Working the vegetable patch

Haig by Australian caricaturist, J.H. Chinner

WHAT A FARCE it sometimes seemed.

Haig had a plan to clear the Germans off the Channel coast –    which, in strategic terms, made excellent sense: if the German U-boats terrorising Allied shipping could be dislodged from their place of sanctuary, their ability to starve the British into submission would be broken.

If this was going to come off, the British would need to bear down hard on German forces already in the region. The first task would be to capture Messines, a German-held village which dominated a spur of a ridge and gave wide views of the valleys below. Then they would have to turn their attention to the village of Wytschaete, north-west of Messines. It lay on the highest part of the ridge and commanded the town of Ypres and the old British positions around the city. Frankly, unless they could take both villages and the entire Messines Ridge, the BEF could whistle.

It was a tall order. For months now, they had been hard at work, trying to make the improbable attainable. Roads had been built and water pipes laid, along with material dumps. For months, sappers had been digging mines under the German defences  –  work enough for nearly 4,000 British and Dominion tunnellers, poor devils, supported by a roughly equal number of attached Pioneers and infantry. In the end, no fewer than 25 mines, containing more than a million pounds of explosives, were laid over a ten-mile Front under the ridge. These were primed to explode on 7th June, the day upon which the attack was scheduled to start.

For now, business as usual was the watchword. Fighting continued all week near St Quentin, on the Moronvilliers massif, and on the Chemin des Dames Front. By 31st May, the preliminary bombardment of the Ypres and Wytschaete areas had begun, and a ferocious artillery duel was underway.

Wytschaete in 1916: it was not destined to stay looking this way

Three evenings later, Lieutenant Colonel Feilding of the Connaught Rangers –  hardly a man given to overstatement –  watched it with awe:

…We looked on for nearly an hour, while the fire increased and intensified till it grew into such an inferno that the whole horizon was obliterated by smoke and gas and dust. Above the clouds this created the German S.O.S. rockets played, like lost souls in hell appealing for deliverance. How they stand it, God alone knows!

The pressures on Haig at this moment were scarcely imaginable. The nerves of subordinates, the blood of innocents and the venality of political masters –  all fell upon his shoulders. And then there was the matter of the French, whose help was fundamental to any prospect of success. They were still combating ferocious counter-attacks by the Germans along the Aisne –  part of the fallout of the failed Nivelle offensive –  and Haig, of course, wanted them to be focused on the forthcoming offensive alone.

Pesky Germans, diverting the French along the Chemin des Dames were a problem, but not the worst. Mutinous poilus threatened to be a much bigger one altogether. Rumours about pockets of unrest within the French army had been accumulating, but the full scale and gravity of the problem were devilishly hard to establish. Haig hesitated to push Pétain too hard on the subject: this was not a moment to forfeit trust and cordial communication, and he seems to have disciplined himself at every juncture to act on the assumption that the French commander was telling him the truth. For his part, Pétain was determined never to do anything to deter Haig from his attempt to clear the Belgian coast. In fact, on 27th May he offered to place a French army under Haig’s direct command to join the offensive on the coastal sector, in addition to the other promised diversions.

Even now, details of the mutinies can be hard to pin down. Between 29th April and 25th May, ten outbreaks had been officially recorded. Then it all got a lot uglier. Between then and 10th June, another 45 erupted. Some were less serious than others, but none of it boded well. Brigadier John Charteris, the British Intelligence Chief, noted on 19th May that “The news today is not good. The French are having very serious trouble in their own Army.” He deduced that “definitely…we cannot expect any great help from the French this year”.

Exhausted French soldiers returning from a spell on the front line, 1917

Charteris was relying on snippets and innuendo. Nothing explicit or official had been received. On 25th May, presumably acting on the same imperfect sources, he recorded that “Things are better in the French Army.”

He was wrong, unfortunately. They were a whole lot worse. Nor did he inform his Chief of the rumours that were swirling about – perhaps out of the underling’s reluctance to be the bearer of bad news.

