Never prouder of anything
September 19th to September 25th 1916
WERE THE GERMANS HURTING TOO? Of course they were. Allied troops — who saw the dead and dying — knew that bullets and barbed wire, gas and artillery shells did not discriminate on grounds of nationality. The Somme offensive bought little ground and, every inch of it, at hideous expense.
But it consumed the enemy alright. Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman living on her husband’s family estate at Krieblowitz, now recorded:
The unprecedented English artillery fire on the Somme is filling the hospitals more than ever, all those on the Rhine being over-filled, so that wounded are being transported straight from the front to the Tempelhofer Hospital in Berlin, which has never occurred during the war before. Cases of overstrained nerves and temporary insanity are the order of the day. Only yesterday I spoke to an official who told me that within the last week both of his sons had been sent home insane, having gone out of their minds at the awful things they had witnessed.
How could it be otherwise? Even those whom the war had not rendered insane were highly susceptible to propaganda and disinformation. Edith Appleton’s diary from Etretat this week was full of tales of teutonic atrocities:
The Germans have been giving themselves up in groups and will come over and help any stretcher-bearers, or do anything they can to not be killed. They are quite right not to expect mercy, because they have been doing the despicable thing of killing our wounded!…They say the numbers of German dead are appalling!
There is no reason to believe that the killing of the wounded came at the hands of only one army. Evidently, however, emotions were running high. Rather odder is her belief that:
So far the Germans seem to be living right well and the Tommies have found wine, cigars, soda water and other comforts in their front-line trenches. Evidently they considered their dugouts absolutely safe, because they had their wives and families to stay with them there, and often our people have found women’s bodies among the dead. Their dugouts are like wonderful underground hotels with bathrooms, hot and cold water, electric light and more!
Some particulars may be true. As far as wine and cigars are concerned, there was plenty of both in the dugouts of British officers and women’s bodies were, very rarely, to be found both sides of the wire. The idea of of Mutti und der kinder taking a charabanc to visit Papi in the front lines in occupied France, however, exceeds credulity. The Xanadu-like dugouts to which Appleton refers were also fashioned exclusively by an overheated imagination.
What is not in doubt was the fury of the fighting. The Russian advance throughout the summer under Brusilov in the east had stalled and there was now desperate fighting on Narajowka river, following which the Germans claimed a victory as well as a large haul of prisoners. Further south, the Serbo-Russian-French Army advanced in the early part of the week. The intrepid British nurse-cum-soldier Flora Sandes had recently rejoined it, having spent two months on leave in England writing her autobiography, An English Woman Sergeant in the Serbian Army. Sandes and her unit, the Fourth Company, now participated in the drive towards Florina and Monastir. Near Gornicevo in Macedonia they came across a small wooded hollow recently evacuated by the Bulgarians, to find decomposing corpses scattered around. She noted:
The Bulgars had been there for 25 days. They had never troubled to build dug-outs, nor even to bury their dead.
The Italians were at the same time beating a path progressed east of Gorizia, near Santa Caterina, and, much further east still, the Sherif of Mecca reported on September 24 that he had forced the surrender of a Turkish force, 60 miles south-east of Mecca, and captured quantities of prisoners and guns. The extravagant dimensions of the war by this stage can still take the reader by surprise.
Zeppelin raids were no longer a novelty for the British people, although sufficiently outre to remain a source of terror and fascination. On the night of 23 September, twelve airships targeted London and the south-east. Some were the new ‘Super’ Zeppelins, 650 feet in diameter weighing fifty tons and capable of a maximum speed of sixty-five miles per hour with a bomb load of five tons. Thanks to improved anti-aircraft barrage, they did not enjoy uninterrupted passage: L32, which had dropped its bombs near Purfleet, was intercepted on its way home by RFC pilot, Frederick Sowrey, on a routine night patrol, with the result that the crew of 22 was killed. The wreckage which resulted was way too tempting, apparently, to prevent a stampede of ghoulish sightseers flocking to Great Burstead near Billericay. By 8 a.m. the lane near the crash site was blocked with ‘motor cars, motor-cycles, bicycles, traps, tradesmen’s carts, pedestrians, all jammed together’. A cordon of soldiers armed with bayonets prevented souvenir hunters accessing the wreck so people scoured the fields nearby looking for debris. Such behaviour sounds revolting, although unsurprising.
L33, on its maiden voyage under Kapitanleutnant Aloys Becker, also had a seriously bad night. Having dropped bombs on the East End and causing considerable damage, problems began to ratchet up when anti-aircraft guns scored a hit on the hull. The airship began losing height, at a rate of 800 feet per minute and, as its terrified crew tried desperately to patch the hole in its side, an RFC BE2c plane arrived alongside. This finished off what the anti-aircraft guns had begun. Despite jettisoning whatever could be spared in an effort to preserve height, L33 crash-landed near Little Wigborough.
