Le Beau Colonel
March 7th to March 13th 1916
THE CONTEST, when confined to paper, sounds almost prosaic: on 6 March, the Germans captured Forges, and Fresnes the next day. By week’s end, they had attacked Bois-des-Buttes and penetrated French positions near Reims.
In reality, all was madness. Their assaults aimed to destroy French morale as well as to kill soldiers and occupy ground. A machine-gunner from the 26th Infantry Regiment recalled: ‘The pounding was continuous and terrifying. We had never experienced its like… The earth around us quaked, and we were lifted and tossed about. …The trench no longer existed, it had been filled with earth. We were crouching in shell-holes, where the mud thrown up by each new explosion covered us more and more…It is hard to imagine the torture we endured…’
One French success had been the taking of Corbeaux Wood near Mort Homme on 8 March. Lieutenant-Colonel Macker, always meticulously groomed, had led his regiment at a steady walk towards the German machine-guns, waving his cane all the while. At 100 yards his men had fixed bayonets and charged. The Germans fled and Macker seized another wood nearby. Two days later came a ferocious German counter-attack during which le beau Colonel was killed.
But such outstanding bravery was almost common-place: the war diary of Petain’s old 33rd Regiment noted an action on 2 March:
The 10th Company was seen to charge straight forward at the massed enemy reaching the village, engaging them in a terrible hand-to-hand struggle in which these brave men received blows from rifle-butts and bayonets from every side until they were overpowered. Seeing itself completely surrounded, the 10th Company launched itself into a furious attack led by its commanding officer, Charles de Gaulle, charging close-packed bodies of men, selling its life dearly and falling gloriously.
De Gaulle received a bayonet wound to the thigh and was also gassed. Declared missing, presumed dead, he was in fact transported to a German hospital and eventually to top-security prisons in Germany where he remained for the rest of the war.
The terror to which troops were subjected co-existed alongside a mortifying confusion in the highest echelons of command. Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, had requested Sarrail, in charge of the French expeditionary force in Salonika, launch a diversionary attack.
Sarrail refused, claiming he needed twenty-one more divisions before he could act (or until he was reinforced by the revived Serbian army, 30,000 of whom were still recuperating on Corfu). His refusal, with its immense implications for troops at Verdun, looks dreadful now — and indeed he was an unhelpful character, and once a rival of Joffre’s for the top post.
But, fighting a world war, commanders needed to maintain a reasonable strength in different theatres of war, and in consequence their options were limited. In the event, the Italians began yet another attack in the Isonzo region on 10 March, their fifth, launched despite snow, fog and rain. Back at home, Foch sent some divisions to Verdun, though only with great reluctance — he was supposed to be preparing his army to spearhead the Somme offensive.
The blame game began at once. Gallieni, Minister for War, considered the French had been woefully under-prepared at Verdun, and that Joffre was to blame. Briand, the Prime Minister, may well have agreed. Believing, however, that ditching the hero of the Marne in this dark hour for France did no one any favours, declined to sack him. Joffre’s analysis that the Germans were trying to ‘beat down the nation’s morale’ at Verdun seemed to call for unity.
There is an irony that the single general whose reputation remained quite unsullied at this moment was the one who would, in time, receive the greatest opprobrium. Petain had a deserved reputation for actually caring about his men and their suffering, and now made a point of checking them as they returned from action. He recalled that ‘Their eyes stared into space as if transfixed by a vision of terror. In their gait and their attitudes they betrayed utter exhaustion. Horrible memories made them quail…’
Realising that the intensity of the fighting over such a confined area, coupled with the appalling bombardment, would cause men to break down, he instituted his ‘noria’ system of rapid troop replacements. Units would only be sent to Verdun for eight to ten days maximum and then withdrawn and sent elsewhere. It made a critical difference to troop morale. The system demanded massive numbers but, once the British had relieved the French 10th Army at Vimy, the required manpower would become available.
British assistance penetrated behind the lines. One particular source of comfort was the free canteen set up at Revigny railway station by the ‘Dames Anglaises’. Financed by public subscription, its staff included two pretty 19-year-olds, Maud Sommers (daughter of a steel magnate who had provided generous funding) and her friend, Lorna Neill. Dressed in the white-coiffed uniform worn by French Red Cross nurses, they were a welcome sight to the battle-weary poilus. According to Neill’s diary:
The men are all warmed and comforted by the hot drinks and cigarettes and, above all, cheered and encouraged beyond believing by the knowledge that their sufferings and their sacrifices are not unremembered. This is the work that the canteen does all day and all night. Things are bad in the Verdun sector and 10,000 men pass through the entrance before the windows every twenty-four hours.
