In their pride
July 25th to July 31st 1916
SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT and died; civilians who watched and waited. So runs that binary version of war, but it does not stand up to scrutiny.
Civilians died too, and not merely those who fell victim to Zeppelins.Take Charles Fryatt: true, as the Captain of a ferry, he wore a uniform, but he had nothing to do with the Armed Forces. This week he was shot.
The Great Eastern Railway, for whom he worked, operated ferry boats from Harwich to Rotterdam in neutral Holland. Passenger services had been suspended in wartime but cargo and mail were still carried across the Channel. In February 1915, this already dangerous work became very much more so after Germany had announced unrestricted submarine warfare against enemy vessels. This left all commercial ships, particularly the slow ferries, in a very vulnerable position and the Admiralty issued secret orders to the masters of all merchant ships: ‘No British Merchant Ship would ever tamely surrender to a submarine, but should do its utmost to escape.’
Brave words, which Fryatt took seriously. On 2 March 1915, Fryatt’s GER ferry SS Wrexham had been pursued by a German submarine for forty miles before it had reached the safe haven of Dutch territorial waters. The GER Board, delighted by the Wrexham’s escape, had presented Fryatt with a gold watch and paid ‘special compliments’ to his engine-room team for their efforts. Fryatt and his crew had then been transferred to a faster vessel, the Brussels, and continued, to operate the Rotterdam run.
On 28 March 1916, a U-boat surfaced and ordered the Brussels to stop, just as it was approaching Hook. Instead, Fryatt ordered full speed ahead and charged at the submarine which immediately dived to avoid being rammed. Men in the stokehold felt a jolt as the ferry clipped the U-boat’s periscope. U-33 reappeared briefly on the surface but then dived again and disappeared. Back home, Fryatt received another gold watch and had his actions ‘commended’ by the Admiralty.
Such David and Goliath stuff went down, of course, a storm — especially with the folks back home. The Germans, however, were seriously peeved. Hunting down Fryatt became something of an obsession among U-boat crews in the North Sea and, since he continued to ply his trade there, the odds on his eventual capture shortened. Fifteen months after that incident, on 22 June 1916, the Brussels found itself surrounded by nine German patrol boats. Its crew was taken prisoner and the ferry itself sailed, under a German flag, to Zeebrugge.
Although the Foreign Office was informed on 1 July that its officers and crew were safe, there were well-founded anxieties that Fryatt’s particular history might endanger him. A report appeared in a Dutch newspaper a fortnight later suggesting he would be court-martialled for attempting to ram a submarine. The Foreign Office in London made an appeal through intermediaries, arguing via the US Ambassador that the British Government considered his actions ‘perfectly legitimate’. Perhaps they were, but they were definitely on the edge for someone whose civilian status formed the basis of his defence, and German prosecutors were not slow also to exploit the grateful inscription they found on his gold watch to bolster their case. On 27 July, Fryatt was found guilty of being a franc-tireur. That same night, he was shot by a firing squad.
A notice announcing the execution was published in French, German and Dutch. Signed by Admiral Ludwig von Schroeder, it stated: ‘The English captain of a merchant ship, Charles Fryatt, of Southampton, though he did not belong to the armed forces of the enemy, attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine by running it down. For this he has been condemned to death by judgment this day of the Field Court Martial of the Naval Corps, and has been executed. A ruthless deed has thus been avenged, belatedly but just’.
Now it was the turn of the British to be peeved. On Monday 31 July, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons: ‘I deeply regret to say that it appears to be true that Captain Fryatt has been murdered by the Germans. His Majesty’s Government have heard with the utmost indignation of this atrocious crime against the laws of nations and the usages of war. Coming as it does contemporaneously with the lawless cruelty towards the population of Lille and other occupied districts of France, it shows that the German High Command, under the stress of military defeat, have renewed their policy of terrorism.’