The crew was relieved, no doubt, to be alive, but would justifiably have had some apprehensions as to the reception which awaited them. Having attempted to set fire to their Zeppelin, Bocker marched them down a nearby lane where they were promptly arrested by Special Constable Edgar Nicholas. They enjoyed the distinction of being the only complete unit of armed German personnel to set foot in England during the entire war but, despite their best efforts, L33 was relatively undamaged and was rapidly dismantled by experts, avid for the industrial intelligence it afforded. A Reuter’s correspondent described the wreck as ‘the gigantic form of one of Germany’s latest specimens of frightfulness’ .
That, given the recent launch of the tank, seems a bit rich. Edith Appleton had observed in her diary on September 19: A company sergeant (CSM) told me that these new guns [tanks] that go with them in the advance are a tremendous help — they crash along over German trenches and the Germans really fear them.
She was right — they did. Cynthia Asquith who, as the daughter-in-law of the Prime Minister was uncommonly well-placed to spot problems, noted on September 21:
…the newspapers are very full of the prowess of the ‘tanks’ as the Tommies have christened the new great armoured caterpillars which go through, or over, all obstacles…One wonders whether they haven’t been precipitate, and whether it would have been better to have a much greater number as a real trump card before laying it on the table. No doubt now the Germans will be able to copy them and, at any rate, will find some counter to them before long…Anyhow, they seem invaluable as a tonic and joke to our men.
A tonic and a joke — both were sorely needed. Although bad weather hindered both British and French operations, a German counter-offensive against the French on September 20 soaked up men and material on both sides. That same night New Zealand troops were also attacked, although they held their ground.
All such actions inflicted injury and most often death, as well as terrifying men out of their wits. No doubt this was one of the reasons why commanders greedily latched on feats of spectacular derring-do: a man who seemed somehow to have mastered fear could embolden many others besides. Private Thomas Jones of the Cheshire Regiment was the latest pin-up. He had come under sniper fire near Morval on the Somme whilst entrenching with his company but, determined to die fighting and not digging, had gone in search of the sniper. The sniper, understandably, was unkeen on being found out and shot him five times — but at that point Jones tracked him down and killed him. He then proceeded to shoot two more Germans who were firing whilst also waving a white flag, rushed an enemy trench and single-handedly took 102 German prisoners. Nicknamed Dodger, Jones remembered later: ‘Up went their hands and I laughed like blazes. It fairly tickled me to death, that did, and I couldn’t stop laughing’.
This was the stuff of Boys’ Own and Jones was promptly awarded the VC. The episode tends to illustrate, however, the unreasonableness of what was being demanded of troops. A more typical response to trauma can be seen in a letter written from the Somme on 20 September by the German infantryman Paul Hub to his fiancee, Maria:
I had just taken up my position when a heavy mortar hit the wall, burying me and two of my company under the rubble. I can’t describe what it felt like to be buried alive under such a mass of earth without being able to move a muscle. Thankfully, my big steel helmet protected my mouth and nose from the earth. Even so, I was having difficulty breathing, but help was at hand…they pulled me out. I felt as if my legs had been chopped off. I sat in the trench curled up in a ball, with my back against the wall and my feet pulled up in front of me, the position I had been buried in. The weight of the earth had pushed my head forward and torn my back muscles.
There many ways to die slowly in the Great War, although the tendency to glide past the thought remains strong. Private H. Baverstock of the 1st Canterbury Battalion, New Zealand Division, came nearer than most to an agonising end. Badly injured near Flers, he later wrote an account of how he was rescued:
…My thigh-bone was shattered and my chief concern was whether the femoral artery had been cut. If so, it was the end of me, for I was in no state to apply a tourniquet…After a few hours, two stretcher-bearers ….found me and dragged me quite a distance to the sunken road. The pain was unbearable; it felt as if my leg were coming off. Having put me in a shallow funk-hole, they turned me on to my back, ripped out the field dressings from inside my tunic, cut open my trouser leg, and bound the bandages round the wound, a gaping hole with a terrific bulge on the opposite side. All the while, they were being sniped at, for we were pretty well exposed. Having done all they possibly could for me, they told me they would have to return to Flers to get their stretcher.
Whether those two brave Medical Corps chaps were killed I could not say, for I never saw them again. The chances of their reaching Flers were poor, for the sunken road was a complete death-trap. There I lay for about two days….At long last, early on Monday morning two other stretcher-bearers found me and lifted me on to their stretcher…We passed along the fringe of Switch Trench where the stench was nauseating. The odour of death permeated everything.
Odour — the stench of death — was another taboo. Edith Appleton breached it forcefully in her diary for September 21:
One of my DIs [dangerously ill] died yesterday. He was one mass of very putrid rottenness long before he died and was oozing everywhere. The smell was so very terrible I had to move him right away from everyone, and all one could do was dress and redress. Happily I don’t think he could smell it himself, but I have never breathed a worse poison.
Raymond Asquith’s family had been assured he had died instantly, although his sister, writing on September 25, recorded that:
Lord Lascelles, who is back with a broken arm, saw darling Raymond dying in a field station. He was under morphia…
Morphia, following a clean shot from a sniper’s rifle, sounds perhaps a less-than-terrible end. The stricken Prime Minister answered nearly all of the avalanche of letters of condolence he received on the death of his son. In one, he reflected that:
…he died gloriously, still young and without a stain or scar on his memory…Counsellors tell me that I ought not to be sorrowful. But I am: like a man out of whose sky the twin stars of Pride and Hope have both vanished into lasting darkness.
