FUNNY OLD WORLD. Except — not funny at all.
Why is it that we ‘remember’ only the first day of the Somme when in fact the campaign lasted many months? Why do we dismiss it as an utter disaster when, in blood-soaked fashion, it proved hugely significant in the greater story of the war and in the eventual outcome?
Haig was still hoping for a breakthrough and in recent weeks had begun the planning for another major attack — to take place in November before the onset of winter. Before then, however, he had stipulated smaller actions should continue. One of these took place on 7 October when the Rangers (12th Battalion London Regiment) were sent in to attack the German Dewdrop Trench east of Lesboeufs.
Here, were it needed, lay further evidence that 1 July was not the only day of grinding horror on the Somme for the British and their allies. Once again, wave upon wave of companies came under very heavy and accurate machine-gunfire, and the body count was terrible. According to the Rangers’ War History:
October 7th 1916 was a disastrous day for the Rangers and for many others. The attack of the Brigade on our left failed as also did that of the troops on our right. The weather was appalling — the ground was greasy and slippery with recent rain and there was more than one subsequent abortive attack after we were relieved before the position was finally won.
One of those killed was Leslie Coulson. He had just written to his father — the renowned Sunday Chronicle journalist known as ‘Democritus’ — insisting that ‘If I should fall do not grieve for me. I shall be one with the wind and the sun and the flowers’. One sometimes suspects that these generous and Olympian sentiments may have been penned with a view to mitigating the sorrow of those left behind rather than as a frank self-appraisal. A poem found amongst Coulson’s effects suggests his resignation may have been hard-won:
Who made the Law that men should die in meadows?
Who spake the word that blood should splash in lanes?
Who gave it forth that gardens should be bone-yards?
Who spread the hills with flesh, and blood, and brains?
Who made the Law?
Captain R Trousdell from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers had been part of a group reconnoitring the forward area between Lesboeufs and le Transloy area the day before, Friday 6 October:
I have forgotten nothing of that first visit to the Somme battle area. In the open, no sign of vegetation was visible: shell craters literally overlapped over square miles — gashes in the torn surface, more or less continuous and deeper than the rest — indicated trenches, and in these our troops managed to exist, shelled day and night until they went forward to the attack or were replaced by other troops — only less muddy and tired than themselves after a few days so-called ‘rest’. Thickly timbered woods were reduced to a few gaunt and splintered trunks. Stripped of every leaf and twig — without undergrowth — almost without roots. Villages disappeared as though they had never been; what the bombardment left the Army removed — wood was taken for fuel or for making trench shelters; bricks and stones for repairing roads. As a result one could stand in the centre of what had been Mametz or Fricourt, or many another village of perhaps three to four hundred inhabitants and the only intimation of one’s position was a noticeboard bearing the name of what had been.
One of the interests of Trousdell’s recollections is his acknowledgement of those who kept the troops fed, and of his keen awareness that this was anything but a straightforward task:
From far to the west of Montauban to Bernafray Corner was an endless line of transport — motor lorries, ammunition waggons, ration carts, RE material and ambulances. The congestion of traffic on the few bad roads of this district was appalling. Ration limbers took anything up to sixteen hours to do a single trip from their lines to their unit’s HQ and back. The roads were awful, a column might be halted a full hour without making a yard of progress, liable to be shelled at any moment, and when they got back their billet was a muddy field, a wagon sheet the only cover for men and harness — horses standing in mud to their hocks — never dry, never clean — yet they never failed us.
Becalmed, in strictly relative terms, was Verdun. The German offensive there had petered out and orders had been given to maintain only defensive positions. Thirsting for revenge, the French were determined to deliver a decisive attack to drive them out of the forts they had captured earlier in the battle.
Hubris threatened: the ultra-confident, charismatic General Nivelle, with his sidekick ‘Butcher’ Mangin were now planning for a great assault, and being restrained by Petain, still in overall command, who was determined there would be no more premature and under-prepared attacks. Instead he began amassing artillery pieces from all over France, over 650 of which were collected. Half of these were ‘heavies’, designed to face an estimated 450–550 German guns, and included two brand-new 400 millimetre railway guns. These so-called ‘super-heavies’ were manufactured by Schneider-Creusot, had a longer range and greater penetrating powers — even deadlier than the Krupp ‘Big Berthas’. The attack launch date would be 19 October, with three divisions in the first line, followed by three more, with a further two in reserve. With 15,000 shells delivered for the offensive, Petain was determined to fulfil a pledge he had made earlier — that the French would not have this time to go over the top singing the Marseillaise without cannons in support.
Foot soldiers had very little idea of who, even relatively, was winning and losing. They were only too well aware that their companions were skewered by shells and machine gun bullets in any drive to gain ground, but that much could also be true in retreat, or simply by seeking to hold their position. In reality, their sense of military progress was confined to forty or fifty square yards around them.