Treated as yet another example of German schrecklichkeit, reviving memories of the execution of Edith Cavell and the sinking of the passenger ships, Lusitania and Sussex, Fryatt’s execution contributed to a significant hardening of attitudes towards Germany in the USA. The New York Times denounced the execution as ‘a deliberate murder’ and the New York Herald called it ‘the crowning German atrocity’. A fund was begun immediately for his wife, who was awarded a pension from the Admiralty, and for his seven children. Among other inmates within the internment camp at Ruhleben where Fryatt had lived following his arrest, shock and anger reverberated. John Ketchum, a Canadian civilian who had been studying music in Germany when the war began remembered: ‘The judicial murder of a man who had lived at Ruhleben… brought the war home to the camp as nothing had done before’.
Fryatt was a superb example of the lion-hearted civilian. But courage was everywhere and — as front-line troops were more than happy to confirm — many heroes who never sported a rifle. The best of the stretcher-bearers, nurses, ambulance drivers and chaplains shouldered huge risk uncomplainingly. So did runners. In theory, there were telephones to help the reserve and HQ communicate with front lines, but in practice the communications network was always precarious, and the depredations of shellfire often put it out of action altogether. At moments of crisis, when the dissemination of accurate and up-to-date information counted most of all, runners filled the gap.
But it was mightily dangerous work. On 30 July, Company Sergeant Major George Evans of the Manchester Regiment volunteered to take a vital message at Guillemont after five others had been killed whilst attempting to do so. He covered 700 yards under constant fire, dodging from shell-hole to shell-hole and delivered the message. Wounded on his return journey, he would spend the rest of the war in captivity.
The following day, at Bazentin-le-Petit, Private James Miller of the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment), was ordered to take an important message through heavy shell and rifle fire and to bring back a reply at all costs. He was shot almost immediately in the back, the bullet coming out of his abdomen. Compressing the gaping wound with his hand, he not only delivered the message but brought back the answer to an officer before dying at his feet. Both men were awarded the Victoria Cross.
The desperate problems in communications faced by those on the Somme this week were the particular problem of JRR Tolkien, a signalling officer with the 11th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers. He had been in action from 14 July at Ovillers, where thousands had died on 1 July and which was still held by the Germans. His task was to set up and maintain communications; surface lines could be tapped by the enemy and most messages had to be taken by runners; orders at HQ could take eight hours to reach the attacking troops. On 24 July, his unit was ordered to the northern sector of the Somme facing Beaumont Hamel, where Tolkien organised communications before they were pulled back into reserve on 29 July.
Taking the week as a whole, the Allies were not winning in the west — but, just maybe, they were doing better than the Germans. There was desperate fighting at Delville Wood and at Pozieres — awful, hand-to-hand, stuff — but by 26 July the latter was in British hands. Even though Falkenhayn had settled for a defensive strategy at Verdun from the middle of the month to permit the withdrawal of units for the Somme, both sides were afraid of conceding any ground. The French knew that one mistake could permit the Germans to take Verdun and had to attack to gain more space in front of the citadel; the Germans contested every inch and counter-attacked to regain any ground lost, knowing that to abandon terrain gained at such cost was unthinkable: as the Crown Prince recognised, this ‘would have had an immeasurably disastrous effect’.
The British owed, once again, a huge debt to Australian troops whose presence in France over the previous four months had been, in some eyes, a game-changer. An Australian signaller, Lance Corporal Thomas Part of the 6th Infantry Battalion, 2nd Division, Australian Imperial Forces, had kept a cryptic diary of their deployment since early July. He mentioned being welcomed with open arms by French girls, ‘hilarious with joy, [who] threw kisses and pressed wine etc upon us. VOOLAY VOU MOMBRASSAY was what most girls asked, handshakes and souvenir collectors in galore.’
He also provides an insight into the drudgery of it all — somehow the mundane and the heroic mix very naturally here, and so are all the more believable:
27 July Left Varennes at 5 a.m. & arrived at Albert at 8 a.m. Our Bde. takes over firing line tonight; we in supports. We are busy cleaning rifles & having diamond tin discs put on our backs.
28 July Arrived at destination last night 5.5 miles from Albert & have taken over our trenches. Lost & wandering in No Man’s Land. Shrapnel & H.Es is simply hellish sigs acting as runners & guides. Sigs are deep in German dugout 20ft deep electric lights were used here, fittings still remain. In large hand painted letters over the mess room are the words ‘GOTT, STRAFE ANGLAIS’.
