Within Sight

The Asquith family in 1912 — not always a restful combination

EVEN AFTER MORE than three years, the intensity of war remained. Danger which felt imminent still terrorised. Crisis could never be normalised.

The British were justly famous as a phlegmatic nation — then, anyway. Later generations are rightly choked by the last letters of young troops, redolent of resignation and love; we are lost in admiration for those who looked at death squarely in the eye, aplomb unbroken. Yet the temptation to look no further is actually a denial of historical reality. Heroes were sometimes irresolute and frightened; saints could be sinners.

Take, for instance, the Asquiths — a family as invested in the war as any. Herbert Henry Asquith had been Prime Minister for the first eighteen months of hostilities, and had had to endure the trauma of three fine sons entering the conflict: Raymond had been killed in 1916; Arthur (‘Oc’) was a legendarily fine commander who had just been wounded; Herbert (‘Beb’), who was married to the diarist Cynthia, was presently on leave. He sounds, according to his wife, to have been impatient of the war:

3 January  Lovely bitter cold day. Beb went on lugubriously maintaining that we should negotiate and got rather annoyed with… me.

Oc’s injury was also a concern:

4 January  Beb and I travelled up to London… We stopped at Cavendish Square and had an interview with Miss Way. She said they didn’t know whether they would be able to save Oc’s foot or not yet.

There also came the surprising news that Beb’s father had lunched with his old nemesis, Lloyd George, the previous day. Other diners included Lord Grey and leaders of the Labour Party. Precise details of the discussion have not all emerged but, when it was over, the Prime Minister chose the moment to reiterate Britain’s war aims:

We are not fighting a war of aggression against the German people… we are fighting for a just and lasting peace and we believe that before permanent peace can be hoped for three conditions must be fulfilled: firstly, the sanctity of treaties must be established; secondly, territorial settlement must be secured, based on the right of self-determination or the consent of the governed, and, lastly, we must seek by the creation of some international organisation to limit the burden of armaments and diminish the probability of war.

On these conditions the British Empire would welcome peace; to secure these conditions its peoples are prepared to make even greater sacrifices than those they have yet endured.

Beb’s stepmother, the redoubtable Margot, was reported later by Cynthia as being:

…in great excitement, saying that Lloyd George, Edward Grey, and the rest had all agreed, and their terms are ‘very reasonable’. She thought hostilities would cease very soon.

Cynthia Asquith in 1917, by Augustus John

Family gatherings cannot have been altogether comfortable â côté de chez Asquith: there must have been too much knowledge, and too many strong opinions, to permit that.

The “old boy” as the former PM was, usually affectionately, known seems to have specialised in emotional disengagement. This was a matter which came up in Cynthia’s diary two days later:

6 January  …his father is amazing. He is devoted to his sons and it seems so odd that, after Beb has been out for five months — liable to be killed at any moment — he should not address one word of enquiry to him, as to what he has been doing and where he has been. I suppose it part of his habit of optimism — that he likes to blink facts and avoid being confronted by anything unpleasant… Beb rather feels it, as it is always soothing — at least it generally is — to talk about one’s experiences.

That stepping back from any conversation which might release untamed feelings has a very British quality to it — by no means all commendable, but not all bad either: it was a way of bearing the essentially unbearable.

Such self-restraint had quite passed by the Bolsheviks, at least to judge from contemporary reports in Russia. On New Year’s Day, Vera Sudeikina, a dancer and the of wife of the stage designer, Serge Sudeikin, was in Yalta, Crimea. She now wrote that:

Fight against the Bolsheviks has begun in Crimea. There was a battle by Simferopol, 150 officers were shot in Sevastopol. There was a demonstration against the bourgeoisie in Yalta; everyone is panicked. Some bizarre rumours are circling. It might be so that we’ll have to leave and hide in the middle of nowhere.

Vera Sudeikina

The extremely perceptive, if semi-literate, Phil Jordan — general factotum of the American Ambassador in Petrograd — was risking his own neck just now, scouring Petrograd for food from the limited safety of the ambassadorial Ford motor car:

Streets are full of all the cut throats and robbers that are in Russia, you can hear the machine guns and cannons roaring all night and day, thousands are being killed. why we are alive I can not tell. they break into private homes and rob and kill all the people, in a house not very [far] from the embassy they killed a little girl and 12 rifle baynets stuck through her body. oh the horrible Sights that is to be seen… I have fond that the best thing to do right now is keep your mouth shut and look as much like an American as you can… All the thugs that have been turned out of prison was armed with a rifle… we cant tell at what minute the Germans will take Petrograd. If they come right at this time I don’t know what we would do because we cant get out. we are like a rat in a trap. The Bolsheviks have torn up all the rail roads. I cant tell but the Ford might be a life Saver. All the business houses and banks are closed. The city is pitch dark. At times we only have tallow candles for light, the plants have no coal and Very little wood.

