HERE LAY AN awkward truth. The British and French armies fielded seasoned professionals. Not so, just now, the Russians.
A brutal bombardment was under way in the Ypres area in which 14,000 artillery pieces would, in time, unleash 4.5 million high explosive and gas shells onto the German trenches. Unfortunately for the Allies, the Germans were waiting. Having been alerted to the likelihood of a new offensive ever since the Messines explosions on 7th June, they had constructed superbly strong underground dugouts. The British barrage created deep craters in the low-lying ground, destroying both natural and man-made drainage systems. That was the first problem – never mind the rain which would follow.
In the skies above Ypres, a constant aerial battle waged, as the RFC attempted to clear the skies of German reconnaissance and fighter craft. On the ground, it was at least as busy: the British mounted successful raids in the Ypres area on 17th July and, north-west of Verdun, the French recovered ground lost on the previous 18 days and took 425 prisoners. German attacks south of St Quentin were rebuffed the next day as were those near Nieuport. Then, on 22nd July, came strong German attacks on the Aisne Front.
The to-ing and fro-ing was not out of the ordinary, and nor were the high casualties. The 8th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment suffered badly after a gas attack. All but 44 men reported severe symptoms, including temporary blindness. So many victims were despatched to hospital that the battalion had to be withdrawn. In a separate incident, Cynthia Asquith’s husband, Beb, reported that his company “had been badly gassed and had lost some men owing to defective respirators”.
It was fearful stuff, but it was also the face of war in the west. To a significant extent, it should be seen also as the product of high strategy and disciplined execution. Ordinary soldiers were often able to perceive the exhaustive preparation for the forthcoming offensive, as is clear from the later recollections of Water Williamson of the Cheshire Regiment:
…a plan of the ground we were to cover in the coming attack had been marked out to exact distances. The German trenches, as far as they were known, were marked out, the village of St Julien which was to be captured, was denoted by a canvas erection surmounted by a little wooden cross, and the little river Steenbeck, which had to be crossed, was marked out and labelled ‘Banks 5 ft. high, width 10 feet’ but failed to inform us what depth of water lay within those 10 ft.
… We were marched over the course in battle formation, and had all the points and landmarks explained to us at some length. The 116th Brigade were down to take the first objective on our Divisional front… the second objective was to fall to the 117th Brigade… it was whispered (perhaps not officially,) that a big landing of troops would be made on the Belgian coast, and take the enemy in the rear. Taking it all round, it appeared that the war would be a thing of the past, in a month or two…
At least there was a plan – one in which pernickety attention to detail seems to have been infused by optimism – enough of both to inspire frightened men to expose themselves to appalling risk.
It was not so in the east: Brusilov’s Offensive, having met with bouts of success, now faced a powerful German counter-thrust and, faced by this new danger, the gossamer-like threads which held many Russian companies together quickly snapped. Troops lost Nowica on 18th July after heavy fighting, and the Germans penetrated the Russian line the following day – less because of military advantage but more because Russian units refused to fight.
In Galicia, the trickle of deserters now became a torrent. The German commander, General Max Hoffmann, reached the outskirts of Tarnopol on 21st July. He had deduced that Russian commanders were attempting to wage war but only in a climate in which their troops might, or equally might not, obey orders. That was no recipe for military success and Hoffman now pressed home his advantage. Across 150 miles of the Galician Front, the Russians continued to retreat: Halicz fell on 23rd July and Stanislau was evacuated.
It was not yet a rout – indeed, a combined Romanian-Russian attack elsewhere on 23rd July elicited the capture of 2,000 prisoners and 57 guns – but it was the exception which proved the rule. The Russian war effort seemed just now to have moved into a phase in which their belligerent status was a bit of PR to reassure their allies – a triumph of form over substance.
How could it have been otherwise? Petrograd was in the grip of anarchy, and there was no credible chain of command emanating from there. The so-called “July Days” were underway – a Bolshevik coup destined not to succeed. Its true importance was that it exposed the severely restricted faith espoused in the Provisional Government. Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich noted on 17th July:
Since yesterday there are disturbances in Petrograd… there are many Bolsheviks, more than 6,000 sailors from Kronstadt, there are still some units on the side of the government that will protect it.
Elizaveta Naryshkina at Tsarskoe Selo seemed reasonably sanguine:
…the newspapers did not come out today. Here, there were some commodity shortages, but it is nothing serious. Two possibilities scare me: Kerensky’s resignation and the capture of Petrograd by the Germans.
Kerensky seems to have suffered from the burden of trying too hard to be everyone’s friend. He had spent weeks trying to drum up support for the war, backslapping soldiers on the front, and in other moments reassuring the Tsar and his family at Tsarskoe Selo. Now a serious challenge to the government’s authority had come from Lenin and his acolytes, and Kerensky could either jump, as it were, to the left or to the right.