It was not until 2nd June that Haig’s diary alluded to the subject:

The ‘Major-General’ of the French Army arrived about 6.30p.m. and stayed to dinner. His name is General Debeney. He brought a letter from General Pétain saying that he had commissioned him to put the whole situation of the French Army before me and conceal nothing. The French Army is in a bad state of discipline… This would prevent Pétain carrying out his promise to attack on June 10th! The attack would take place four weeks later.

The origins of these mutinies are a matter for continued speculation. Over half a million French soldiers from 68 divisions were ultimately implicated in the unrest, one way and another. The best explanation would appear to be that the catastrophic losses of the Nivelle campaign had broken nerves already impossibly strung out by the massive national trauma of Verdun the previous year.

Many of the so-called mutineers seem to have drawn a distinction in their distressed minds: defending their country  that was something they believed they had done and were willing to continue to do; taking part in further offensives  these were actions which seemed merely to gobble up lives to no effect, which they were not prepared to do.

Of course, there were specific grievances too. Many wanted better food, more medical help and more efficient and generous leave arrangements. Louis Barthas, on the front line, insisted: “after having risked our lives for our country, we say the time for leave is long overdue”.

Barthas was responsible for men, some of whom had clearly been following news from Russia. On 30th May, his unit requested him to head up its own ‘soviet’. That was an honour he could have done without. He refused, saying he had “no wish to arrive at the execution pillar simply to mimic the Russians”.

Louis Barthas

The mesmerising influence of Russia upon battle-wearied soldiers in the west is not hard to understand. Russian troops seemed for now to have given up on the vigorous prosecution of war. The nearest to an event on the Eastern Front during the week was the appointment, on 4th June, of General Brusilov as Commander-in-Chief. For now, the energies of the Provisional Government were being expended on attempts to get to grips with the problems of supply and distribution. It issued a warning that there was no future for the state, let alone for the war, unless these could be taken in hand:

For many industries, the time has come for a state trade monopoly (of bread, meat, salt and leather), for others the formation of state-run trusts (in coal, oil, metal, sugar and paper). And finally, for almost all industries present conditions require state regulation in the distribution of raw materials and produced foodstuffs as well as fixing prices.

Alas, it was easier to assert splendid initiatives than to implement them. The Minister of War, Alexander Kerensky, was a great exponent of the school of “travelling hopefully” as opposed to arriving anywhere much. He continued his tour intended to boost morale and, by 30th May, arrived in Sevastopol. According to Admiral Kolchak, Commander of the Black Sea Fleet:

Kerensky made a round of the ships… He was given a very grand welcome, but my impression was that he made no impression on the crews…

Kerensky at Sevastapol

Kolchak proceeded to Nikolaev to check on ship-building but reported “Everything was in fact grinding to a complete halt, with construction threatening to cease completely.”

Cessation –  abnegation –  seemed to have overtaken Russia. Soldiers stopped fighting; civilians working; authorities doing anything much but make pronouncements. The vortex offered licence for people to abjure many of the day-to-day responsibilities of life, and the results were not pretty. A poster-message this week, concerning the rise in drunkenness, contains a note of real despair:

Attention all citizens! …Vodka [banned by the Tsar at the start of the war] has appeared in the cities and in the countryside, on the home front and on the battle front. Drunkenness has become a foundation for atrocities: fights, violence, pogroms. How did this vodka get into Russia? Who has been inebriating the people? …Comrades! Workers and Soldiers! Know that the present drunkenness will bring woe upon Russia…

With many of the nostrums of decency and due process fast collapsing, those in official disfavour were especially exposed to the caprices of the times. At Tsarskoe Selo, where the Tsar and Tsarina and their children lived under house arrest, bad news continued to pile on. The Mistress of the Robes, Elizaveta Naryshkina noted, on 31st May:

The Kronstadt sailors have rebelled, arrested officers and seized gun-armed ships as well as hatching plans to bombard Petrograd and take the royal couple to Kronstadt! Some orator was hurriedly dispatched to make speeches…

His former Majesty continued to expend his energies upon giving lessons to his son, Alexei, and on planting vegetables. On 29th May, scaling once more the supreme heights of bathos, he recorded in his diary that, “I finished the first volume of Problems of the Russian Army by Kuropatkin and started the second.”