29 July 6th & 7th Bdes charged & endeavoured to take 2 lines of trenches. There was a bollocks up, 7th Bde. failed to take their position & 23 Bn. had to fall back one trench on a/c of their right flank not being covered. Our Bn. casualties up to now today 168.
30 July Last night I had the first night’s sleep for 4 nights. I slept only 10 yds from guns of battery which were going all night. At POZIERES, one could take a 1000 acre patch you wouldn’t [find] a piece of ground not turned up, on which you could place a threepenny piece, so heavy are the bombardments in this area. A chap feels like shaking hands with himself when he gets out.
That mixture of the mundane and magnificent permeated the politically toxic question of Ireland. The savage repression which had followed the Easter Rising had done nothing to bridge the cleavage between Irish Nationalists and Unionists. Unsurprisingly, Lloyd George’s separate negotiations with both got nowhere.
All this while Irishmen were dying in France. A third of the strength of the Ulster Division was lost during the assault on Thiepval Ridge — over 5,000 men were killed, wounded or missing, and the Division’s famous war-cry ‘No Surrender’ was one rich in symbolism to those disposed to be uncompromising. In the debate on 31 July, Asquith gave up trying to reform the political administration and announced a new Chief Secretary, Henry Duke, another Unionist lawyer, so restoring the status quo before the Easter Rising.
The fate of Roger Casement, languishing in the condemned cell in Pentonville, was in the minds of many. There were ample reasons to believe his hanging would make of him a martyr and in Ireland, still under martial law, that might well prove a catalyst for further disorder. On 29 July, the US Senate passed a resolution urging clemency ‘in the treatment of Irish political prisoners’. The Gaelic American, one of the most popular newspapers of Irish Americans, had no doubt he would be executed, but ‘just as surely as God reigns in His Heaven….just so surely will Ireland yet be independent, the children of Erin be free, and the name and fame of Casement be held in love and honour through the ages of ages’.
That, of course, was everything HMG wished to avoid. Casement’s ‘Black Diaries’, apparently itemising his homosexual activities, had been pounced on by them for just that reason. Doubtless, they calculated that the predilections of a flagrant invert would deter many of the great and good from seeking to identify their names too closely with his own. They were right too: a very few only, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were prepared to stand up and be counted. The British Ambassador in Washington wrote that, ‘It is far better to make Casement ridiculous than a martyr…if he is spared, the fact that he is not executed would be used against us. But, if he is executed, his execution would be an even more formidable weapon.’
Bernard Shaw anonymously wrote another petition. He argued that Casement was currently not a nationalist hero, and ‘we venture to assume that you do not wish him to become a national hero. There is, however, one infallible way in which that can be done; and that way is to hang him. His trial and sentence have already raised his status in Nationalist Ireland; but it lacks the final consecration of death. We urge you very strongly not to effect that consecration…On a British scaffold he will do endless mischief…The Nationalist movement is still reasonable; and a friendly settlement is easy, provided no more executions take place.’
The Australian contribution to the Somme was startling. Her soldiers had started to arrive in France from the Middle East in March, at which point Haig had been protective of them as they ‘possibly overlooked the difficulties of this kind of fighting’. When, on 25 July, Haig learned that, although they had more or less taken Pozieres, strong German attacks had then held the Australians back as he recorded in his diary: The situation seems all very new and strange to Australian H.Q. The fighting here and the shell-fire is much more severe than anything experienced at Gallipoli. The German too, is a very different enemy from the Turk! But he was very impressed by their morale, despite the heavy losses suffered:
The Australians are in great spirits. One regiment began the fight with 900 men and finished up with 1,300. This was due to men joining up from other units which had been ordered to withdraw for a rest.
Even so, he worried that their inexperience would lead them into danger — for example, when they proposed another attack without artillery support:
they did not believe machine-gun fire could do them much harm…The Australians are splendid fellows but very ignorant.
