Cold turkey

AFTER THE TRUCE, what then? Staff Sergeant Clement Barker wrote on 29 December: “Night came and still no shots. Boxing Day the same and has remained so up to now….We have conversed with the Germans and they all seem to be very much fed up and heaps of them are deserting. Some have given themselves up as prisoners, so things are looking quite rosy.”

Reluctance to re-open hostilities persisted in some areas and officers warned their opposite numbers when firing was to start. According to Sergeant George Ashurst of the Lancashire Fusiliers, “The generals …gave orders for a battery of guns behind us to open fire and a machine-gun to open out, and officers to fire their revolvers at the Jerries. That started the war again. We were cursing the generals to hell. You want to get up here in this mud. Never mind you giving orders in your big chateaux, and driving about in your big cars. We hated the sight of bloody generals, we always did. We didn’t hate them so much before this, but we never liked them after that.

“Then we had newspapers coming here from England accusing us of fraternising with the Germans: parsons accusing us of fraternising with the Germans when there had been an armistice on Christmas Day. I wrote back home and told my family off. I said we could do with that parson and the fellows that are writing in the newspapers here, I said. We want them in front of us instead of Jerry so we could shoot them down for passing remarks like that while nice and safe in England.”

The brief truce had also provided some encouraging newspaper market research. Writing home to his parents, a Reading sergeant, Charles Johnson, of the 2nd Royal Berkshire Regiment informed them that “On one occasion the Germans shouted over to our trenches for a Daily Mirror, and guaranteed a safe passage to anyone who would bring the paper. Of course, no one risked it, but we managed to throw a Daily Mirror weighted with a stone near enough for them to obtain it. The German soldiers love the ‘Big and Little Willie’ cartoons. It provides them with a hearty laugh whenever chance throws one their way.”

Far less amusing was the renewed intensity of fighting along the length of the Western Front which erupted after Christmas. By the first days of New Year, this had evolved into a series of Allied offensives in Artois and Champagne. The French beat off German attempts to recover St. Georges on 29 December, a defence which in turn provoked artillery duels along the whole front by New Year’s Eve, those around St. Georges, La Bassee, Roye and Verdun especially severe. That same day they captured a wood near Mesnil-les-Hurlus in Champagne and, by week’s end, advanced near St. Georges in Flanders and completed the capture of port of Steinbach in Alsace.

The post-Christmas shakedown meant little in the east, where no perceptible truce had surfaced. The traditions of gemütlich Christmas was less embedded here than in the west. That consideration, as well as the legacy of serfdom, had perhaps conspired to ensure that troops there apparently expected no such consideration, and nor did they receive it.

On New Year’s Day, the Russians advanced on the Uzsok Pass and over the next three days succeeded in occupying Suczava in Bukovina. In Poland, the Germans were fighting violently at Bolimov and Inovlodz, but these were rearguard actions. Russia certainly appeared to be winning the war in the east, but of course the vast distances involved allowed for sudden surges of a type unknown in Flanders. They also had the indisputable advantage of being able to draw on apparently inexhaustible supplies of manpower.

Heavy fighting erupted in Russian Armenia on New Year’s Day which lasted for the next three days. On 4 January, Russian victories at Sarikamish and Ardahan were declared. The destruction of the Turkish army corps at the former may have helped make the British Government more susceptible to the blandishments of the Russian Commander-in-Chief, Grand Duke Nicholas when, on 30 December, he suggested a British expedition against the Turks. Thus were some of the seeds sown for the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign of 1915.

In Galicia, the Austrians were in retreat. The Habsburg Empire which, according to any kind of empirical assessment, ought to have signed off hostilities months earlier, continued nonetheless to plot and plan. On the amorphous Southern Front, the Albanians, incited by Austrians, attacked Montenegrin posts on 29 December but were rapidly repulsed. As the New Year was being sounded, news reached Serbia of yet another Austrian invasion in the offing and by 3 January, Franz Josef’s forces had succeeded (for now) in occupying Ada Tsiganlia, an island near Belgrade. The Daily Express was unimpressed by such military irrelevances, claiming that “Evidence of the complete breakdown of Austria and Turkey and of their weariness of the German alliance continues to accumulate…Revolt has broken out in the Austrian army, where the Slavs and Croats are actively manifesting their sympathy with their Russian and Servian kinsmen. The Bohemians are also reported to be in active mutiny.”

The British press was beginning to pay more attention to the war in the air. The attributes of those men in the RNAS who had carried out the recent raid by the Royal Flying Corps on the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven on Christmas Day were extolled in the Express with partisan relish. NAVAL AIRMEN WITH NO NERVES ran the headline. “The senior officer of the little flotilla engaged, and, I dare wager, one of the moving spirits in this raid, is Squadron Commander Cecil l’Estrange Malone, himself one of the finest pilots who ever flew over sea or land, but now presumably more valuable for his brain than for his hands. With him as navigator was one Erskine Childers, lieutenant R.N.V.R.”

