IN TRUTH, it wasn’t all about Verdun. The fate of this tragic town is, of course, the inevitable reference point when one thinks of the first months of 1916 — but much else in fact, was happening. In addition to its dangers and privations, the war spawned continual and dense narratives.
In Verdun itself, a dire battle of attrition raged. On 14 March, the Germans penetrated the Allied line at Béthincourt Mort-Homme (aptly named) but then their advance slowed down. Five successive attacks on Vaux were repulsed by the French over the next two days and, by the end of the week, they had been thrown back at Poivre Hill.
Raymond Asquith, son of the Prime Minister, wrote to his heavily pregnant wife, Katharine, from GHQ on 15 March:
I have been reading some letters from Indian troops this afternoon: one man says: ‘I never think about the chance of being killed, nor do I feel any particular satisfaction at the idea of going on living.’ This is a mood one recognises.
[Sir Philip Sassoon] and Haig were down at Chantilly holding Joffre’s hand for most of last week. The French seem to have been in a pitiful state of nerves when the offensive began, and thought that it was all up with them whether Verdun fell or not, owing to the losses in men which they would suffer either way.
They are certainly getting pretty short of men, but the Huns are shorter, and have now got the whole of their 1916 class (i.e. boys of 20) at the front, whereas the French have not yet brought theirs from the depots. The most reasonable estimates of losses at Verdun up to date give the French at 50,000 and the Germans at 100,000. Probably this is somewhere near the mark.
These are remarkable insights: the young Asquith was, of course, uncommonly well placed to pick up uncensored thinking among both the military and political elite, and seemed to have had no embarrassment in disseminating information he had gleaned to his wife. In retrospect we can see that the French state of nerves, pitiful or otherwise, would not in fact stand in their way of remaining an extraordinary fighting machine for years yet, any more than would the Germans’ shortage of manpower.
The Germans were certainly frustrated that the attack at Verdun had not been more immediately overwhelming, especially the Kaiser, whose eldest son Crown Prince Wilhelm was the chief local commander. Similarly, the exhaustion of the French was attested by the urgent discussions taking place that week at an Allied Conference at Chantilly. Haig’s especial preoccupation, of course, was the preparation of the forthcoming summer offensive but this would only be possible so long as the French proved able to hold out until then.
Those in less exalted stations concentrated on the business of simply getting through the next 24 hours. Thus, Sister Edith Appleton grieved over the death of a “poor little boy” called Kerr. She wrote in her diary:
[Kerr] asked me what dying would be like. He felt too young to die, and him not even wounded, but just with bronchitis. Then another time he said, ‘They wouldn’t let me go sick. Every time they said it was rheumatism and would wear off, and marching with full pack and dodging the shells was dreadful’
She was, on the positive side, delighted by the arrival of “eight, beautiful, fully-trained sisters, all in the pink of health! They have just come from a slack time in Egypt so ought to be good for work now.”
“Work now” meant, of course, war work. On March 15 Sister Appleton noted:
We were called for early breakfast and got on duty just before the convoy arrived. There were only 300-odd but we filled right up in No.3, then five fractures went into No.4. Three are on the Seriously Ill (SI), but I think there are good hope for all of them. Sam Murphy has both legs broken and his left eye shot out, Burke has one leg badly broken — and Moules has gas gangrene in his shoulder and is badly wounded.
But why, many Britons must have wondered, should they worry about Verdun? What was happening there was, of course, very sad — but the problem of our allies rather than of our boys. Certainly there were dramas enough at home. The Germans carried out a bombing raid on 19 March in which six aircraft dropped bombs in Dover, Deal, Ramsgate and Margate, killing fourteen and injuring twenty-six people. One of the dead was seven-year-old Francis Hall, killed in Dover, on his way to Sunday school.
The British put up twenty-six planes in pursuit of the raiders and two German aircraft were forced to land in the sea — enough to feel like they were responding to an outrage, though hardly an action on a scale that could help the French at Verdun. Perhaps more usefully, the Russians mounted attacks on the Central Powers all week around Vilna and Lake Naroch: they greatly outnumbered their opponents and scored a stylish (but very temporary) success north-west of Uscieczko on the River Dniester.
Although hardly on account of this spat in the east, there were signs that impatience in Berlin was bordering on desperation. There was a hint of new recklessness, of taking on the whole world. On 9 March Germany had declared war on Portugal, having been vexed beyond endurance by the Atlantic power’s recent seizures of German shipping. Six days later, out of solidarity for her ally, Austria did likewise.
Almost inexplicably, the Germans now added to their isolation by sinking a fast mail and passenger ship belonging to a neutral country, Holland. The SS Tubantia had left Amsterdam on 15 March, heading for Buenos Aires. At 2 am on 16 March it anchored, fully illuminated, 93 kilometres from the Dutch coast to await daylight and avoid any chance of misidentification or attack. However, without warning, it was torpedoed at 2.30 a.m. and began to sink. Distress calls were issued and three ships rushed to help, rescuing all eighty passengers and all two hundred and ninety-four crew members. This was not the only naval incident of the week — the French torpedo boat Renaudia was torpedoed on 19 March and, the following day, there was an engagement in the North Sea between four British and three German torpedo boats.