He chose to go right – identifying himself with war, with the interests of property and continuity. Certainly the tenor of official announcements from the beleaguered Provisional Government was impressively stern:
All those who participated in the organization and leadership of yesterday’s armed demonstration against government authorities and all those who supported and encouraged it are to be arrested and assigned legal responsibility for treason against their homeland and betrayal of the revolution.
Felix Yusupov, the assassin of Rasputin, was in no doubt as to who was responsible for this latest outrage:
The Bolsheviks have attempted to seize power for the first time. Trucks full of armed men drove around the city. Lines of machine-gun fire fanned out from the trucks.
Events in the capital seem even to have penetrated the consciousness of the erstwhile Tsar. In his diary entry the following day, as well as giving space to the discussion of the weather and of the children, as was his wont, he noted:
For the last few days there have been disturbances and firing in Petrograd. Yesterday a whole lot of soldiers and sailors arrived from Kronstadt, to march against the Provisional Government. What a mess! And where are the people who could take the situation in hand and stop the bloodshed and strife? The seed of all this evil is in Petrograd itself, not in Russia as a whole.
Distrust of the capital, and of the people who chose to hang around it, was a gripe in which Nicholas II had long indulged. His sentimental faith in “true” Russia – of devout and doughty peasants – never deserted him.
The Provisional Government had clearly run into the buffers and changes were needed. A couple of days later, on 20th July, Prince Lvov resigned. Kerensky, unsurprisingly, was invited to step up to the plate and become Prime Minister. He accepted, after “several hours of profound inner struggle”, but insisted on retaining the Ministries of War and Marine too.
The Provisional Government was, after a fashion, back in control. Kerensky was after a scalp – preferably Lenin’s. The latter, prudently, shaved off his beard and eventually escaped to Finland to lie low. For now, he was still in Petrograd, from where he wrote to Lev Kamenev:
If I am to be bumped off, I ask you to publish my notebook ‘Marxism and the State’ which got left behind in Stockholm. It is bound and with a blue cover.
Most people, faced by arrest or death, leave a note for their wives and children. All of Lenin’s love and longing seems to have been lavished on the publication of a dialectical materialist rant.
The military authorities, confronting dire news about the German breakthrough on the South-Western Front, were also determined to try to reassert control. On 22nd July, General Kornilov wrote:
I consider the unauthorised withdrawal of regiments from their positions to be an action equivalent to treason and betrayal. Therefore, I categorically demand that all combatant commanders in such cases do not hesitate to use their machine-guns and artillery against the traitors. I take full responsibility for all deaths. Inactivity and wavering on the part of the commanders I will consider as a failure of their official duty and will immediately dismiss them from command and hand them over to the courts.
Fine words, of course – but what would actually happen on the ground was anyone’s guess. In the city of Stanislavov, for instance, there was an out-and-out pogrom, with retreating troops looting shops and setting fire to property. Some were shot on the spot, while others made good their escape.
On 23rd July, the news was worse. Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich confided to his diary:
Terrible intelligence comes from the front; Tarnopol has fallen without a shot, most regiments surrendered, twelve of them have defected.
In other words, had anything changed? Even after the July Days’ coup had been beaten off, the authority of the Provisional Government and its ability to rally the Russian people behind the war, were widely questioned.
Kerensky seems to have believed that his colleagues’ response to the July Days had been unconscionably lily-livered and carried on drawing up plans for multiple arrests. His colleagues still equivocated, fearing that any show of strength might provoke renewed popular uprising. He wrote:
Without a doubt, riots in Petrograd were organised with the help of German state agents. As of now, all disturbances are completely at an end. Leaders and others who stained themselves in brotherly blood and crimes against the fatherland and revolution are arrested. Moreover, there are arrests among navy ranks who violated their civilian and military duty. I call upon the true sons of democracy to unite around the Provisional Government and State democracy organs for the salvation of our fatherland and revolution from the outer enemy and its allies.
If Lenin were a German spy – or if the government could ensure the idea were widely disseminated and believed – it could still spell ruin for the Bolsheviks. Whatever the scepticism with which Russian citizens now viewed the war, most had long been conditioned into fear and loathing for the Germans.
Lenin’s headquarters in Petrograd – the former house of the famous ballerina Kschesshinska – was now overrun by government forces, and 30 Bolsheviks there were arrested. Troops overturning the place had found “seventy brand new machine-guns and a great quantity of provisions and arms, as well as numerous commandeered cars in the yard”. Critically, they also found documents which “showed that Lenin was unquestionably connected with the Germans”.
The enemy within! The Bolsheviks had clearly (so claimed the government) been receiving funding from the German General Staff! News of this infamy did much to bring the undecided back onto the government’s side – for now. An American journalist in Petrograd shared in the general indignation, commenting that the only solution was to catch Lenin and Trotsky and “give them the limit. I know that if I had the chance I would take a good deal of pride in shooting both of them.”
