Preconceived ideas

October 31st to November 6th 1916

The Queen of Romania and Prince Mircea

FOR THE GERMANS, Verdun had become the stuff of nightmares. Following the previous week’s losses, their forces continued to retire from key positons. Fort Vaux was evacuated and was re-occupied by the French on 5 November.

Wilhelm Hermanns’ unit marched into the Verdun sector in the later stages of the battle:

[I] saw a handful of soldiers, led by a captain, emerging slowly, one by one, between the trees. The captain asked what company we were, and then suddenly he started to weep. Was he suffering from shell shock? The captain said, ‘When I saw you coming, I thought of how I came six days ago on this same road with about one hundred men. Now look at those who are left!’

We look as we passed them. There were about twenty men. They walked like living plaster statues. Their faces stared at us like those of shrunken mummies, and their eyes seemed so huge that one saw nothing but eyes. Those eyes, which had not seen sleep for four days and nights, portrayed the vision of death….Was this the realization of the dream of glory that I had when I volunteered to march with the Kaiser through the Arc de Triomphe?

That, a reader might say, is what happens when you succumb to hubris. Falkenhayn had sworn to bleed the French white, and now the French were determined to punish his hubris and to exact revenge. There is no reason, of course, to believe that the bombastic claims of commanders impacted much upon ordinary foot soldiers — but the French, just then, were in no mood to give anyone in a German army uniform the benefit of the doubt.

The British Army on the Somme were ground down, but also intact and far from defeated. The objectives for the final offensives in early November were the same as they had been on 1 July: Beaucourt, Beaumont Hamel, Redan Ridge and Serre. The British Fourth Army attacked between Le Sars and Le Transloy and captured the trench east of Gueudecourt on 2 November, while the French Sixth Army enjoyed some success in the area of St Pierre Vaast Wood, both attacks ending on 5 November. It was bloody stuff: every inch was hard won, but it was difficult to believe in the strategic significance of their gains.

inside the fortress of Vaux, 1916

Militarily, the stalemate in the west had not been broken, despite the colossal exertions of the past eleven months. At least, the Entente lacked Germany’s galumphing diplomacy — her statesmen had an uncanny ability to make themselves unpopular among those upon whose neutrality she depended. On 4 November, Norway issued a second Note to Germany — the diplomatic equivalent of a yellow card — insisting upon her right to forbid her coast to German submarines. Norway was highly dependent on imports and possessed a considerable merchant navy, but while she had tried since the start of the war to continue trade as usual, the Germans were unprepared to step aside if such commerce gave advantage to their enemies.

By autumn 1916, German U-boats had found their way to the Arctic Sea and were sinking ships engaged in traffic with Russia through Archangelsk. For the Norwegians this escalation risked compromising their economic lifeline. On 13 October, their government had issued this warning to Germany: Submarines equipped for warfare and belonging to a belligerent Power must not navigate or stay in Norwegian maritime territory. If they violate this prohibition, they risk being attacked by armed forces without warning. The Germans were outraged: her policy towards Norway was conditioned by a crude cost-benefit analysis rather than by any anxiety to uphold international law, and she responded by sinking even more ships — bad news for those paying maritime insurance premiums and a significant threat to coal exports of both the British and French.

Bergen in Norway during the First World War

The diplomatic coup for which, of course, the Entente devoutly hoped, was to prise the United States out of neutrality. Just now, it seemed an unreachable goal. They were facing a bitterly fought Presidential Election on 7 November and feelings were running high. The Democratic incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, had based his campaign on his popular progressive legislation and led on the slogan, He kept us out of the war — a claim which recommends itself less to posterity than, it was hoped, it would to the electorate. His Republican challenger, Charles Evan Hughes, a former Governor of New York, was concentrating his firepower on Wilson’s moral fibre, or lack thereof, evidencing his doubts on the basis of the President having contracted a second marriage tactlessly soon following the death of his first wife in 1915.

As was often the case, any sense of the overall progress of the war was complicated by the volatility of those powers in the east. General Sakharov arrived on 1 November to take charge of the Russian forces in Dobruja as fierce fighting continued and the Austrians advanced in Torzburg, Predeal and the Roter Turm Passe.