The Empress’s friend, Anna Vyrubova, now in Petrograd, had some unexpectedly good news that same day:

…a great happiness, nothing less than letters and a parcel of food from the exiles [the Imperial family] in Tobolsk. There were two parcels in fact, one containing flour, sugar, macaroni, and sausage, wonderful luxuries, and the other a pair of stockings knit by the Empress’s own hands, a warm scarf, and some pretty Christmas cards illuminated in her well-remembered style…

That was about the extent of the good news, however. The Imperial Family tried to make the best of their Orthodox Church Christmas — this was on 7th January— distributing handmade gifts, and delighting in being allowed to attend church.

Pierre Gilliard

Then came a problem, as the children’s tutor, Pierre Gilliard recalled:

By orders of the priest the deacon intoned the Mnogoletie [the prayer for the long life of the Imperial family]. This was an imprudence which was bound to bring reprisals. The soldiers, with threats of death, demanded that the prayer should be revoked.

The Bolsheviks had bigger problems than that. Their credibility as the new rulers of Russia depended, as much as anything else, on fashioning an end to the war. The problem was that, knowing how much Russia wanted it, her enemies were determined to exact not so much their pound of flesh, as the whole carcass. The Austro-Hungarian negotiator, Count Czernin, was back in Vienna over New Year, having sent off a trusted underling to report on the situation:

He reports that all are against the Bolsheviks except the Bolsheviks themselves. The entire body of citizens, peasants — in a word, everyone with any possessions at all — trembles at the thought of these red robbers, and wishes to go over to Germany. The terrorism of Lenin is said to be indescribable, and in Petrograd all are absolutely longing for the entry of German troops to deliver them.

It rather sounds as though the trusted underling was hearing mainly what he wanted to hear. When Czernin received information on 4th January that the Bolsheviks threatened to withdraw from talks unless these were transferred to neutral Stockholm, he refused.

One can see why. What bargaining power did the Bolsheviks have? The worst they could do was to terrorise their own people, and that (for now) was merely a sideshow, given the scale of war convulsing much of Europe. Anyway, within Russia itself, there were major secessionist movements, and these might also bring down the Bolsheviks.

Brest-Litovsk, scene of peace discussions, 1918

Alfred Knox, until recently Britain’s liaison officer with what had been the Imperial Russian Army, reported on 3rd January:

…The Germans refuse to withdraw their troops from Poland and Kurland and from parts of Latvia and Estonia on the ground that these provinces have declared that they are in favour of absolute separation from Russia and of independence within the German sphere of influence… how can an able man like Trotsky have expected anything else, and if he expected this, why did he allow the Russian army to be destroyed?

It is easy to see how, in these momentous times, clusters of people mortgaged their entire future on a version of the future which might, or might not, come to pass. Western powers rather banked on the Bolsheviks imploding; Lenin and Trotsky believed in the imminence of socialist revolution all over Europe.

Meanwhile, the ailing British Ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, reluctantly prepared to go home with his family. His daughter, Meriel, worked as a volunteer nurse, and had grown to love Petrograd, although the changed atmosphere disturbed her:

Never, on any face one passed, did one see a smile, never, down any of the wide streets was there the sound of a laugh, a note of music, or even the ringing of bells from the churches.

Nonetheless, she felt that she was

deserting somebody I had loved very dearly, and abandoning them to die in utter misery.

Meriel Buchanan

Early on 7th January, in freezing temperatures, during yet another power cut, the family left for Finland Station. Six other high-ranking British officials left with them, including Alfred Knox who described how “the ‘People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs’ had refused to reserve us accommodation”.

It was a typically vindictive move, but succour was at hand:

… a bribe of two bottles of brandy had proved more successful with officials on the spot, and we had a comfortable carriage.

Others sought to leave Russia. The composer, Sergei Prokofiev, struggling to work whilst staying with his mother in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, suddenly had a brainwave:

To go to America! But of course! Here, wretchedness reigns; there, life’s brimming over. Here, slaughter and barbarism; there, cultivated life. Here, shabby concerts in Kislovodsk; there, New York, Chicago. No dithering about it. I shall leave come the spring.

He did as well — a more fortunate character than most of his countrymen.

Sergei Prokofiev

Meanwhile, rumours were awash that the British government was considering a de facto recognition of the Bolshevik authorities. The idea prompted, on 5th January, a vitriolic leader in The Daily Telegraph — some things do not change.

In the main theatres of war, fighting had been furious, if typically inconclusive. The Germans mounted almost daily attacks. The British managed to repel them, at cost, while the French also came under especial pressure at Beaumont near Verdun.  Meanwhile, the Austrians had also increased the tempo of war, launching bombing raids all week — near Bassano and Venice among other places, with the consequent risk to art treasures as well as human life.

