week when that failure was punished. Having failed to “bleed France white” at Verdun and having permitted thousands of young Germans to be killed through successive offensive actions to recover any ground lost, Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of the German General Staff on 29 August.
His successor was Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg who brought with him Ludendorff as his Quartermaster General. This duo had been responsible for the early devastating defeat of the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg and were generally hailed as saviours by the German public. One noted:
It is said that Hindenburg made it a condition of his accepting the post that no further actions against Verdun should be attempted.
The war elsewhere was opening up almost hourly. After over two months of success, the Russians were in trouble. Brusilov’s strategy had been to attack over a wide front at unexpected places and times, forcing the Central Powers to rush exhausted reinforcements from one venue to another. Now, on the Stokhod river far removed from his railway supply network, progress halted.
At the time, this brought huge fear and disappointment to the Allies but, sub specie aeternitate, the offensive had already done great work in relieving the pressure on the French at Verdun, taking thousands of prisoners and inflicting great damage especially on the Austro-Hungarian army.
Eastern European armies have been routinely patronised and derided by western historians. That of the Habsburgs was described later as suffering from an “almost Spanish-Hapsburg combination of serenity and incompetence”, but it was to that of the Romanians that attention now swung, since the country had now joined the war on the side of the Allies.
This event had been hailed excitedly by the Daily Telegraph on 30 August which claimed it marked a “new epoch” in the war, praised Romania’s early efforts against Austrian troops in the Transylvanian Alps and predicted a swift defeat of Bulgaria.
Romania’s beautiful Queen Marie was the British-born grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and therefore cousin to George V and Nicholas II and, in an age of tremulous devotion to royalty, such dynastic ties were the subject of gushing press coverage. The spirited role of Romania in the two Balkan wars of 1911–1913 was also invoked.
It was, alas, nearly all tosh. Romania’s soldiers were chiefly remarkable for sporting very natty uniforms — perfect for a ruritanian pantomime and rather less good in the heat of battle. Almost the first order emanating from her High Command following mobilisation was to stipulate that only officers above the rank of major had the right to wear eye-shadow in the field. Unlike most good stories, this one has the merit of being true, and the rich belly-laugh it occasioned was about the only comfort the Entente were likely to gain from their newest ally.
By contrast, the Central Powers’ latest recruit, Bulgaria, was proving rather more effective and by 1 September was in possession of seventeen Greek forts.
The Allies knew that King Constantine of Greece would jump into the German camp at the least provocation and, just to concentrate his mind upon the dangers of doing so, gave a showy display of their naval strength at Athens that same day. On 3 September, they rammed the point home by seizing three Greek vessels and the country’s arsenal.
There was some serious aerial drama during the week as well, which began when the Germans launched their biggest airstrike to date on the afternoon of 2 September. Sixteen airships set out, although two turned back before reaching England. The Admiralty alerted defence forces at 17.00 hours and anti-aircraft batteries, searchlights and night fighter planes were readied. The airships dropped 261 high-explosives and 202 incendiaries, killing four and injuring twelve, but not inflicting huge damage.
This was properly tragic and terrifying, but it was the shooting down of the SL.11, one of the military airships, by a British aviator which was destined to impress itself upon the popular imagination. In the early hours of 3 September, Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson attacked the airship over Hertfordshire and it fell to the ground in the village of Cuffley where it burned for two hours. Hauptmann Schramm and his crew of fifteen all perished.
As one historian noted in the 1920s:
No event in the history of the air attacks by German airships on Great Britain had such a complete and overwhelming effect on the German airship service as the shooting down in flames of the wooden [SL.11]. The moral effect on the population was immense. The catastrophe was witnessed by millions, and the awful conflagration was visible for fifty miles.
Leefe Robinson became a national hero and was awarded the Victoria Cross. For victory-hungry British this was a great achievement, vengeance against the enemy which killed from the air — almost the Trafalgar moment denied them at the inconclusive battle of Jutland earlier in the year.