An unprovoked attack upon a neutral country’s vessel was calculated to produce, at the very least, a diplomatic eruption, as well as furious exchanges in the British and German press. The Germans now compounded the damage by some spectacularly hamfisted spin, seeking initially to blame the event upon a British mine or torpedo. This was predictably (and very crossly) denied — and when fragments of a torpedo containing bronze (a material used only in German torpedoes) were found in a lifeboat from Tubantia, a fresh story was concocted. A forged log was presented which purported to show that U-13 was nowhere near at the time of the sinking and, adding a particularly bonkers elaboration, the Germans claimed their submarine had fired a torpedo at a British ship on 6 March — but that it had missed and yet remained active until 16 March when it hit Tubantia.
Spin was one thing, but science fiction was another. The howls of derision which followed left the Germans feeling very silly. Those who joined in the mockery included the US Minister for the Netherlands, Henry van Dyke:
This certain U-boat had fired this particular torpedo at a British war-vessel somewhere in the North Seas ten days before the Tubantia was sunk. The shot missed its mark. But the naughty undisciplined little torpedo went cruising around in the sea on its own hook for ten days waiting for the chance to kill somebody. Then the Tubantia came along and the wandering-Willy torpedo promptly, obstinately, ran into the ship and sank her. This was the explanation. Germany was not to blame.
In an effort to divert attention, Germany now claimed that Britain was planning to invade Holland, but did offer a settlement of £300,000, the original cost of the ship, which was refused. It was finally agreed to put the matter to international arbitration after the war. Tubantia was the largest neutral vessel to be sunk in the entire war and its cargo of gold coins (worth £2 million then, and some £100 million now) was never salvaged.
The ongoing siege at Kut-al-Amara had seen the fortunes of the British descend into a trough which would have confounded even the most creative of spin-merchants. The truth was too obvious: the British should never have gone there and, having gone, they now faced certain disaster. The garrison, in addition to strict rationing, was now subjected to sporadic attacks and bombardments from their Turkish besiegers, assisted by German air-power. On 14 March, Lieutenant LS Bell Dyer, a member of the 104th Wellesley’s Rifles, a unit of the 6th Anglo-Indian Division, noted: “We have been shelled and bombed and our life made a general Hades, but we are still keeping the flag flying in spite of it.”
Captain Reynolds Lecky of the 120th Rajputana Infantry summarised the month so far in a diary entry for 20 March:
On 8th Aylmer made his big attack and failed. This makes the fourth effort and we now hear he has been recalled; Gorringe his Chief of Staff reigns in his stead. We have now rations up to the end of the month so hope Gorringe will make a big effort soon. Ration again reduced, bread down to 8 oz. and meat to one and a quarter pounds, no vegetables, tea, butter or any luxuries. Turks have produced from nowhere a grand new battery of eight inch guns and are mounting them on timber baulks. On 18th Fritz dropped two 100lb bombs on British hospital, one exploded and killed five and wounded twenty-six, the other stuck in the roof and was gently removed to the river by Sappers. The absence of lamentation and self-pity is striking, for one of the trials faced by an army under siege is enforced idleness.
Lecky’s fate, grim as it was, seems as grace itself to horrific sufferings still being endured by Armenian deportees. Amongst the group of 250 eminent Armenian intellectuals rounded up by the Ottomans in Constantinople was the celibate priest, Fr Grigoris Balakian. Since then, he and others had been on a forced march, in brutal conditions, heading for the remote town in the Syrian desert then known as Deir-ez-Zor, where en route they were greeted by appalling sights. Fr Balakian memorised what he experienced and recorded it all in a memoir published after the war.
In one place, near Bogazliyan, they had found
… a small valley near the spring above the village. There, my God, before my eyes were the swollen and dismembered bodies of murdered men and women. Many heads were detached from their bodies, and in some cases their bowels were spilled out. All had been stripped bare, hands and feet or legs thrown far from the torsos. Such proximity to death made me feel weak. As my already tired legs became wobbly I fell to the ground.
On the journey, Balakian managed to get the accompanying Turkish Captain, Shukri Bey of the Ottoman Constabulary, to disclose details of the massacres at Yozgat. The replies were candid — perhaps he thought his listener was already a dead man:
It’s wartime. Bullets are expensive. People grabbed whatever they could from their villages. Axes, hatchets, scythes, sickles, clubs, hoes, pickaxes, shovels. And they did the killing accordingly.
Balakian responded, deeply shocked: “But Bey, you are an elderly Muslim. How did you have this many thousands of innocents massacred without feeling any remorse or guilt? Won’t you remain accountable for this before God, the Prophet and your conscience?”
A century later, the answer has a chilling resonance: “Not at all. I carried out my sacred and holy obligation before God, my Prophet, and my caliph. Jihad was proclaimed. I, as a military officer, carried out the orders of my king. Killing people during war is not considered a crime, is it?”