New Year’s Eve provoked, inevitably, recollection and sorrow. In Pervyse, volunteer nurses welcomed Elsie Knocker back after her Christmas leave and sat around speculating on what the New Year might bring. The only certainty, according to Mairi Chisholm, was that it would involve “Death to many I am afraid and it remains to be seen which ones.”

In the appalling prisoner-of-war camp at Doberitz near Berlin, Able Seaman James Farrant RND recorded that, “On the last day of 1914 at 9 pm every man was solemnly sitting up in bed ‘killing off’ (delousing), which operation was conducted twice daily, morning and night. Scratching was also much in vogue. We told Kirk, the only man with a watch, to call us at 12pm. This he did and we sang God Save the King, Rule Britannia, Auld Lang Syne, and we were just giving the Marseillaise and Hail Columbia, when a rifle was thrust through the window with the guttural command, ‘Ruhig!’”

For those who could stomach it, year’s end led to the amassing of harsh data. The Daily Express calculated that the total German losses in the war, including Saxon and Wurtemberg regiments and the naval forces, amounted “in round figures now to 2,000,000. The latest German casualty lists. Nos. 101 to 108, give the names of 35,883 officers and men of the Prussian army, dead, wounded, or missing” it continued. “The total losses of the Prussian army up to the present amount to 753,202. The Bavarians have also suffered severe losses, and half their forces have already been put hors de combat. The Prussians and the Bavarians together have lost 250,000 killed. 400,000 missing, and 850,000 wounded.”

The newspaper would not then have known that among Germany’s dead, August Macke, the talented German Expressionist, had been killed on 25 September fighting in Champagne at the age of 27. The greatest female German artist, Käthe Kollwitz, lost her only son Peter, aged 19, on 23 October, a loss which devastated her for ever. As she wrote to a friend, “There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it.” In time she created a memorial to her son, showing his grieving parents kneeling and representing all whose lives were shattered by the war. Nor did it report that the BEF casualties in France and Flanders by the end of the year were: 18,174 killed, 50,969 wounded, 26,511 missing or prisoners of war, making a total of 95,654. By year’s end, the Army contained 1,686,980 personnel.

Lurking in the background was the gnawing suspicion that Britain could not hope to endure the struggle sustained only by volunteers. Hamley’s, the famous toyshop in London, had produced a series of patriotic toys for Christmas plus gifts suitable for the wounded. The most popular jigsaw according to their 1914 advertisement was the one of Lord Kitchener. This was hardly surprising in view of the remarkable recruitment campaign headed by him. (On one single day -1 September 1914–30,000 men had enlisted. By the end of 1914 the campaign had involved 54,000,000 posters, 8,000,000 personal letters, 12,000 meetings and 20,000 speeches, collectively producing 1,186,337 recruits.)

But soldiers of the BEF were all too aware that these raw recruits now training back home would soon be needed. As Private H. F. Leppard told his mother: “The soldiers at the front need more rest. While in the trenches the water is over our knees most of the time. The war is going to last some time yet, and might be another 12 months before it is over. The war has only just begun and it’s going to be a war of exhaustion. After the regular armies have done their work it means that all the young lads at home being trained and disciplined will take our place in the field. The sooner people understand this, the better it will be for the nation.”

The losses ensured in the west were replicated throughout other theatres of conflict; on the Eastern Front the sub-zero temperatures were adding to the agony and many men simply froze to death at their posts. The Russians had lost a quarter of a million men and hundreds of thousands had been captured.

The anonymity of many who fell was one of the war’s cruelties. At the end of a turbulent period of rebellion and suppression in South Africa, some attention was now paid to the two Winslow brothers, “descendants of the intrepid and resolute member of the band of the Pilgrim Fathers” who (according to a newspaper correspondent) “were killed on the same day in fighting. The elder, who was on horseback in the front line, was shot down at the first volley of firing. His brother, stationed behind some rocks, at once rushed out to give him a drink. While doing so, he, too, was shot by the German force. A fellow-soldier afterwards came across the sad sight of two dead brothers. The brave would-be rescuer had one arm around his elder brother’s neck, and he still held the cup in his other hand. A hero’s death indeed!”

This ennobling tale was lapped up eagerly by readers who demanded a world in which goodies and baddies were drawn in only bright colours. All newspapers played up to this. The Express referred at New Year to “A revelation which would, before this war began, have been deemed incredible, was made by General Joffre in a general order issued on December 17. It takes the form of a quotation from an order issued by the General Commanding the 58th Brigade of the 14th Bavarian Corps. This order expressly forbade the taking of any more prisoners. ‘All prisoners will be put to death. . . . No living man must be left behind’. “ The paper was understandably indignant. “This example of German ‘frightfulness’ is worthy of Louvain, Termonde, Scarborough, and the threat to torpedo merchant vessels” it suggested. “It will only inspire the French army to greater deeds of valour and discipline.”