He had visited Raymond’s widow, Katharine, in Somerset on September 19:
I have never seen anyone so stunned and shattered. All she wants is to die. I spent an hour with her and I hope I did some little good.
The self-absorption of the Asquith family can raise many hackles, but the scale of their sacrifice in the war left an indelible impression of patriotism and courage. Asquith’s wife Margot was further laid low by the death of two nephews also on the Somme. On September 22, a friend told her step-daughter that Mark Tennant, a nephew of her step-mother, had been killed.
He says Mark Tennant has been killed, for which I am most awfully sorry, and that the casualties in the Guards have been extraordinarily high. He said he didn’t believe the much-vaunted ‘tanks’ deserved all the credit they had been given, and he heard they had failed entirely on the Guards’ front.
There was no doubt the Guards had taken an atrocious beating. Two days earlier, Cynthia recorded the kind of information which was most certainly out of reach to the general public:
The Grenadiers are sending out a draft of twenty-one officers to replace casualties….
On September 25, she had more news of Mark:
….The circumstances of Mark’s death seem particularly cruel…He had had such prolonged torture, hating every minute of it, and owing to bad health (he hadn’t been sleeping at all), he was just coming home to go on a staff. He got through the battle all right, and had just gone across to another trench to congratulate his brother-in-law, Ian Colquhoun, on both their escapes; on his way back, Ian saw him blown to bits by a stray shell. That wonder fire-eater Ian is said to have killed about thirty Germans with his own hands, the three last with a club. Apparently one of the tanks let down the Guards terribly when they relied on it, as it fell over and let them exposed. The casualties in the brigade have been too appalling. They say headquarters were hit, and that is why the lists are coming in so slowly.
One of those casualties was another nephew of Margot Asquith’s, Edward (‘Bim’) Tennant. Having enlisted at seventeen, he had been serving with the 4th Battalion Grenadier Guards in France since August 1915, and became a Company Commander during the battle of Loos. Bim was not only brave, but refined — a keen poet, whose oeuvre includes the touching Home Thoughts in Laventie. On September 22, he took part in the attack on the village of Lesboeufs and was killed by a sniper. He was nineteen years old.
His Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Seymour later wrote:
We all loved him, and his loss is terrible. …His Company was holding a sap occupied by Germans and ourselves, a block separated the two. Bim was sniping when he was killed absolutely instantaneously by a German sniper. His body is buried in a cemetery near Guillemont. The grave is close to that of Raymond Asquith, and we are placing a Cross upon it and railing it round today. Forgive this scribble, we are still in action and attack again tomorrow morning…
On the night of September 20, this exceptional young man had written what would be his last letter — to his mother:
Tonight we go up to the last trenches we were in, and to-morrow or the next day we go over the top. Our Brigade has suffered less than either of the other two Brigades in Friday’s biff on the 15th, so we shall be in the forefront of this battle. I am full of hope and trust, and I pray that I may be worthy of my fighting ancestors; the one I know best is Sir Henry Wyndham whose bust is in the hall at 44 Belgrave Square, and there is another picture of him at 34 Queen Anne’s Gate.
We shall probably attack over about 1200 yards, but we shall have such artillery support as will probably smash the line we are going for; and even if the artillery doesn’t come up to our hope (which is very unlikely) the spirit of the Guards will carry all resistance before it! O darling Moth’, the price of being in so great a regiment! The thought that all the old men ‘late Grenadier Guards’ who sit in London clubs, are thinking and helping about what we are doing here now!
I have never been prouder of anything, except your love for me, than I am being a Grenadier. The line of Harry’s rings through my mind: ‘High heart, high speech, high deeds, ‘mid honouring eyes’. I went to a service on the side of a hill this morning, and I took the Holy Communion afterwards, which always seems to help one along, doesn’t it? I slept like a top last night and dreamed that someone I knew very well, but I can’t remember who it was, came and told me how much I had grown.
Three or four of my brother officers read my poems yesterday, and they all liked them very much which pleased me enormously. I feel rather like saying ‘if it be possible let this cup pass from me’, but the triumphant finish ‘nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou willest’ steels my heart, and sends me into this battle with a heart of triple bronze.
I always carry 4 photies of you when I go into action, one in my note-case, two in that little leather book, and one around my neck. And I have kept my medal of the Blessed Virgin. Brutus’ farewell to Cassius sounds in my heart: ‘If not, farewell: and if we meet again, we shall smile’. Your love for me and my love for you have made my life one of the happiest that has ever been. This is a great day for me. God bless and give you Peace. Now all my blessings go with you always, and with all we love.
Eternal love from Bim.
Thank you for reading!
David Hargreaves taught History at London’s Westminster School for almost thirty years, where he was Head of the Sixth Form and Housemaster of Grant’s, the oldest boarding house in the country. He now has an education consultancy.
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