Dear God: the flies

THE NEW COALITION was only days old, but still the carping continued.

To some ears, the squabbling may have seemed a tiresome irrelevance, parish plimp politics of the worst sort — diverting attention while men died in their hundreds and thousands. To others, the two things were intimately linked: while Asquith and his incompetent colleagues fiddled, Rome burned.

There was no single explanation for the shortage of shells — the answers lay deep within the infrastructural limitations of British industry, its methods of distribution and arcane working practices. The scandal, insofar as there can be said to have been one, rested on the extent to which people in high places sought to cover their own backs at a moment in history when others were exposed to the full fury of war. Asquith had long known that Kitchener, the hero of Omdurman, had been a desperately inadequate Secretary of State for War who had ‘ignored French’s demands for more high explosive supplies’, and had determined to keep the Cabinet ignorant of them. He was also fully aware that ‘K’ had refused to ‘allow civilian help’ to tidy the mess at the War Office, fearful of its shortcomings becoming more widely known and of assaulting the vested interests of its top brass.

But Kitchener still exerted an enormous hold on the public imagination of the British and his toppling could upset national morale — a deeply uninviting prospect at a time of war. Asquith, moreover, feared that the ensuing scalpings could all too easily include his own. Far better, he concluded, to keep your enemies close. On 3 June Kitchener was created a Knight of the Garter, that most select band of brothers. Jacky Fisher, erstwhile First Sea Lord, reacted to news of this bitterly claiming that ‘Kitchener, who can’t get a thing right, gets the Order of the Garter and I get the order of the boot.’

Indulgent as it may have been to Kitchener, the public mood in general was increasingly unforgiving. Lord Haldane had been removed as Lord Chancellor when the new government was created — a comment less upon on his executive capacities, and far more upon the vicious press campaign against him which had alleged pro-German sympathies. These possessed no substance whatsoever, but news that Haldane had studied German literature rendered him, in the present moment, suspect. The King, who had a keen if unsophisticated sense of fair play, believed he had been treated most scurvily and promptly bestowed upon him the Order of Merit.

The deep weariness and resentment occasioned by war was given eloquent expression by Vera Brittain in Oxford that week, as her diary recorded: I saw in The Times obituary notices this morning the death from wounds of Murray Drummond-Fraser. He was only 21, I always imagined him more. I have often played tennis or bridge with him & always liked him very much. So they are all departing; fulfilling, like the Achaeans of Homer’s Iliad, a cruel fate — ‘the eloquent, the young, the beautiful & brave’. Words of grief become almost meaningless in these days, they have to be used so frequently. But one does not feel any the less. Sorrows do not grow lighter because they are many.

Coincidentally, Vera Brittain’s young man, Roland Leighton, had experienced that same week — in the most direct way imaginable — the effects of Asquith’s new political vulnerability. The Prime Minister decided to visit the front, really in an attempt to patch up relations between Sir John French and Kitchener. Roland Leighton was one of those who met him: “The Prime Minister, of all persons, was responsible for the abrupt ending of my last letter” he wrote home. “He was brought along to have an informal look at us and it was arranged that he should see the men while they were having a bath in the vats… We only had about half an hour’s notice and had to rush off & make arrangements for the ‘accidental’ visit. I and two other subalterns being at the moment in a mischievous mood decided to have a bath at the same time, and successfully timed it so that we all three welcomed Asquith dressed only in an identity disc…He looked old and haggard I thought.”

Asquith’s wife Margot waited at Charing Cross to welcome him home late on Thursday 3 June, recording in her diary: I watched the wounded officers in a very long ambulance train being carried out and put in Red Cross motors…I never saw anything more beautifully and perfectly arranged than all this. The silence, the ease and quickness with which many of these dying men were conveyed from the train to the motor ambulance was most striking. Her husband arrived dead tired and half-asleep…. and I never saw him so low. Mrs Asquith continued to regard the war as in strictly personal terms. Rebukes aimed at her husband, richly earned or otherwise, were viewed by her with resentment and disdain. In particular she was incensed by Northcliffe’s press campaign and enraged that he was allowed to have his own way, whether in trying to damage Kitchener or Henry, whether spreading Poison and Slander at Home or abroad.

Asquith’s visit had been fact-finding as well as morale-building. He returned convinced that that there really was a grave shortage of shells A Bill was introduced on 3 June, which ordained the creation of a new Ministry of Munitions. Great hopes were espoused in its Minister, the famed Welsh wizard Lloyd George, whose credibility now depended upon his ability to a fashion a dramatic increase in production. Only this, it was now believed, might arrest the unvarying melancholy of the war in Flanders. Fighting continued north of Arras during the week with a French offensive near Hebuterne. The Germans made a series of counter-attacks north of the Aisne towards the end of the week, none of which made much headway — but then neither did the efforts of the Allies.