Tsarskoe Selo: plenty of space to garden

For the Allies just now, there was an embarrassment of miseries. Even the Austrians, renowned for being ineffectual, managed to bare their teeth to good effect. After being thrown back by the Italians in San Marco, east of Gorizia, on 3rd June they suddenly opened up a mighty counter-offensive in the Carso, taking everyone by surprise. This mysterious military renaissance was explained mainly by the fact that the Germans had decided to lend a hand: the following day, as heavy fighting continued on the Carso, the Italians were forced back south of Jamiano. At least for now, they held the line elsewhere. With the mountainous terrain in many areas, capricious weather and difficulties of supplying the troops, it was an arduous campaign. The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent on the Italian Front claimed that the fighting there was the “most frightful of the whole European war”.

There were even now omens that better days lay ahead for the Allies, but the signifiers were often very oblique. Take, for instance, the diary of Seaman Richard Stumf. For all the success of the German submarine campaign, the bulk of the German High Seas Fleet rested in miserable inaction and – it later became apparent – many sailors proved highly susceptible to winds of change blowing from the east.

On 31st May, sailors on board SMS Helgoland were required to mark out the first anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. Stumf recorded in his diary the impassioned speech made by his captain:

Our enemies are working with a special purpose in mind, which is to break the bond between our Supreme Commander and his navy and his army. Once the House of Hohenzollern has been overthrown they will compel us to accept a parliamentary form of government similar to that in England and in France. Which means that, just like them, we shall be ruled by merchants, lawyers and journalists… You must oppose all those who want to introduce parliamentary government into Germany, and you must never forget that the greatness of Germany stands and falls with her imperial dynasty…

Richard Stumf

Stumf, at least, was not impressed. A self-styled “propertyless proletarian”, he had no desire to see “any increase in the autocratic power of the Kaiser, the army and the navy”. The three cheers given for “His Majesty, Our Supreme Commander in War” and the 20 Iron Crosses distributed, more or less randomly to men who had taken part in the battle, left him unmoved.

What actively oppressed him were the crass inequalities of life lived on board ship. Living cheek by jowl with officers, he had time to contrast the delicious food (as he saw it), the lengthy leave and lavishly furnished living quarters they enjoyed, with the slops and squalor endured by ratings. Even the anniversary celebration for Jutland emphasised the injustice: in their luxurious mess, officers feasted and drank until four in the morning; on deck, seamen made do with a few barrels of watery beer.

Stumf does not come across as a particularly reliable witness of specifics, but he was perceptive. The subservience of some of his companions especially repelled him:

The officers’ mess resembled a lunatic asylum. But what was even more scandalous was to see the seamen begging beer, cigarettes and schnapps off these drunkards. I could have screamed out loud at the way they humiliated themselves. Some of them lost all self-control and assured the officers that they were good sailors and good Prussians, and as a reward they got an extra glass of beer. It finally reached the stage where they were cheering individual officers and their generosity.

The Germans seemed, however, still to be winning the war at sea. The cargo ship, Clan Murray, was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic off Fastnet Rock on 29th May: around 64 died and the sole survivor was taken prisoner. On 2nd June the British transport, Cameronia, was torpedoed and sunk by UC-34 off Alexandria; the loss of life is still uncertain but between 42 and 63 are thought to have died. On 3rd June, U-95 sank another cargo ship, Hollington, south of the Faroe Islands: a miserable death in freezing seas for the 30-odd souls who perished.

But, unseen by most, there were glimmers of hope that the British might finally be turning this round. The Admiralty, seldom in the vanguard of change, had accepted the inevitability of what would become known in time as the convoy system. A trial convoy had left Gibraltar on 10th May, the 16 merchant ships being initially escorted by a pair of converted merchantmen and three armed yachts. From 18th May, these were replaced by a force of destroyers. What was not generally understood was that, unless technical difficulties could be overcome, convoys risked becoming an opportunity to compound the already unsustainable losses. The object of the Gibraltar exercise was to see how many vessels could maintain the correct speed and also manage the frequent changes of direction when zigzagging was required.