Commanders knew more, of course. On the eastern front, Falkenhayn’s offensive was extending east against Kronstadt, which fell on 7 October, and the Romanians were forced to retreat. In Macedonia, intensive fighting continued all week as the Allies approached Monastir. Meanwhile, the Serbian army had engaged the Bulgarians near the Cherna river. Flora Sandes, the British woman serving as a captain with the Serbian Fourth Company, had reached Slivica after enduring shelling and capturing Bulgarian prisoners.
Her Company was then ordered into reserve which annoyed her, as she indicated on 9 October:
We have nothing to do all day but sit on a rock while they shell all around.
That same day she discovered a badly wounded Bulgarian surrounded by Serbs.
No one was doing anything for him. I took to this chap because he had such spirit, and wouldn’t kowtow to anyone. Though he was badly shot through both thighs and couldn’t move, and expecting every moment to be treated as they treat Serbs, he lay there hurling abuse at everyone, and said if he had a rifle he would shoot us yet, and he was just a lad.
Sandes took over, ordering the Serbs to bring bandages, iodine, bread, brandy and water. As she dressed his wounds, the Bulgarian remained suspicious, at first refusing any drink believing it was poison. In the end, The poor chap was quite grateful…and said I was a ‘silna brat’ [fine brother].
She even managed to persuade Pesic, her commanding officer, to send him to a field ambulance — although he took the opportunity to upbraid her: “What on earth do you think you are doing, Sandes? I can’t even get my own men off to the ambulance! And what business was it of yours wandering around when they’re shelling? You were lucky not to get yourself killed.”
Sandes was unabashed, writing later:
His bark is always much worse than his bite. They think a lot of my opinion, and would even let me keep a pet Bulgar, I believe, if I wanted to.
Such wilfulness! She must have been hell to have under one’s command, but such rough-hewn compassion is irresistible.
The relative success of the Serbs on the southern front did not extend further south. The British remained highly suspicious of the pro-German King Constantine of Greece — suspicions which were redoubled on 9 October when there was a sudden concentration of troops at Larissa, north of Thessaly who looked to threaten Allied forces in Salonica. The Greek Cabinet acquired a new Premier on 9 October, Professor Lambros, following the earlier resignation of Kalogeropoulos, but popular interest focused on the arrival in Salonica of the anglophile provisional government under Venezilos, which had just decamped from Crete.
Eccentrics like Sandes did not merely colour the narrative of war; they introduced clarity. Just as her insistence on a measure of compassion for the wounded Bulgarian feels incontestably right, so that old blood-drinker Richard Meinertzhagen shone light upon the Delphic qualities of the African campaign.
Under General Smuts, British and South African troops were gradually gaining territory but without ever closing on Lettow-Vorbeck. Meinertzhagen recorded in his diary of 8 October:
An entirely false impression is created by the fantastic cables that Smuts sends home. Fierce engagements fought against overwhelming odds, our camps subjected to intense bombardments, the South Africans have shown themselves to be stubborn and determined fighters. But what are the facts? The fierce engagements have cost us perhaps five killed. The heavy bombardments are carried out by one or two guns short of ammunition and the South Africans prove themselves unreliable fighters and unwilling to suffer casualties. Van Deventer, Bits, Eslin and Crew are incompetent gasbags, their official reports amounting to mere flatulence. Discipline does not exist, bush warfare is not understood, hospitals are full to overflowing with strong healthy men suffering from cold feet or an excess of patriotism.
His dyspeptic analysis was certainly at odds with the official version.
By contrast, the narrative of the war at sea during the week required no exaggeration and admitted of no euphemism. On 4 October, the French troopship SS Gallia, which had left Toulon unescorted, was on its way to Salonica when it was intercepted between Sardinia and Tunis by Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere, the most successful German U-boat commander of the war. The Gallia had 1,650 French soldiers, 350 Serbian troops and 350 crew on board, plus artillery and ammunition; a single torpedo from U-35 exploded the ammunition and the ship sank in fifteen minutes.
Panic spread as lifeboats capsized and soldiers threw themselves overboard in scenes of inconceivable horror. The radio had been disabled by the blast before a distress signal could be sent and survivors were only picked up the following day by the cruiser Chateaurenault. Hundreds of lives were lost and this has remained the worst maritime disaster to affect a single French ship during the whole war.
Arnauld de la Periere had an awesome record: in a record-breaking, one-month patrol from July to August 1916 he had sunk 54 merchant ships totally 91,150 tons, usually using the 88mm deck gun. It might have been convenient had he been a monster as well, but he has been reliably described as ‘a modest but very skilled skipper respected by his crew’. On 11 October, in recognition of his formidable record, he would be awarded Germany’s highest award, the Pour Le Merite.
The biggest diplomatic ructions of the week came at the hands of another German submarine. The U-53, under Kapitanleutnant Hans Rose, had docked in Newport, Rhode Island for a few hours on 7 October, allowing its crew to post a letter to Ambassador Bernsdorff and to call upon US naval officers — uncontroversial and unexceptionable behaviour by a neutral power. The following day the submarine set out again to sea and, 50 miles off Nantucket (which was just beyond the 3-mile territorial limit), returned to the business of making war, stopping a variety of commercial ships of British, French and Danish registry. After allowing time for passengers and crew to abandon ship, it then sank every one of the vessels.
