Gawping at amputees

October 10th to October 16th 1916

The Welsh at Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams (Getty Images)

WE WERE WINNING, on the Somme at least.

But it was the wrong kind of winning. A limited advance — not a breakthrough. The outcome of the war remained anyone’s guess.

Throughout the week, the Germans had taken big punishment, especially from the French. On 10 October, they had advanced on a three-mile front south of the Somme and taken Bois de Chaulnes and Ablaincourt, and 1,400 prisoners. The next day, they added another 1,700 to the tally. On 12 October, the British attacked on a four-mile between Eaucourt and the Bapume-Peronne road, pushing forward 1,000 yards in some places.

The Germans in the region were becoming desperate. Hindenburg, when he took over the previous month, had already decided to construct a defensive line 15–20 miles behind the current Arras and Somme lines, an innovation suggesting that henceforth the Germans would assume a defensive strategy. In time, his thinking crystallised in the shape of the Siegfried Stellung, (or Hindenburg Line), running from Arras via St Quentin to the river Aisne, and shortening the front line by about 50 kilometres.

The Siegfried Line

For now, the German soldiers left fighting on the Somme were exhausted; divisions could only be kept in battle for fourteen days. Because, however, there were insufficient replacements available, divisions found themselves sent back into the frontline before they had been properly rested or retrained. The various elite groups of engineers and of artillery and infantry units had each fought with distinction, but Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria worried that too much of the most desperate fighting was being done by these units. They had suffered a desperate attrition and, inevitably, were difficult to replace.

In the midst of death, an appetite for life persisted — almost everywhere. The diary of Nurse Edith Appleton, still at General Hospital №1 on the Normandy coast at Etretat between Le Havre and Fecamp, once again shows her heightened appreciation of natural beauty.

Edith Appleton

October 16 Calm and peaceful yesterday, capped by an agreeable surprise…We are having much more bracing weather now — bright sunshine, sharp showers and a blustering wind…This morning the sea is a clean blue-green with salmon-coloured waves reflecting the clouds. The beauty of the sky defies description.

Still, one could never quite forget the necessities of life. She had gone to Le Havre on October 10 to get the pay — a big lot — because now the VADs are being back-paid all their field allowance since June, when it was stopped.

On the following day, she attended: a lantern lecture on Lourdes last night given by the Roman Catholic padre in his chapel. Most interesting pictures of the little shepherdess Bernadette, seeing the vision and scratching the ground where the spring of healing waters came up, and of people who had been cured there.

Perhaps this sounds commonplace and sentimental. It was not. Her resilience and receptivity to the spiritual are made all the more astonishing when one considers the normal portion of her days:

October 12 We had a convoy of about 400 in yesterday. Many very bad cases, with one dead and one dying. I took 53 English and two Allemands, who were sent to the Canadian hospital at Le Havre as they were slight cases. They were standing laughing at our badly wounded, so got short shrift from me. I bundled them into bed at once and told them they were not going to stay with us –instead they were to go to the Canadians. It made them jibber, the cowards, because they were terrified of the Canadians.

October 13 … Some of my men were very bad with shellshock. One poor child, looking not much older than 14 but who said he was 18, was very bad. He was too conscious and could not forget for a moment what he had seen.

The novel sights and sounds of war were being absorbed, albeit across the Channel, by Elsie Gray, a nurse from New Zealand who had travelled to England as her aunt’s companion. In a letter home this week she remarked that:

…we passed Roehampton Hospital, where they fit up artificial limbs. In the streets round about here we saw dozens and dozens of returned boys with arms or legs off — two we saw with both arms and legs off. They look quite happy but it must be deadly for them.

Three out of ten, at most, for the vapidity of that last remark.

British amputees in recovery

In the east, the war was going less well, and certainly more confusingly for the Entente. Romania, her latest ally, was increasingly failing to hold out against the Austro-Hungarian army. The British Minister for War, David Lloyd George was pressing for a major campaign in the Balkans to help them. This was a scheme struck up with the French and, although the initial plan had been simply to cover Romania’s mobilisation, Joffre now announced on 10 October something more ambitious: the assembly of four more divisions — two Italian and two British — to help the Allied Eastern Army break through the Bulgarian defences and so relieve the Romanians.

In strategic terms, this made sense since it was help upon which the Russians might draw too. Asquith was disconcerted, not least because Lloyd George had backed the scheme without waiting upon the word of his Chief. Had the Prime Minister had more friends in Parliament, Lloyd George could have been sacked for such lese majeste, but the numbers did not stack up in the PM’s favour. Reluctantly, he agreed to send an extra division to Salonica and to hold a conference on the Balkans in Boulogne on 20 October.