Rather proudly, Neill chronicled the canteen’s achievements in a letter to her mother: ‘The following is a list of things we gave out during February, which is a short month. 250,000 cups of coffee, 15,000…of tea, 15,000…of chocolate, 22,000…of soup, 302,000 total number of cups. Which as you will see makes an average of over 10,000 cups every twenty-four hours. In addition to that we gave 63,000 cigarettes, 3,500 presents, 600 loaves, 310 tins of beef. That’s not bad, is it? Whew!’
Elsewhere on the front, ‘our worst troubles here come from the cold, snow and vermin,’ Sergeant Robert Pelissier, defending a sector in Alsace wrote on 7 March to a friend in Texas; ‘we are literally eaten up but the shelling is infrequent and of short duration…’. Writing with greater confidence than judgement he added: ‘we cannot hope to be relieved as long as the fight is so fierce around Verdun….possibly we may see the end of the war before next winter.’
Even now came evidence of solace in the midst of horror — often, measured in terms of food and drink. Rifleman Stanley Hopkins recalled later:
Amongst the parcels arriving in the front line was one for a titled Rifleman which included a tin of caviar. It was the custom to share parcels and we were just enjoying the food when the Orderly Officer of the day arrived and, as usual, asked if there were any complaints. There was! One Rifleman who had been given some caviar to spread on his biscuits complained that his ‘pozzy’ tasted of fish.
Quite often the Huns would bombard the only road to our sector — many food parcels and letters were lost this way. This frequent loss of parcels (mine always included a seed cake) gave me an idea.
I wrote to Huntley and Palmers from the front line — hoping they would get my field letter safely in site of the gunfire aimed at the road — explaining how a lot of our food parcels were not reaching us. Could they possibly send us some biscuits? Twelve four-pound tins of fancy biscuits duly arrived.
As this worked so well I wrote to the Ingersoll Watch Company explaining that we only had one watch in our platoon and that was not always reliable. They sent us six! I had one of them in civilian life for years.
The large-heartedness of British manufacturers was replicated, in high style, by some hospitable French officers who invited Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Fraser-Tytler and his fellow officers for lunch:
I found thirty-six oysters waiting for me, with the usual cheery crowd of French gunners round the table. The oysters were followed by foie gras, veal and chicken mousse, a young roast pig, and Rumpelmayer’s chocolate cake, washed down with Graves, some excellent Pontet Canet and champagne, and eau de vie. The luxuries were accounted for by one of the staff having just returned from Paris leave.
They then commandeered a battered old car and drove around: ‘We eventually ran into a mud pool and stuck fast near Royal Dragoon Wood, so we dismounted and bolted for our narrow valley. The Hun was shelling the countryside rather hard. He was not after us and the car particularly, but the shells would have hurt us just the same.’
And these were the kind of narratives which existed at the very same time as the siege of Verdun! Second Lieutenant Leslie Hill, City of London Regiment at Vimy Ridge, wrote to a friend this same month of March 1916:
The trenches we are going up to are simply a line of shell holes about 120 yards from the Boche and no wire between — but we are quite ready for them should they come over. However, there is quite a funny co-existence connected with it — the fellows opposite are Saxons who have been given sixty days field punishment by the Kaiser for refusing to go on a route march — we had this from one of their officers — so they have made a compact with us, that if we do not fire, they will not. I only wish their artillery would do the same and then we should have some holiday.
Rifleman Dick Harvey described the same occasion, writing to his mother:
We have had a very peaceful time with the Germans. They used to walk about on top with our chaps, exchanging cigarettes, tobacco and shaking hands with us. It was a curious sight to see them strolling about in ‘No Man’s Land’ as though war was the last thing they thought about. It has been a unique experience that I shan’t forget for a long time to come.
In the Middle East, such benevolence was conspicuously absent. On 8 March, in Mesopotamia, the British relief force trying to reach the besieged garrison at Kut-al-Amara suffered another defeat at the hands of the Turks — well organised and indisputably brave. The previous attempt at the battle of Hanna had cost numerous casualties, including the future British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. This latest assault suffered from a lack of co-ordination which led to the British attacking sequentially instead of simultaneously at Es Sinn and the Dujaila Redoubt, and another 4,000 casualties were added to the complement of British losses. A singular horror of the campaign was the desperate shortage of water.