Britain’s allies seemed also more willing to lend a hand at sea: the first US destroyers had now arrived in Queenstown on the south coast of Ireland – evidence that the Germans had only a limited margin of time in which to knock out the British merchantmen who remained. In the last days of May, a flotilla of Japanese warships arrived in the Mediterranean.

There were hints, too, that air superiority over the Western Front was passing to the Allies. It was announced that, during the month of May, the Allies had lost 271 planes whereas 442 German planes had been downed during the month. On 3rd June, the aerodromes at Zeebrugge and Bruges were heavily bombarded by the Allies and, during the following night, the French mounted a raid at Treves.

Billy Bishop, VC

Two days earlier, Billy Bishop became only the ninth Canadian to win a Victoria Cross, in recognition of a spectacular solo sortie he had carried out twelve miles behind enemy lines near Cambrai. He had been in France only since March 1917 but had already acquired a great reputation as a crack shot who –  echoing the late, great Albert Ball – preferred solo missions. His VC citation referred to the “conspicuous bravery, determination and skill” he had shown when attacking several German planes which had been waiting at an airfield with their engines running. One had indeed taken off but Bishop succeeded in firing 15 rounds into it from close range –  following which, it unsurprisingly crashed. He then destroyed a further three aircraft before flying home in an aeroplane badly mauled by machine-gun fire from the ground.

Gusts of propaganda aside, this was not a confident time for the British. Threats of starvation, worries about the French, impatience for the Americans to arrive in force each fed a climate of crisis. Among those in power especially lay the fear that Russia’s political and military implosion would spread contagion. There was plenty of evidence, indeed, that it had already done so: German sailors and French soldiers were demanding answers to any number of searching questions. Why should not the same happen in Britain?

Politically, by the side of many Britain was a mature society. It was also one in which there was a strong interest in socialism. On 23rd May, a letter, signed by Ramsay MacDonald and other left-wingers, was circulated to trade unions and labour organisations inviting them to send delegates to a Convention to be held in Leeds on 3rd June. It announced that the Convention would “do for this country what the Russian Revolution had accomplished in Russia” and would also call for the establishment of “Councils of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ delegates” throughout the land.

King George V was among those to whom news of the Convention was particularly unwelcome. He was already feeling raw, having heard H.G. Wells’s reference to the sad spectacle of England struggling through adversity under “an alien and uninspiring Court”His reply (“I may be uninspiring but I’ll be d — — — -d if I’m alien”) reads rather well today, but he found it harder to react with equanimity to the slurs that his family was German, his wife was German and that his loyalties, in consequence, were suspect. Perhaps the wish to bat off this slander may have spurred him to the incessant round of visits to hospitals, factories and industrial centres which he undertook during the war years. If so, however, only to the tiniest extent: the King was, first and last, a humble man and an unapologetic patriot.

Most people believed in the King wholeheartedly, and he worked hard to repay their trust. One of the wartime duties he gave himself was to preside over innumerable investitures, one of the largest of which took place in Hyde Park, London, on 2nd June, the day before his 52nd birthday.

The Times announced the details:

The ceremony, which will be simple and impressive, will give the people of London one of the rare opportunities they have had since the beginning of the war of expressing collectively their gratitude to the men who have fought and are fighting, and to the nurses who have tended them, and at the same time of demonstrating their loyalty to the Sovereign.

The ceremony lasted for two hours with 351 awards presented, including eleven Victoria Crosses, four of them posthumously. The first person presented to the King was Major Henry Murray of the Australian Imperial Force –  a bushman who, having risen from the ranks to command a battalion, became “the most highly decorated soldier in the Australian army”Captain William Allen of the Royal Army Medical Corps was also presented with the VC. He had been present at an incident during the time of the Somme when a shell had struck high-explosive ammunition and had run across open land to tend to the injured. He was hit by four shell fragments, one of which fractured his ribs, but only mentioned his own wounds when the last man had been treated.

Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary, had direct experience of the horrors of war when his only son had been killed in action in 1915. He saw the monarchy less as a brand than as a force for regeneration and hope:

We must endeavour to induce the thinking working classes, Socialist and others, to regard the Crown, not as a figure-head and as an institution which as they put it, ‘don’t count’, but as a living power for good…

The King awarding the VC to Private T. Hughes, 2nd June 1917