As the enemy proceeded to march across Transylvania, the Tsar’s armies felt increasingly exposed. Vasily Mishnin, a Russian soldier, had been pushed back from Warsaw last summer. He was now in Belarus having, in one of the nonsensical chances of war, been rescued from frontline service thanks to his impeccable handwriting, and was working as a clerk in a field hospital. His letters to his wife, Nyura, reflect the war-weariness and desperation of Russian soldiers and on 13 October he noted:

I finally got a letter from Nyura today. I was madly happy. My hands were shaking. But as soon as I read it I felt like my whole head was on fire. Shurka and my two cousins have all been taken to the front. What can we do, when will all this end? They keep sending more and more people to the front.

Italy was faring rather better: in another battle against the Austrians on the Carso front, between 10 and 14 October, she took over 13,000 prisoners.

Italian soldiers of this time

The Serbians, by contrast, were having a harder time — still moving on Monastir, but with the Bulgarians putting up fierce resistance every step of the way.

Flora Sandes, with the Serbian Fourth Company, chronicled the difficulties in her letters and diary:

You can’t call it marching, over these mountains. It’s the most devilish country, bare hills, covered with big rocks, loose rolling stones, and no water. The Serbs are used to that sort of thing, and think nothing of going miles over these hills at a good stiff pace.

After capturing Slivica, the next target was Polog, a village three miles north over the same sort of barren, mountainous terrain. Sandes reflected later:

Ours was an entirely different sort of warfare to that on the Western Front. Anything more unlike the engagements one sees in pictures, and on the cinema, it would be hard to imagine. There was ‘no going over the top’, there being no trenches; getting to the top of one mountain after another, where the Bulgars were snugly ensconced, was always our objective.

Chivalric traditions in this part of the world would not be enough to save a prisoner — or so she believed:

the least the Bulgars do to our wounded and prisoners is to cut their throats.

The fortunes of war had become ever more muddied in Greece, not least because of the increasingly reluctance of the King and his followers to champion the Entente. Greece’s strategic importance — her access to the Mediterranean as well as Asia Minor — made her neutrality increasingly unsustainable. A speech by the head of the provisional government, Venezilos, on Friday 13 October indicated that government and monarch were bent on a collision course.

The nation has been led to the brink of a precipice by a conscienceless monarchy, and has been forced to disown the alliance with Servia. The nation must be organised and must expel the Bulgarians and do its duty to the Servians, whose heroism has won the admiration of the world. Constantine believes himself to be a King by the grace of God. He has therefore violated the Constitution. The National Assembly must be convoked after the war to erect an inviolable rampart against future violations by any monarch.

Venezilos’s words, made before his supporters, were received with loud cheers and cries of ‘Down with the King!’ and ‘Down with the traitors’. However, an anti-Entente demonstration in Athens on 15 October testified to the fact that dissenting views were also hotly embraced.

Admiral du Fournet

Four days earlier, the French Admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet upped the ante by landing a contingent of sailors at Athens. The idea was not a complicated one — intimidate Greece into doing whatever the Entente powers told her to do. He did not arrive unopposed, however, and in the fighting which followed 70 French sailors were killed. That made the French very cross indeed. Torpedo boats and the battleship Mirabeau now shelled the Greek capital which, on 16 October, allowed French and British forces to take control of the three remaining Greek warships which had not yet come under Allied control.

War did not annihilate contrasts — it merely emphasised them. Elsie Grey, when she was not gawping at amputees, also found plenty at which to marvel when she visited central London. This same week she wrote to her parents:

London is dead at night as far as illuminations go — the traffic and bustle still goes on though. We even have to pull our blinds down before we switch on the light….We then walked to Holborn — the buildings were beautiful — went into Holborn’s Restaurant and it was a wonderful sight. The illuminations inside make up for the darkness of the streets. The band was playing on a platform which resembled a fernery — the bandsmen were all in gaudy admiral costumes, the waiters were all dressed in velvet, the ladies were all dressed in style and we were all laughing and chatting and eating wonderful dishes. There was no semblance of war here…The diamonds in the jewellers’ shops were worth thousands of pounds, and Liberty’s shop was simply magnificent…

All the pleasures of peace, so it would seem. Or perhaps — not quite:

We pass hundreds of soldiers every day, Belgians, French, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders. It is quite common to see them marching through on their way to and from the trenches. It is wonderful to see how bright and happy they look.

Again, that final awkward effusion: she seems to have lacked reference points.

Outside Charing Cross Hospital — the sign reads ‘Quiet for the Wounded’

In Paris too — so much nearer the scene of the fighting — it was sometimes hard to realise that a brutal war was being waged an hour away. Sugar was hard to find, butter was sold only in 100-gram rations and there were no oranges in the shops. Queues often formed outside grocers but the restaurant trade was booming, partly due to soldiers on leave, but also to the patronage of the nouveaux riches — black marketeers and war profiteers, businessmen who were making fortunes out of contracts supplying the armed forces. Many seemed unabashed in their consumption: haute couture was ostentatious and extravagant, and jewellers were doing excellent business.