Doubts about the legitimacy of the war and, more specifically, suspicions that the fighting and the dying were a product of class conspiracy, were not an exclusively Bolshevik phenomenon. A powerful letter by the young Private Frank Orchard, serving with the 1/5th London Field Ambulance in Belgium, to his father on 23rd July testifies to that.
…The people at home don’t see the horrible sights that are to be seen out here, young men’s bodies which were made to be of use to the Almighty one might say… temples of God, crushed and mangled, blown to pieces, by their brother man, with whom they have no real quarrel. But Father, I know the blame will not be laid upon the lads out here, because they think and believe they are doing the right thing,(I am speaking in the general sense) but the blame and punishment is already being borne by the demons who started the thing, and are prolonging it as long as they can, so that they may haul in more millions of money regardless of what it means to millions of men, women and children.
Orchard’s was not a lone voice, but the tempo and style of British politics during these days belonged to a society bent apparently on continuity rather than change. The biggest drama of the week in Westminster was probably the appointment of Winston Churchill, who had been drowning in melancholy on the backbenches, as Minister of Munitions, on 17th July. Always a controversial figure, especially since Gallipoli, Churchill’s very public rehabilitation raised many ministerial eyebrows.
If British domestic politics seemed sometimes insipid, and Russia’s characterised by violence, those in Germany now appeared to move in a dramatic direction when, on 19th July, the Reichstag passed a resolution calling for a negotiated peace with the Allies. This owed a good deal to the efforts of a prominent Reichstag Deputy, Matthias Erzberger, who, convinced that the nation’s submarine campaign was failing, now pushed to accept a peace without annexations and indemnities.
When his motion passed by 212 votes to 126, the full scepticism of the Reichstag was revealed – a state of affairs which, unsurprisingly, alarmed the hell out of the militarists like Field Marshal Ludendorff. Their response was to set up a “Patriotic Instruction Programme” which, as the name indicated, was to put a bit of backbone into anyone wavering. Seeing the way the political wind was blowing in Germany, the new Chancellor, Dr Michaelis, now sided with the hawks and stressed the inviolability of German territory. The Kaiser, predictably, settled for being merely bombastic. Displaying, as usual, only the most tangential relationship to reality, he boasted to party leaders that within a month all British ships would be driven from the seas and then “all Europe, under my leadership, will begin the real war against England — the Second Punic War”.
Thoughts of Carthage may conceivably have been also in the minds of the British, following a spectacular triumph in the Near East in early July. The Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire was a fractured affair, which depended largely upon disparate tribes who were often at each other’s throats. Now, thanks to the efforts of the British archaeologist and Arabist, T.E. Lawrence, 5,000 men had attacked the Turkish outpost at Abu al Lasan, killing 300 and capturing another 300. It was an exceptional victory in which only two Arabs were lost. The small garrison at Aqaba was taken by surprise and, although its possession would continue to be disputed, Aqaba was now off-limits as a German submarine base on the Red Sea or as a centre for assaults on British troops in Palestine.
The British authorities were delighted. Their effusiveness contrasted strongly with the deep reserve they still exhibited towards the imminent big push on the Western Front. Even now, right on the eve of the new offensive against Germany, the Cabinet still refused to give Haig the official go-ahead. They had no interest in stopping it (certainly not), but they were traumatised by the memory of the Somme a year earlier. Perception being everything in mass politics, they intended, in the event of failure, to position themselves in the most favourable light.
Indeed, the artillery bombardment which had already taken place had been initiated without specific Government approval. On 20th July, Robertson wrote to Haig:
Up to the present no official approval of your plans has been given. I dare say that tomorrow or the next day I shall be told that your plans are approved.
That night, the King’s Messenger brought Robertson the Cabinet’s approval, though hedged with references to possible failure.
Haig, never a man to wear his heart on his sleeve, seems to have been disgusted by such morally supine behaviour, as well he might have been. The next day, he advised Robertson “to be firmer and play the man; and, if need be, resign”, reflecting with him “on the absurdity of the Government giving its approval now to operations after a stiff artillery fight had been going on for three weeks…”
The temporising of the Cabinet looks really shabby. Nothing could be more unedifying.
Meanwhile, in Flanders real lives hung in the balance. Sergeant James Milne with the 4th Battalion Gordon Highlanders wrote to his wife that same day:
I do not know how to start this letter or not. The circumstances are different from any under which I ever wrote before. I am not to post it but will leave it in my pocket and if anything happens to me someone will perhaps post it. We are going over the top this forenoon and only God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive…
You will look after my Darling Bairns for me and tell them how their Daddy died…
Eternal love from Yours for Ever and Ever Jim