Set against the travails of the Romanian Army, the bedside vigil kept by the Queen of that troubled nation for her three year-old son Mircea may seem anti-climactic. Marie herself seemed sensitive to the possibility, even as the little boy battled with typhoid fever. She had left his bedside briefly on 29 October, her forty-ninth birthday, in order to deliver flowers to patients in her hospital and had sent wine and food to her regiment at the front, treats to the wounded in hospital, and cakes to the village children in Buftea. Thereafter, her diary records that she never left his side.

The crisis came on Thursday, 2 November:

Morning. He screams no more, but for two days he has an incessant movement of the jaw, clacking and grinding his teeth.

Midday. I think he is sinking. The doctors say nothing, but I think he is sinking….

Afternoon. He is sinking, now I feel sure he is going….

Evening. Mircea died at nine, his hand in mine.

The following day, the little prince was buried inside the old church at Cotroceni. After the funeral, his mother wrote that she felt like a ghost, and all the faces looking at me were the faces of ghosts.

Queen Marie of Romania

Later that month, as the fortunes of war continued to plummet, she was forced to flee the palace. She left a letter for the new occupants:

I do not know who will inhabit this house, a house that I have loved. The only prayer I ask is that they should not take away the flowers from the little new grave in the church.

For now, the Romanovs in Russia still exuded imperial magnificence. There was no sense in Tsarkoye Selo, the cluster of palaces in which the Empress and the five royal children spent most of their time, that anything might change. Appearances, however, contrived to deceive. True, the Russian fleet indulged in a spectacular show on strength on 4 November, bombarding Constanza which was now in the hands of the enemy. In reality, the military situation was becoming critical. For the past six weeks, Germany had focused more attention on the eastern front — a necessary business given the success of the summer Brusilov Offensive — and she had now succeeded in driving the Russians out of Galicia and Poland.

That was properly momentous: Poland had been for long a perfect metaphor of Russia’s imperial pretensions, but was now recast by the Central Powers as an independent state on 5 November. By the end of October, Russia had suffered devastating losses: between 1.6 and 1.8 million men were casualties, two million had been captured and a further one million were missing. Many of the new officers, who had been plucked out of the ranks to replace the thousands of the old officer-class who had been killed, were less disposed to deference than those whom they replaced. They had the ranker’s experience of what it felt like to be hungry, or to be short of weapons and ammunition, but often without the traditional officer’s grounding in tactics or strategy. The cumulative effect of the Russian military reversal in recent months began to impact insidiously upon their morale, and upon that of the private soldiers whom they purported to command.

Back home, food shortages and rising prices undermined civilian morale. It also distressed soldiers at the front, many of whom chafed to bring succour to their families. Petrograd was particularly affected, being distant from supply routes and with poor transportation networks. By early November, many shops were closing early, since the pathetic quantities of bread, sugar and meat available rendered longer opening hours superfluous. It has been estimated that working class women spent around forty hours a week foraging for food, some stealing wooden fencing to keep stoves alight. Many, in their desperation, turned to begging or prostitution.

Workers in the Putilovsky factory, Petrograd

In Petrograd, Okhrana, the security police, warned in October of the possibility in the near future of riots by the lower classes of the empire enraged by the burdens of existence. There was a demonstration, just along these lines, in Petrograd on the last day of the month which Maurice Paleologue, the French Ambassador to the Court of Nicholas II, described:

For the last two days all the factories have been on strike. The workmen left the shops without giving any reason, and simply on an order issued by some mysterious committee…Two French industrialists, Sicaut and Beaupied, were asking to see me. They are representatives of the ‘Louis Renault’ motor-car house….They said to me:

“Monsieur L’Ambassadeur, you know we’ve never had anything but praise for our workpeople, because they’ve never had anything but praise for us. So they’ve refused to join in the general strike. While work was in full swing this afternoon, a party of strikers from the Baranovsky works besieged our establishment, shouting: ‘Down with the French! No more war!’ Our engineers and foremen wanted to parley with them. They were received with stones and revolver shots.