For many soldiers, the opportunity to spend one’s leave in Paris involved no consumerism more complicated than alcohol and sexual congress; thousands of women had flocked to Paris to supply the need, many of whom adopted a ‘godson’, a soldier, on leave, who could enjoy their favours free of charge. Even at Maxim’s near the Champs-Elysees, the restaurant famed for its cuisine and fashionable art-nouveau décor and a favourite amongst British officers, the business of prostitution was conducted without disguise. A simple word to a restaurant manager and all was arranged.

Nearer to the battle still, the spectacle on offer was very different. Rowland Feilding’s letter to his wife on 12 October indicates the pathos of a town destroyed by war:

Today I took my mare… and rode into Ypres. I have long yearned to see the city. But what a scene of desolation! — truly, a city of the dead; a ghostly solitude. Not a sound unless that of a gun or bursting shell: not a soul to be seen in the long streets of ruins, except rarely, here and there, an English sentry, or a party of English soldiers, with rifle, pick, and shovel, marching to or from the trenches: — not a man, woman, or child of the nation that built and owns the city. It is indeed a tragic sight.

ruin of Ypres Market Square

The gaudy excesses of black marketeers seem to have been more removed from the experience of Germans than from that of many other nations. It was not that they were more scrupulous — there were simply fewer goods and less food to be hawked around in the first place. Rather, they laboured under the burden of shortages, thanks to the debilitating effects of the British blockade.

Piete Kuhr reported in her diary:

10 October If only we had a bit more to eat! Bread and flour are so scarce, and it is no better with any sort of food. There was a wonderful smell in the house recently when we came home from school. With a mysterious look on her face, Grandma placed a stewed bird with jacket potatoes on the table. It tasted wonderful. Grandma smiled when we’d eaten it all up: ‘Guess what you have been eating!’ ‘A partridge!’ cried Willi. ‘A young pigeon!’ I said. ‘A crow,’ said Grandma. ‘A farmer from Colmar sold it to me.’

Most German civilians now had a meagre diet of black bread, fatless sausage, three pounds of potatoes a week and one egg a fortnight. Ersatz products were commonplace. By early 1916, bread was now made from a combination of oat and rice meals, ground beans, peas and corn meal. Known as K-brot(Krieg/war-bread), it was now served with butter made from curdled milk, sugar and food colouring. Cooking oil was replaced by a mixture of red beets, carrots, turnips and spices and, worst of all, sausage, the staple favourite, was made of water, plant fibres and animal scraps. By contrast, the German Army was usually well provisioned.

Poster directing the German population on how to save soap and oil

German state planning, so lavish in the matter of war materiel, had apparently failed to make provision for sustaining food supplies in the event of a protracted war. By now, almost half egg all egg, meat and fruit production, one third of dairy, and a quarter of grain, flour and potato supplies were sold on the black market at prices almost one thousand per cent above pre-war levels. More prosperous city-dwellers went on Hamster Reisen, trips to the countryside, returning with their bags stuffed with comestibles — predictable behaviour, perhaps, but undermining any claims of national unity and, in the longer term, threatening the political compact. Disturbing signs of civil unrest were becoming apparent, particularly as the weather worsened.

For now, the British were tolerably well fed. On 11 October, the Prime Minister gave one of the most difficult speeches of his life in the House of Commons. Just emerging from profound mourning for his brilliant son, Raymond, who had been killed on the Somme less than a month before, he proposed a supplementary Vote of Credit not exceeding £300,000,000 for military expenses expected by March 1917.

Outlined the progress of the war, he reminded his colleagues that, in the recent offensive, the Germans too had taken punishment:

the total capture of the Allies on the Somme are 60,474 prisoners, 304 guns, and 1,030 machine-guns. The British share of these captures is 28,050 prisoners, 121 guns, and 397 machine-guns.

For Asquith, the week was charged with emotion. Shortly before his speech he had attended the memorial service for his wife’s nephews, Mark and Bim Tennant. Two days later, on Saturday 13 October, he and his wife sat in the Guards’ Chapel in a service to honour Raymond’s all-too-short life. They were both reported to have been in tears throughout the ceremony. The very next day, Oc, another of his sons, was moved to trenches opposite the German-held village of Beaumont-Hamel the next day. Here he would participate in the last big attack of the Somme offensive, being prepared by Haig.

Hon Arthur (‘Oc’) Asquith

The 64 year old Prime Minister was surely entitled to feel he was sharing in the costs of war. When speaking to his parliamentary colleagues, he had attempted to scale its horrors — to rationalise them, perhaps — by an appeal to the interests of generations yet unborn:

The strain which the War imposes on ourselves and our Allies… cannot be allowed to end in some patched-up, precarious, dishonouring compromise, masquerading under the name of Peace. No one desires to prolong for a single unnecessary day the tragic spectacle of bloodshed and destruction, but we owe it to those who have given their lives for us, the flower of our youth, the hope and promise of our future, that their supreme sacrifice shall not have been in vain…

Here was the authentic grief-stricken voice of 1916. How cruelly would the future mock his fine ideals.


David Hargreaves taught History at London’s Westminster School for almost 30 years, where he was Head of the Sixth Form and Housemaster of Grant’s, the oldest boarding house in the UK.

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