Given that no lives were lost, and that a century has passed, it is tempting now to admire the cheek of the Kapitanleutnant. At the time, all hell broke loose — American destroyers were rushed to the area, and alarm spread on the US stock market, panic causing $500 million to be liquidated in fifteen minutes. Fearing similar attacks, marine insurance rates jumped by 500%. An investigation concluded that the Germans had not broken neutrality rules. Rose’s actions, nonetheless, caused considerable alarm in Berlin which, chastened, decided against any repeat performances.
For now, neutrality held. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was withering: War has been creeping nearer and nearer, until it stares at us from just beyond our three-mile limit, and we face it without policy, plan, purpose or preparation.
The apparent absence of plans or preparations was not a monopoly enjoyed by the Americans. Nursing at Etretat, Edith Appleton found herself doubling up as a gaoler of German PoWs during the week. Her diary reveals her frustration at the incessant waiting for the ships which would take them to England. Like Sandes, however, her passionate identification with the Allied could never quite suppress her fascination and compassion for all with whom she came into contact:
October 3 The port of Le Havre has been closed for about four days, so I am having to keep my Allemand prisoners. Six are too ill to travel and one of them is going to die –the whole ward smells worse than a bad drain of him — and there are two very gangrenous ones which I expect will be struck off the list too. A sergeant major among them told us the war would not go on through the winter, he thought it would end next month. We asked who would win, and he said, ‘Not us’. ….Some of them are very young — two say they are 18, but don’t look it, and some say they are 20 and 21 but look 18 or 19 at the most. They are also very lousy and we who are looking after them have to hunt carefully every night…
I think leave will be started soon — ish. My German prisoners are as happy as sandboys … they sing and laugh and talk and some seem to be really nice men. They are most grateful for all that is done for them and their stinking wounds are cleaning up wonderfully.
Not that her attention was devoted solely to the enemy:
A very charming lad of 18 who was badly wounded died at the officers’ ward two days ago. His mother was here, poor thing, she lost her husband killed in action and now this boy, and I think one other. She now has only one son left, and he is in the navy — she knows not where. There is a sergeant attached to this unit who has lost six brothers killed in action, a child and both parents since the beginning of war….
October 5 The night super came to me and said there was going to be an evacuation soon after 6.30, so I dressed and went with great joy and fixed up 20 of my Boches for England. Twenty-one were to have gone but one was too ill. I am now left with seven — five shot through the lungs , one with his whole shoulder joint removed and many other wounds and very gangrenous , and one trephine, who has fits.
…Last night when I was doing their dressings they were roaring with laughter at a cartoon of the Kaiser in the Tatler. I told them they ought not to laugh at their own Kaiser, but they said even people in Germany considered him very eccentric. They told me with great pride that the Kaiser’s mother was our King Edward’s own sister. I don’t know why they should, but they do all seem to envy England and the English.….
Perhaps they were telling her what she wanted to hear. It is the kind of claim which is not easily verified. Many in England did not feel they had much to elicit envy. Prime Minister Asquith, reeling over the recent death of his son Raymond, was unsurprisingly described this week as looking ‘very, very sad’. He wrote of Raymond: ‘I can honestly say that in my own life he was the thing of which I was truly proud, and in him and his future I had invested all my stock of hope’.
Meanwhile another of his sons, Beb, was now in training to return to the front after recovering for shell-shock — another source of distress, one assumes, for his father. Beb’s wife, Cynthia, was also concerned — although less by Beb’s departure than that of her ardent admirer, Lord Basil Blackwood, heir presumptive to the 2nd Marquess of Dufferin and Ava.
Having already been badly wounded at Messines in 1914, the noble lord now joined the Grenadier Guards and left London on 7 October. The Edwardian upper classes do not seem to have found any particular difficulty in forming unabashed emotional attachments to persons other than those to whom they were bound by ties of matrimony. Lady Cynthia’s diary for that day records:
The train was 11.55. I started in good time. About five minutes before reaching the station my taxi passed the draft — nearly three hundred magnificent men almost all over six feet, marching along with women hanging on to them — Basil marching at their head, very upright and military, with that strange look of self-surrender that particular position gives….[at the station] Soon the draft came swinging in. I have never seen such a magnificent body of men. Certainly the standard of the Guards hasn’t gone down at all. There was a crowd, and we were kept back by policemen while the soldiers went to the departure platform. Basil saw us and smiled as he marched by….I had a good many last words with Basil with such a lump in my throat, but thank God, I didn’t cry!…Nothing could be more dramatic and moving. He was glad I came so it was a good thing I went, but never again! Jeffie wisely took me away before the train stated. The send-off cheer would have finished me…..