The list of dead and injured continued inexorably to grow. Tributes for the recently deceased Julian Grenfell, the irrepressibly joyful poet-soldier, poured in. His mother received hundreds of letters, some from illustrious names. The former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour wrote: ‘To live greatly and to die soon is a lot which all must admire and some of us envy: indeed to my thinking it cannot be bettered.’ While Churchill, now languishing unhappily as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, observed: ‘He was all that you could have desired and all that our race needs to keep its honour fair and bright…He at any rate lived and died as he would have wished.’ The Times published news of his death together with his poem Into Battle which ended:

The thundering line of battle stands,

And in the air Death moans and sings;

And Day shall clasp him with strong hands,

And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

The Grenfells, like many other families, did not experience tragedy singly. His cousin, Francis Grenfell, one of the earliest VCs of the war, had been killed on 24 May near Ypres, and his brother Billy, last seen by his family at Julian’s funeral, would die on 30 July leading a charge at Hooge. Margot Asquith in Downing Street added her own voice to those overwhelmed by a sense of loss, recording in her diary, The casualties and sorrows of these last weeks have been heart-rending. Julian Grenfell, Ettie’s beautiful eldest son, was shot in the head, and died in Boulogne Hospital. My splendid friend Francis Grenfell, 9th Lancers, the first VC, was shot. My 2 cousins — Charlie Tennant, an angel boy, and Willy Tennant, — were killed…..No one, I should say, ever got over the loss of a Child.

Examples of these multiple griefs proliferated. On 3 June Charterhouse-educated Second-Lieutenant Drummond-Fraser had volunteered for the dangerous task of erecting a barbed wire entanglement in front of the British lines when, as noted above, he was shot in the chest. His premature death did not deter his younger brother Haddo who, despite minor heart problems, persisted in attempting to enlist. Having finally succeeded he too would be killed. Another superb artist joined the ranks of talented youth killed in the conflict on 5 June. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, whose radical sculpture combined Cubist and Vorticist tendencies, was killed aged only twenty-three. He had enlisted in the French Army when war broke out and died at Neuville Saint Vaast, having just been decorated for bravery. His friends in London and Paris were shattered. One friend said, “It is hard to believe that a man so gifted with genius should come upon our earth merely to be killed by a bullet.” Ezra Pound expressed it simply: “A great spirit has been among us, and a great artist is gone.”

There was no comfort to be gained from the war in Gallipoli. Having repulsed a Turkish assault on 3 June, the Royal Naval Division launched their own attack on heavily fortified Turkish trenches the following day. This was undertaken with French support which proved, as it happened, to be less than an unalloyed blessing. The Second Brigade was virtually wiped out, its left flank having been exposed by the retreat of panicking French Senegalese troops who had fled back to their trenches from which they refused to emerge.

This tale of terror under fire was one which admitted of no national boundaries. On 5 June a VC was awarded to Second Lieutenant G.R. Moor of the Hampshire Regiment’s 3rd battalion which had lost all its officers. In bland official prose, Moor had ‘stemmed the retirement, led back the men and recaptured the lost trench’. In reality, according to his commanding officer, the effort to do this had led him to shoot four of his own men who were busily engaged upon retreat, after which ‘the remainder came to their senses.’ At 18, Moor was one of the youngest men to receive the VC. Only nine officers out of seventy in the RND survived the encounter, (later known as the third battle of Krithia), unhurt and the brigade lost over two-thirds of its strength, about 6,000 men.

These grim statistics can do no more than hint at the minute horror of life lived that week. Lieutenant G.D Horridge of the Lancashire Fusiliers recalled later: “After the battles of 4 and 6 June the land in between the trenches was covered with dead. As the Turkish firing was almost incessant at night, and the dead were so numerous, it was impossible to bury a big proportion of them. It was a horrible job to do, because the very hot sun had caused very quick decomposition.

“The flies bred there until their number was tremendous. At night they lived on the dead and in the daytime they just buzzed around our trenches. They attacked our food remorselessly. In order to eat one had to wave one’s hand about over the food and then bite suddenly, or a fly came with it. Any bit of food uncovered was blotted out of sight by flies in a couple of seconds. This was frightfully trying, and the contamination made everyone ill. Typhoid and dysentery were rife. Those who didn’t get either had very unpleasant tummy trouble and were continually on the trot. Our food now was something different. Bread was being baked, so the dog biscuits disappeared. Desiccated vegetables had been introduced and there was an alternative to bully beef in Maconachie’s rations. However, the illness that the flies caused took away any appetite and I remember that eventually the smell of cooked desiccated vegetables as the meals were brought down the trenches was almost nauseating.”