One French engineer and three French foremen were seriously wounded. The police had meanwhile arrived, and soon realized that they could not cope with the situation. A squad of gendarmes then succeeded in forcing a way through the crowd, and went to fetch two infantry regiments which are in barracks quite near. The two regiments appeared a few minutes later, but instead of raising the siege they fired on the police.”

There is an undercurrent of foreboding to this extract which would prove, of course, entirely justified. The Ambassador’s words hint also at the conflicted feelings which characteristically attend great events: wistfulness that something so great and grand as the Romanov dynasty might be endangered, exasperation at the obstinacy which often characterised its rule, fearfulness of what might lie ahead, and pity for the unassailable harshness of the lives of its citizens.

Ambivalence was not, of course, a product of war, but war certainly encouraged polarised thinking. Anything which qualifies that adds texture and depth to our understanding. It certainly pervades the diaries and letters written this week by three of the war’s most faithful chroniclers, one of whom — Cynthia Asquith — noted on 1 November:

Conscience told me I must do some war work, so I went up to Sussex Square and Lady Seymour introduced me at the depot and I was instructed in the art of swabs, sitting between rather grim Brighton ladies in caps and aprons. It looks easy and is really very difficult, and I felt very humiliated by my clumsiness. I wasn’t at all good: my instructress kept assuring me that the ‘knack’ would come to me. I hope it may.

Lady Cynthia Asquith

Monday 6 November……Rested reading Byron’s letters. Walked up to the depot and made swabs for two hours. Got on better. The women workers are not attractive. One wonders what on earth they do when there is no war….

A good patriot, a woman of letters, and a reasonably pitiless observer of her own sex. People are never just one thing. Lady Diana Manners, socialite and beauty, later recalled putting in time doing shifts as a V.A.D. in Guy’s Hospital. The instinct to do so was perfectly sincere, but there was no corresponding desire to submerge other appetites:

I would fly out of the ward…Five minutes would see me painted and powdered and dressed (as I hoped) to kill, and into the arms of friends or friend.

Lady Diana was a gadfly — a silly woman in many ways. The same could not be said of Vera Brittain, nursing in St George’s Hospital, Malta. In a letter to her brother Edward on 4 November we can again observe that the seriousness with which she undertook her role did not detract from her pleasure at the access of responsibility:

I like this hospital immensely & cannot say anything good enough about the Matron & Assistant M. There are the fewest possible conventions & the greatest possible freedom; all the rules are so sensible that no one dreams of breaking them. As for the nonsense about V.A.D.s being unable to be left on duty without a Sister no one thinks anything of it here; if they did the Sisters couldn’t get off duty as often as there is only one to each block. It is a frequent occurrence to have charge of anything between 50 & 100 patients for a whole afternoon or evening & sometimes for a whole day when the Sister has a day off. Our block has five wards with 14 patients in each; there is only one Sister — & another V.A.D. & me there. It’s a task taking all their temperatures & pulses morning & evening; they all have medicines too, 3 times a day, sometimes two or three different kinds, which I have to give. They are all malarias & eye wounds & diseases. It makes me laugh to think how in some wards at the 1st London I wasn’t allowed to give a single medicine.

Edith Appleton, nursing in Etretat, was — in the discharge of her duty — as serious-minded as they get. But even she could succumb to a lighter, almost a coquettish, moment.

November 4 The chief event of yesterday was that Major Martyn returned, to the great joy of us all, and brought me the most beautiful pair of black silk stockings I have ever possessed. Great care must be taken of them.

Five days earlier, on 31 October, she had been more typically steely:

Had a heated discussion yesterday with my washerwoman on the treatment of ill ‘Boches’ — she thinks ‘kill the lot’.

Love, patriotism and service — she was someone upon whose good instincts one could rely:

2 November All Saints Day yesterday and some of us went to the 6.30 a.m. service. In the afternoon we put flowers on the graves of some of our men…

For both soldiers and civilians, the war also gave reasons to overturn assumptions. Rowland Feilding, commanding the 6th Battalion of the Connaught Rangers near Wytschaete, wrote to his wife on 31 October:

We are in the front line after tomorrow, and all is going well. How war alters one’s preconceived ideas! You know the sort of impression one is apt to get in England of the Irish Nationalist M.P.? Well, ours here! — you should see him — a refined, polished, brave gentleman; adored by his Company which he commanded before, earlier in the war. Knee-deep in mud and slush; enthusiastically doing the duty of a boy of twenty. I have seldom met a man who, on first acquaintance, took my fancy more. Have you ever read his books, which I am told are very beautiful? My only fear is that the exactions of the trenches during the winter months may prove too much for him.