Here, as in Verdun, there was an urge to sack commanders. General Aylmer (a VC holder) was now recalled, and replaced by Sir Frederick Gorringe — widely considered more competent than his predecessor, although famously rude and abrasive. The courage of British soldiers out there was not in question: Private George Stringer of the Manchester Regiment won a VC for single-handedly holding a captured position, keeping the counter-attacking enemy back with his stock of grenades, and enabling his battalion to withdraw safely. He survived to tell the tale.
There was huge excitement on 6 March when reports were flashed that the Imperial German fleet was cruising in North Sea. It had spent the previous nineteen months skulking in harbour (that, at least, was the analysis offered by its critics) and assorted armchair critics of naval strategy now licked their lips in anticipation of a forthcoming showdown between the Kaiser’s Navy and that of perfidious Albion.
Once again, they were to be disappointed. After no more than a brief reconnaissance mission, the fleet returned to harbour. Nonetheless, the week saw continued loss of life at sea: a Russian torpedo boat was sunk by a submarine in the Black Sea on 9 March and, two days later, 34 men died after German mines laid in the North Sea sank two vessels: torpedo boat No.11 and HMS Coquette. The dead included both commanding officers.
It was into these troubled waters that Lieutenant Colonel Churchill of the Royal Scots Fusiliers now waded. Following his prolonged exposure to danger on the front in recent months, he might have used his leave as a blessed opportunity to soak up the emotional nourishment of his family. Instead, from the minute he had arrived home on 2 March, he had rushed around consulting political and press cronies, hoping for encouragement to return to Parliament and perhaps to government.
Even Churchill’s most fervent apologists — both those of his own and subsequent generations — have never been able to disown the charge that his judgement was sometimes heroically poor. It was also palpably clouded by a longing to be at the centre of affairs. Having claimed the attention of his colleagues with a well-informed speech on naval estimates on 7 March, he proceeded to shoot himself in both feet (and just about everywhere else) by the extraordinary suggestion that former First Sea Lord, Jacky Fisher, should be returned to office in an effort to galvanize the naval chiefs into more vigorous action.
His audience was stunned — and mainly incensed. It had been Fisher’s abrupt resignation the previous May which had heralded a naval and political crisis, as well as putting the head of Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty) on the block. Asquith, who had an avuncular fondness for his erstwhile colleague had tried to deter him from speaking, but also knew that Churchill, at such moments, was beyond reckless.
There was nothing fond, however, in the diary entry of his wife, Margot, which followed Churchill’s speech:
The first thing that struck me was its Recklessness: then its farcical folly! It was also traitorous! To let the Germans think things were seriously wrong with our great navy! In old days a man would have been shot for less. The speech filled me with indignation…[Churchill] is a dangerous maniac, so poor in character and judgement, so insolent and selfish…..He is to my mind lacking altogether in intellect & judgement & hazarding a prophecy I should say has no sustained political future but will pop out again the next crisis & make mischief all his life.
Reading her words, it is hard not to remember his similarly badly-judged interventions two decades later, over India and the Abdication crisis. The following day, Balfour, his successor at the Admiralty, demolished Churchill’s ‘case’ in the Commons, leaving him humiliated and fearful in every way for his future. The spectacle of his leaving this inferno for another on the front makes it hard not to feel deeply sorry for this giant of a man, courageous beyond reason and sometimes helplessly flawed.
But, for now at least, he was unwounded and well. At Etretat, where snow a foot deep surrounded the hospital, Edith Appleton continued to write diaries which, as so often, served as a salutary reminder of the gigantic fragility of life.
March 8 We have a big convoy to get off to England, and another arriving, supposedly at 10 a.m., so we shall not be slack — but the difference here is that we have about 12 hours’ notice of a convoy coming, and up the line they just tumbled in at all hours of the day and night. My heart is very sore for one poor boy, Kerr, and for his mother. We have had him ten days, and he is no better and is in a state to die at any moment. I have been writing to his mother and telling her so, and she is evidently a refined old lady. She wrote back to say she is ‘so glad to hear that Charlie is with us — the rest and food will do him good’. Have my letters not reached her? Or won’t she understand that the boy is dying? I think he must have been gassed as he is purple, the way of gas patients…..
March 9 Yesterday was a delightful day of calm between the storms, and today my pneumonia boy has benefited from the quiet — perhaps the creature has a chance after all. I feel he must get better, if only for his mother, poor thing. She wrote to me again and said she was heartbroken — however, it was no good for me to pretend that he was not dangerously ill. He was — and still is.
March 10 Very big day as a convoy arrived at 740–590 men, chiefly sick and only about 30 badly wounded. The greater part were such things as trench-foot. Poor Kerr is worse and I am sure that boy has been gassed and will die. I shouldn’t be surprised to find his cot empty. His poor mother — how will she take it?