Suki Bey was recalling the declaration of Holy War, made in November 1914 against Britain, France, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, by Sheik-ul-Islam, speaking for the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire:
Of those who go to the Jihad for the sake of happiness and salvation of the believers in God’s victory, the lot of those who remain alive is felicity, while the rank of those who depart to the next world is martyrdom. In accordance with God’s beautiful promise, those who sacrifice their lives to give life to the truth will have honour in this world, and their latter end is paradise.
In welcome contrast to these unalloyed horrors, the war in Africa was alleviated this week by a brace of actions which might have been lifted straight from the pages of a Rider Haggard novel. The first of these actions was the spectacular success in Egypt on 14 March when the British regained Sollum and scattered the Senussi. That night the Duke of Westminster wrote to his mother:
I cannot give you the details of a fight I had on the 14th but just the rough outline. After 2 days hard march over almost impossible country I was ordered to pursue the enemy who had retreated to take up fresh positions. They had 17 hours start, but I managed to catch them in 2 hours, found where their guns were, formed a line with my cars and charged them. Turks manned the guns and fired at us till we were within 200 yards of them, luckily they missed us — and the net result was that with 9 cars and only 36 men I captured 3 cannon and 9 Maxims. Killed fifty of the enemy, including 4 Turkish officers killed round the guns, captured 3 more Turkish officers, 36 prisoners, 50 camels, 12 horses, 10 mules, 250,000 rounds of ammunition and lots of loot. Am off on my last expedition at 2.30 tomorrow morning and hope to bring off a big thing.
N.B. None of this success due to me but to my officers and men. Was in centre car in the charge, we went full speed — glorious feeling. I go 700 miles tonight into their country with 40 cars, 100 camels and one squadron cavalry; a nice force — but a difficult job before me — am very proud of the command entrusted to me. Only had one officer wounded slightly in head — Jack Leslie 12th Lancers, very slight.
The Duke’s self-effacement (not a trait he exhibited uniformly) was commendable — in truth, he had fought a very brave battle. But for pure derring-do, we have to turn to the incorrigibly eccentric Richard Meinertzhagen, whose fearlessness and bloodlust in the face of the enemy left even old campaigners speechless.
He was part of a British force in East Africa, led by General Smuts, which was still trying to track down Lettow-Vorbeck and his troops who had disappeared into the bush. Meinertzhagen, impatient for action, went off from Moshi on a personal reconnaissance of the enemy camp in the bush at Kahe. He managed to reach the camp at night with the help of ‘a decent moon’ and described the exploit in his diary of 18 March:
It was noteworthy what a lot of noise a camp makes even in the dead of night. Snoring, talking, changing sentries, patrols coming and going, all kept me fully informed of the main camp. Several patrols passed me almost within touching distance and my heart beat with thumps in effort to hide my self-consciousness. Sometime I felt inclined to scream just to tell the enemy I was there, sometimes I was giggling at my ludicrous position, sometimes I was terrified when a sentry or patrol would look hard apparently straight at me. I estimated the enemy force at Pangani Bridge at 1,400 men and there was no sign of movement. I cut back to the line and had to swim the Rau river, a cold dip with thoughts of crocodiles.
Saw Smuts late this evening to explain to him more fully the results of my reconnaissance. At the end he said: ‘Meinertzhagen, you’re mad, stark, staring. It’s not your business to undertake this sort of risk, so please don’t do it again.’ I tried to explain that I am better qualified to do this sort of work than any of my subordinates and that I enjoy it. ‘You’re mad,’ he repeated, so I left him.
Sometimes the terrors of the war threw up situations in which a rich belly laugh was the only response. Meinertzhagen’s singularities account for several of those. So too did the ability of the writer, Lytton Strachey, to prick the pomposity of the conscription tribunal in Hampstead before whom he appeared on 16 March. Asked if he had a conscientious objection to all wars, Strachey replied “Oh no, not to all. Only to this one.” He was then asked, “Then tell me Mr Strachey, what would you do if you saw a German soldier attempting to rape your sister?” To which Strachey replied, “I should try to come between them.”
The laughter, in this instance, comes strictly from a later generation. The Board was not at all amused and his application for absolute exemption on grounds of conscience was adjourned pending an examination by military doctors. Strachey’s timing was unlucky. There were a lot of jitters that conscientious objection could easily become the thin end of a ever-widening wedge of people disinclined to go and get killed in France. The previous day, Lord Derby had made a pledge that married men would not be called up into the Army. That was another political promise that would in time be broken.
And, although there is no archival evidence to corroborate the claim, one suspects that there may also have been a few strangulated giggles following an incident described by Edith Appleton in her diary on March 20
Miss Denne, the Assistant Director Medical Services and a couple of civilian lady visitors came round yesterday. My No.4 ward is for ‘fractures of the lower extremity’, and one visitor, after I had shown her round, remarked that they all seemed to have broken legs in that ward. I suppose she didn’t realise what lower extremities are. But she was a charming woman and so nice with the men.