The foetid terror of Gallipoli had not yet fully impressed itself on British civilians. As the hospital ships began to arrive home in the lengthening days of summer, whispers of its horrors and of bungling incompetences began to assail the public imagination. But there was a limit to how much awfulness of any kind could be absorbed at any one time. In addition to the grim attrition of Flanders, and to the growing scepticism that the political and military authorities had successfully coordinated their purpose, the British this week had also to deal with the increasing activity of Zeppelins.

On 6 June, having been foiled by a strong wind in approaching his initial target of London, Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy dropped his bombs on the King George V dock in Hull. Avoiding fire from HMS Adventure under repair on the slipway L9 released more bombs on the railway yard and finally on residential areas. Twenty-six people were killed and forty injured. About forty houses and shops were destroyed with damage estimated at around £100,000. It was the costliest raid of the war so far in both human and material losses. House fires killed some residents who couldn’t escape in time including three young children and the infirm Emma Pickering, aged 68. The raid caused strong anti-German feeling which resulted in riots and damage to premises with German-sounding names. As Dr Mary Murdoch said at the time: “I have never felt hatred in my heart until Sunday night when I saw that wretched Zeppelin, like a cigar in e sky, throwing out its bombs.” In London, the famous gilded statue of Prince Albert on the Albert Memorial had been blacked out lest moonlight glinting on the statue might serve as a guide to Zeppelins and help them to target major buildings nearby such as Kensington Palace. Searchlights and anti-aircraft guns were on standby.

Aerial terror provided a new context for ageless heroism. The first pilot in aviation history to bring down an airship was Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford who, in a single-seat Morane-Saulnier L fighter, had been despatched from Furnes airfield in Belgium to intercept two Zeppelins known to have turned back from Britain because of heavy fog. Early on 7 June Warneford caught up with LZ 37 near Bruges but was initially driven away by a fierce barrage of fire from the airship’s gunners. He pretended to give up the chase and then, just as the Zeppelin prepared to land, Warneford climbed to 11,00 feet, switched off his engine and dived silently down releasing his bombs only about 150 feet above the airship. Massive explosions ensued and the airship fell to ground near Ghent. For his actions Warneford was awarded the VC but, sadly, was to die ten days later from injuries sustained in an aircraft accident. He was only twenty-three.

A reminder that the British were not the only troops suffering from a chronic shortage of shells came from the war in the east. The Russians often were woefully short of ammunition and shells and sometimes were happy to be taken prisoner rather than continue to fight without adequate weapons. The recent German breakthrough at Tarnow and Galice had climaxed in the combined Austro-German recapture of Przemsyl, scene of a prolonged siege throughout Autumn and Spring and more recently of a hideously violent occupation by the Russians. The enemy advance did not stop there: on 6 June, they now crossed the Dniester and continued their advance east of Przemsyl.

Little news reached Britain about the fighting in the east. One eyewitness was the writer Hugh Walpole who had gone to Moscow and Petrograd as a reporter for The Daily Mail, his eyesight having rendered him unfit for military service. During this period he sent a series of cheerfully indiscreet letters to his friends, including one to the novelist Henry James, writing jubilantly: “The ‘Sanitar’ is the part of the Russian Red Cross that does the rough work at the front, carrying men out of the trenches, helping at the base hospitals in every sort of way, doing every kind of rough job. They are an absolutely official body and I shall be one of the few (half-dozen) Englishmen in the world wearing Russian uniform.” Once at the front the reality was less glamorous. He mentioned that, “Day before yesterday eight hundred wounded in twelve hours. I cut off fingers with a pair of scissors as easily as nothing.” He also wrote to Arnold Bennett describing the strange mixture of emotions experienced in war: “A battle is an amazing mixture of hell and a family picnic — not as frightening as the dentist but absorbing, sometimes thrilling like football, sometimes dull like church, and sometimes simply physically sickening, like bad fish. Burying dead afterwards is worst of all.”

Worst of all? There was a challenging idea, in this worst of all possible worlds — the parameters of which grew ever larger. On 1 June Austrian aircraft bombed Bari and Brindisi, keen to avenge the perfidy of their erstwhile ally. The Italians, also sensitive to considerations of national prestige, held the slopes of Monte Nero, and on 5 June their fleet bombarded lighthouses and stations on the islands of the Dalmatian Archipelago.

British and French commanders registered these events, but their scepticism was undented. A British submarine sank a German transport in Sea of Marmora on 2 June and the very next day Amara in Mesopotamia capitulated to British forces. The French also made some useful advances during the week in northern Africa. The newspapers at home grabbed such news with open arms and the civilians lapped them up, briefly reassured. But set against the horrors of Gallipoli, of Flanders and of vicious Zeppelin raids at home, they amounted to not much at all.