For this reason, he resisted pressure to permit the Australians to have their own ‘Army’, but assured Prime Minister Hughes, who had visited him in June, that he would not break up the Australian Corps. The language (‘ignorant’ and so forth) is liable to make the modern reader rather wince — but his judgement that they were not ready to fight as an independent Army in France may not have been wide of the mark. When the soldiers of the 1st Division were relieved after the German bombardment at Pozieres, They ‘looked like men who had been in hell…drawn and haggard and so dazed that they appeared to be walking in a dream and their eyes looked glassy and starey’. With proper artillery support, on 29 July, the Australians and British under General Gough renewed the attack.
Other theatres of war offered the Allies more basis for optimism. The Russians captured Erzingan on 25 July, previously used as the Turkish base for operations on the Caucasus front. In twelve days, General Sakharov had taken 40,000 prisoners and forty-nine guns. In the sometimes vanishing southern front came better news too: on 25 July, the reconstituted Serbian army went into action against a Bulgarian force on the Salonika front. Running slightly contrary to the stereotype unkindly bestowed on them, the Italians were also enjoying a sense of achievement as they repelled several Austrian attacks on 30 and 31 July in the Adige valley and Trentino.
Allied advances this week in the Middle East contained the seeds of an ageless destruction and disillusion. Two days after the fall of Erzingan, a Turkish attack near Mosul was thrown back. The human cost was considerable. George Lloyd, returned from a recent trip to the front at Amara, where British troops were still fighting the Turks on the way to Baghdad, brought back harrowing accounts of confusion and incompetence, of soldiers suffering, of scorching heat, of a lack of food and ice. On 26 July, Gertrude Bell in Basrah told her parents: ‘Human skill in organization and human foresight have seldom had a less satisfactory advertisement than in this campaign…We’ve paid for this negligence and want of forethought in blood and misery, in lives that can’t be brought back ….
There were also nagging doubts underlying the strategy. Bell also observed: ‘The real difficulty here is that we don’t know exactly what we intend to do in this country. Can you persuade people to take your side when you are not sure in the end whether you’ll be there to take theirs?’ She summed up the problem perfectly. As if to illustrate it further, Sharif Hussein, who had captured Yanbo, the port of Medina on 27 July, now caused dismay to many Arabs by declaring himself King of all the Arabs and was banking on help from an uprising in Syria.
Nearly two years on, war had imposed an extremity of suffering on millions — soldiers, civilians and, of course, their families. That of the future Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden made headlines during on 18 July in a poignant but not untypical tale of the times.
TWO BROTHERS KILLED, THIRD BROKEN IN INTERNMENT
SIR T. EDEN’S RETURN
Sir Timothy Eden, who has just returned to Windlesham Hall, Durham, after being interned in Germany since the beginning of the war, is confined to bed, but is progressing favourably. He was released because of ill-health.
Sir Timothy who is 23, was completing his education in Germany when the war broke out. His father, Sir William Eden, who had the famous law suit with Whistler over Lady Eden’s portrait, died in February last year, and as the eldest son, Lieutenant John Eden, 12th Lancers, was killed in action in October 1914, the present baronet succeeded to the title while a prisoner. Midshipman William Nicholas Eden, another brother, who was just 16, went down in the Jutland battle in the Invincible. Sir William’s only daughter is Lady Broke, wife of Brigadier-General Lord Brooke; Lieutenant Robert Anthony Eden, the heir presumptive, is in France.
Not only were huge numbers of parents bereaved — a great many were multiply bereaved. Knowledge of a parent’s apprehension weighed heavily on many fighting men, although it was a fear to which few gave voice. An exception was Lieutenant Harry Yoxall, 18th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In a letter to his mother sent this week, he grasped this prickliest of nettles head-on, and seemed to suggest a way through:
The only difficulty in facing death is the fore-knowledge of the grief of one’s people. If we knew — and with many we do know: I know it of you all — that if the worst happens those at home could drown their sorrow in their pride, then it would be very easy. That is why death in war is so much easier than death in peace, where the consolation is so much less and we can only fall back on faith in a future life, which some have not. But in any case we think too much of the act of dying and too little of the state of death: and even the act of dying is generally swift and painless….
So if you at home can bear the cost we out here can endure the expenditure, even though it be of ourselves, very lightly. Remember that it is only by more sacrifices that we can save the sacrifices of the last two years from having been in vain.