Not, however, that the fate of Old Masters was often on the minds of young men at the sharp end of war. The preoccupations of Edward Brittain, in a letter from Italy to his sister, Vera, on 4th January 1918, are readily understandable:

Edward Brittain

It is very cold where we are on the top of a hill which you may know, as you know where we are from the papers, and everything freezes up; unfortunately the men are in bivouacs and a few in dug-outs and so it’s rather rotten for them; we have a tiny hovel — the mess and kitchen are one and the floor is of earth. 3 of us sleep in one sort of attic above and the other 3 were sleeping in another one last night but nearly got blown out by the draft. However there is a fire and the gramophone still plays… I have got my sheepskin now and so usually manage to keep fairly warm.

As a responsible subaltern, he was thinking not only of himself:

About Nov. 25th we sent for cigarettes for the men hoping they would arrive by Xmas; 4500 arrived the night before last which enabled me to give 25 to each man. It was impossible to get cigarettes of any sort here until quite recently.

Another young officer in Italy, Harry Drinkwater, seems to have been enjoying rather greater comfort at a transit camp near Padua. His diary for New Year’s Day is positively brimming with cheerfulness:

In the evening, C Company officers entertained the colonel, the second-in-command and the adjutant; a very successful evening. Enlisting the help of the company cooks and our servants, we sat down to an excellent spread.


Sardine salad

Clear soup

Boiled bream and sauce


Roast goose and apple sauce

Stone cream and chocolate

Scotch eggs




…As I walked back to my billet, I could not help contrasting this phase of the war and that of my first experience in France; how, in those days, often soaked in mud and water, I was glad to drop on some straw in a barn for a night’s sleep, too tired to take my clothes off, whilst here I was walking back to a bed after a dinner that would have graced most hotels in London. War is very peculiar. It makes one live from day to day.

Harry Drinkwater

Food was always an emotive subject, especially when in short supply. At long last, the British public had awoken to the implications that a successful outcome of the war depended, amongst much else, on its willingness to eat frugally. On 2nd January, Marie Corelli, a celebrated novelist, appeared before the Police Court in Stratford-upon-Avon on three summonses of food hoarding. She was accused of “unlawfully acquiring… sugar exceeding the quantity required for ordinary use and consumption in her household”. It transpired she had also stocked 50lb of preserving sugar used in jam. Despite her defence’s (rather desperate) argument that she “had been acting as a patriot in preserving her fruit for future use”, she was convicted and fined £50 with 20 guineas in costs.

Miss Corelli — she had been born Mary Mackay, and her adopted name was one of several reasons she was a frequent butt of those who believed themselves better — had been the most popular fiction writer of the late nineteenth century. No longer: her national popularity nosedived.

Marie Corelli

Some indication of the mood of national earnestness can be seen in the decision to make 6th January (a Sunday, and the Feast of the Epiphany) a day of National Prayer. Such occasions were rare: the British usually exhibited a distaste for displays of noisy religiosity. But the message from the King on the subject struck a chord:

…We have yet to complete the great task to which, more than three years ago, we dedicated ourselves.

At such time I would call upon you to devote a special day to prayer that we may have the clear-sightedness and strength necessary to the victory of our cause. This victory will be gained only if we steadfastly remember the responsibility which rests upon us, and in a spirit of reverent obedience ask the blessing of Almighty God upon our endeavours…

Mrs Bickersteth, mother of the remarkable Army Chaplain, Julian Bickersteth, recorded the services were

very impressive and solemn… and every church and chapel in the Kingdom seems to have had the same experience. Many attended the House of God who seldom if ever go, and it shows how deeply the nation is stirred by the length and seriousness of the war.

“The length and seriousness of the war” — we allude to it now cheerfully enough, but what must it have felt like then? Rifleman Harold Williamson, serving with the 8th battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps, sent a calm and understated letter home on 7th January, which offers a poignant insight into how some experienced it:

I thought it was going to be quite decent on Xmas Day, but unfortunately a sad thing occurred: about 1 a.m. Captain Brownsword came round visiting. He bent down to drop in on my post. I said, ‘Hurry up, get down quick!’ but unfortunately he was not quick enough; there was a crack and I knew he was hit in the back, and he just toppled down and I caught him in my arms.

The difficulty, imagine it, of looking after a man 6 foot 3, in a bit of trench half the width of your kitchen, and no longer; partly filled too with a fire step. I had to sit on the step, and hold him across my knees, while the stretcher bearer dressed him. Our stretcher was broken, and with difficulty we got another, one bearer being shot through the head bringing it. Ultimately we got the Captain on a stretcher on the fire step.

Then there was nothing to be done but to wait for daylight, being too risky to get him out then, in view of the snow and the bright moonlight, the Germans being as near as 60 yards. It seemed a very big time till 7.30, and we could not keep him warm. I could feel that his arms were just as icy cold as his hands, and feared for his life. When daylight came we put out the Red Cross Flag [a mutual agreement of that part of the front] and… we hoisted the stretcher out of the hole and got him safely away.

I heard afterwards that they carried him miles without incident, but only to have him die from exhaustion within sight of the dressing station.

Removing the Wounded by Rifleman Harold Williamson

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