In this enraged world, evidence still surfaces — now and then — that hatred was not invariably all-consuming. Two vignettes from the week testify to that. Sybil Morrison was horrified by the public reaction:
Of course you weren’t supposed to feel any pity for your enemies, nevertheless I was appalled to see the kind, good-hearted British people dancing about in the streets at the sight of … people being burned alive — clapping and singing and cheering. And my own friends — delighted. When I said I was appalled that anyone could be pleased to see such a terrible sight they said, ‘But they’re Germans; they’re the enemy’ — not human beings … I suddenly thought it’s not right, it is wrong and I can’t have any further part in it.
An echo of this can be found in a letter written from the East Prussian town of Schneidemuhl the next day by the fourteen-year-old Piete Kuhr to her mother:
I no longer share most people’s enthusiasm for war. I think about the dying soldiers, not just Germans, but also French, English, Russian, Italian, Serbian and I don’t know who else.
This binary code in which life was composed only of friends or enemies, of heroes and villains, of love and hatred, was insupportable to many without subtle infusions of irony.
Douglas Lyle Grant’s diary on 2 September from his prisoner of war camp in Germany makes an almost-teasing reference to this:
Very hot today & lots of tennis. The management of the canteen has passed from the hands of a private into those of an international committee of officers, which means that the two damsels who dispensed coffee etc. have disappeared, to the great grief of those interned heroes who have sent two years here, sitting gazing at them most of the time. For my part I am more concerned at the fate of two dachshunds who our room have more or less adopted. Anthony and Antoinette is what they answer to. They have been trained to fraternise with the British and bark at the Boche.
Women were on Raymond Asquith’s mind as well. On 4 September, he managed to take a few hours away from the Grenadiers and described his outing in a letter to his wife:
Oliver and I and Sloper got the Prince [of Wales] to lend us his car. We went in on Saturday afternoon, got excellent rooms with soft beds and hot baths, and had several very well cooked meals and some drinkable champagne. The town was seething with other officers from the division and we rollicked about on Saturday night visiting the ladies of the town who provided a certain amount of amusement, but without (you will be glad to hear) any loss of chastity on my part or indeed on that of most of my companions. On Sunday night we drove back again and today in rain and wind have resumed the ordinary drudgery and beastliness of life. It was pleasant to get back even for 24 hours to the decencies and indecencies of civilisation.
The indecencies seem pretty tame. But such indulgence would certainly have exceeded what was permissible in the eyes of at least one of his military superiors. The Daily Telegraph on 30 August recorded General Horace Smith-Dorrien’s protest against some of the entertainment being offered at London’s theatres.
Cabarets and vaudeville performances were always thronged with soldiers on leave, and it takes little imagination to believe that performance content catered rather often to the risqué and the outright ribald. Smith-Dorrien was moved to complain of the stage’s “indecent and suggestive unnecessaries” and the demoralizing effects “scantily-dressed girls and songs of doubtful character” were having on “our young officers and soldiers”.
For “demoralizing” read “joyous and life-enhancing”. The killjoy old fogey — especially one with a double-barrelled surname — was a staple of British humour.
Meanwhile, Raymond’s wife — Cynthia — spent the weekend in Bognor with her parents-in-law, the Prime Minister and his wife Margot, and their numerous guests. In her diary for 2 September she described “a most amazing scene when the butler Yeo was made to stand up to the roomful, and do his really excellent stunts. He barked like a lion, made a noise like sawing wood, a brass band, cats etc., etc. — all brilliantly done. It was funny enough to hear someone, who had just handed one the potatoes, roaring like a lion.”
The protocols concerning what one may, or may not, reasonably demand of one’s butler fall outside the competence of this author. It takes little imagination, however, to believe this was demeaning. Worse was to follow, however, as Cynthia went on to record:
It was only the preface to – in my opinion — the greatest breach of taste I have ever witnessed. They made him do very good imitations of various prominent guests at Downing Street, their voices and walks — McKenna, Haldane, Lord Morley, and so on. It was a very pungent scene. The P.M. lolling in ruby glee, chuckling away at his butler ridiculing his colleagues … and all the guests rather embarrassed and giggly.
Most unedifying. Asquith was undeniably exhausted by the cares of war, but his version of great fun was not reassuring — not then and not later. A bibulous pillorying of his colleagues betrayed several kinds of insufficiency.