Rowland Feilding

At the Hopital Auxiliare 301, at Royaumont, thirty kilometres from Paris, a bed was sponsored by the Ladies Lacrosse Association. An unnamed source, perhaps from that august quarter, was fascinated by the Arab soldiers who had been wounded at the Somme and were now incarcerated in the hospital:

The Arabs are mostly fine looking men, and with their scarlet Sex-caps, pale brown skins and dark eyes, add notably to the picturesque effect of the ward, which is most cheerful and cosy with its red coverlets and white walls. The present occupant of the L.L.A. [Ladies Lacrosse Association] bed is Ali Ben Hassan, an Arab from Tunis. He was wounded on July 1st at the Somme, and his hand has since been amputated. Unlike most of the Arabs he speaks a good deal of French, and told me that when he was hurt, he was with five others, including his own brother, in a trench, when a shell burst — and he was the only one of six left alive. As he said, ‘There was nothing at all left of the other five’.

He has three wives, but says they have all written that they don’t wish him to return without his hand. So he means to go to ‘Angleterre’ after the war. Ali is most enthusiastic about the care and attention he has received … and like nearly all the others, does not wish to leave. He is most docile and helpful in the ward. Both the Arabs and the Senegalis are very popular guests at all the Ward parties, and join in the games with the greatest gusto…

Soldiers had known terror from, virtually, the day war broke out. For civilians, its burdens grew incrementally. Most civilians in Germany by now lived on an unvaried diet of black bread, fatless sausages, three pounds of potatoes a week, turnips and one egg a fortnight. Piet Kuhr, in Scheidemuehl in East Prussia, wrote wistfully in her diary:

November 2 All we ever do is eat turnips, or queue for bread so we can have mustard or marjoram sandwiches.

Hunger notwithstanding, teenagers were teenagers:

All the bigger girls walk up and down Posner Street between four and five o’clock in the afternoon; they go ‘courting’ with the grammar-school boys and lieutenants. I must confess, dear diary, that [brother] Willi and I have started ‘courting’ too, and frankly we find it great fun.

But she was a good girl — signs of a scrupulous upbringing obtrude:

Yesterday I met Lieutenant Waldecke. He was walking arm-in-arm with two ‘ladies’. He bowed politely and gave me a military salute. I nodded coolly; however, I went beetroot red again.

Rumours that some German officers were living high off the hog embittered civilians. An Englishwoman living in Prussia, Evelyn, Princess Blucher, heard from a soldier on leave that the officers were having the time of their lives even now. Every day for dinner the tables are decorated with flowers; the officers have butter in quantities, eggs, meat, all most beautifully prepared and the table laid as if they were in a first-rate hotel. Following each regiment there is always sufficient baggage among which are crockery and glass, forks and knives of the best kind. One officer had even his dishes in silver…The men get nothing of all this, neither butter, eggs, nor forks and knives…

While there was no doubt that most officers enjoyed whatever advantages rank conveyed, the picture painted here seems too fantastic to be generally true. Food was powerful currency, communicating reassurance as well as sustenance, and both were commodities beyond price. It surfaces fleetingly but tellingly in the diary of Vasily Mishnin, on leave at home in Penza for a few days after months on the move with the Russian Army and latterly at Gorodok in Belarus.

31 October At 9.30 in the morning I am back in Penza. I hire a horse and cart for one rouble and two minutes later I am with my family. We can’t stop crying. All is well at home and my son is growing well, praised be the Lord. I spent all day at home. I am so happy I cannot describe it in words.

1 November I wake up in the morning and I feel such joy in my heart. My son is already at me: ‘Daddy, get up!’ I spent all day at home playing with Vasya.

3 November A holiday, the Day of Our Lady of Kazan. I sleep in. Nyura has been up for ages, all the pies are ready and we have tea.


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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