M. Pauliat, a French senator, also now related an incident that had occurred at Lourches, near Douchy: “A German officer who had insulted a woman was shot by a wounded French soldier. The soldier was about to be shot when Emile Despres, aged fourteen, arrived and the condemned man asked for water. The lad brought a glass and was immediately brutally beaten. His eyes were bandaged and he was placed with his countryman for execution. Then the German officer suddenly changed his mind, and taking the handkerchief from the boy’s eyes told him he would spare his life if he would shoot the soldier. The boy took the rifle given him, and then, suddenly shot dead the officer. The boy was immediately transfixed with the bayonets and riddled with bullets, the soldier sharing his fate.”

News that Britain could provide heroes of her own came in a newspaper report on 4 January with the stories of two very different men, One had been “Born amid the dangers of the bombardment of Whitby, the seventh son of Edward Griffin, a shipyard worker, has been named George Shrapnel Griffin, the first name after the King. His Majesty’s notice having been drawn to the event, a letter expressing his pleasure that mother and child were well has been received from Lord Stamfordham (the King’s Private Secretary), also congratulating the father on his magnificent life-saving record. Mr Griffin has saved thirty-six people from drowning.”

The second was Surgeon-Captain Arthur Martin-Leake who had just been awarded a bar to his VC, one of the only three men to achieve this extraordinary distinction. He had won his first VC in the Boer War in 1902 and then, though he was in a protected occupation working for the Indian railways, at the age of 40, in 1914 he joined the 5th Field Ambulance and was caught in the dreadful fighting at Ypres. From 29 October to 8 November, he worked tirelessly throughout the battle, personally rescuing wounded men lying close to the enemy while constantly under heavy fire. This sustained period of selfless courage and unwavering care for others had earned him his second accolade for supreme valour.

The intensity of war had suggested there was a need for a new decoration for gallantry. On 28 December a Royal Warrant for a new gallantry award was announced. The Military Cross was for junior officers, ineligible for the Distinguished Service Order due to their rank, and awarded for gallantry in the presence of the enemy. On 1 January 1915 the first awards were announced to 99 men, one made posthumously to Captain The Hon. William Cecil of the Grenadier Guards, killed by a German sniper on 26 September during the Battle of the Aisne. Cecil was one of 60 aristocrats who had died since August.

At year’s end, the British people remained as perplexing as always — by turns unreasonably kind and vehemently unreasonable. The influx of Belgian refugees into Britain in 1914 represented the greatest single flow from any country in the 20th century. Between 200,000 and 250,000 had arrived, most penniless and with few possessions, and they were welcomed in a remarkable show of solidarity and generosity. Charitable committees were set up in order to find accommodation and employment, for the British evidently felt great admiration for the resistance and suffering shown by the gallant Belgians, remembering especially atrocities such as had occurred in Dinant when 674 civilians had lost their lives when they were caught in the fighting or shot accused of resisting or firing on German forces. 116 people had been executed together on 23 August.

And what could be more English than a bit of class outrage? The Daily Mirror published a letter during the week entitled Social Superiority. “I heartily agree with ‘M.L’s remarks” wrote the correspondent, “in response to the shorthand typist who affirms that a domestic servant is ‘inferior’ to a typist. It is indeed a pity that such obvious ‘superiority’ should be wasted in a dingy office. As one who has been a housemaid and now fills a comfortable position as secretary and corresponds in French and German, I would venture to ask if the shorthand typist above mentioned would feel me beneath her socially.”

Such arcane stratifications of rank were a minority sport, however. Of more concern was when the war would end. The Mirror reported that “A statesman whose long connection with the British Treasury made him intimately acquainted with the financial position and resources of other countries” its correspondent informed readers, “tells me he does not believe war with Germany will extend beyond Midsummer-day… Germany’s cash and credit resources combined will not suffice to meet the colossal expenses of the war beyond a further period of six mouths… The population are already taxed to the uttermost farthing…”

This apparently dispassionate analysis was devoured greedily at home, but it contrived, of course, to disappoint in the end. In the meantime, more venal longings could not be put on hold indefinitely. The Daily Express observed that “a remarkable boom in what are termed ‘irregular marriages’ has been recorded in Glasgow, where scores of soldiers have taken advantage of their Christmas furlough to be married by a formal declaration before the sheriff. During this year there have been 2,478 such marriages in the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court — an increase of fully 500 over last year’s figures. At least fifty more are expected this week, as Hogmanay is generally the busiest time of the year.”

Was this startling trend explained away by the comforting thought that not even a world at war could put asunder the path of true love? Many men yearned not to face death any more alone than they were already, and many women yearned to share their burden as best they could. Those still at home seemed also to have caught the marriage bug, in part because rumours of a conscription bill in the making were running rife, and it was believed that married men would enjoy exemption. As the New Year opened up, civilians as well as soldiers evidently felt themselves, in a way which had no ready precedent in British history, to be everywhere at war.

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