The death of liberal England?

THE OSTENSIBLE DRAMA OF the week was the evacuation from Gallipoli, This was victory of a kind, albeit one snatched from the jaws of a great Allied defeat.

The business of getting people out of the danger zone had been the stuff of nightmares for commanders. Evacuation was legendarily bloody and terrible. In the event, the retreat from Gallipoli was an outstanding success: 35,268 troops, 3,689 horses and mules, 328 vehicles and I,600 tons of equipment were removed right under the nose of the enemy.

The deceptions used at Anzac and Suvla were now repeated at Cape Helles: deploying all the resources of technology and subterfuge, Allied artillery kept firing and troops were paraded as visibly as possible until the last moment. Then, each night, boats took men off the peninsula. By the morning of 7 January, around 16,000 had gone, leaving only 19,000 to hold the lines. That day, Liman von Sanders, commander of the Turkish troops, launched an attack backed by a heavy artillery barrage. But it was a half-hearted affair, easily repulsed by the British who were supported by heavy fire from their ships offshore.

The danger with a gamble that pays off is that the risks run become later discounted. Oc Asquith, waiting to leave with his men of the Hood Division, later told his father that the decision to delay the evacuation had been ‘a wicked gamble with the weather’. In its final hours, the wind had risen to 35 miles an hour and the waves were tumultuous. For many soldiers now prised from the extreme danger of fighting on land, the first taste of freedom came in the guise of desperate sea-sickness. Indeed, some lighters were damaged against the piers as the storm grew. But Allied luck held and the navy managed to get the last boat away at 3.45 a.m.

There had been no space on board for any of the 500 mules upon whose labour troops had depended. Much to the men’s distress, they were shot. The Anglo-Saxon sentimentality for animals seemed unquenchable, although it was apparently not shared by General Maude, in command of the 13th (Western Division). He later declared: ‘I do not think we left behind us £200 worth of stuff worth having. I got away all my guns and ammunition and we even destroyed the sandbags which we had to leave in the parapets by ripping them with bayonets or clasp knives to make them useless’. The supplies that had to be left, plus a couple of magazines of explosives and ammunition, were blown up. That gave most Turks their first clue as to what had just taken place. At once they began shelling the abandoned Allied positions — way too late.

Evacuation came as almost as great a surprise to most Allies troops. Marine Joe Clement of the Royal Marine Light Infantry remembered that ‘The first we knew of the evacuation was when the French moved out on the 1st January. We spread out into their trenches to extend the line. We didn’t know that Anzac and Suvla had already been evacuated. On the 8th of January we began to destroy food and rifles that were not needed. We then tied empty sandbags around our feet, secured our water bottles so that they wouldn’t clank around, and at midnight we moved off. I carried my machine-gun for over five miles in the dark until we reached the beach.

Relief was often overshadowed by regret — even resentment. Ordinary Seaman Joe Murray, Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division recalled: ‘I thought to myself, “I don’t like sneaking away like this after all this bloody trouble”. I was really distressed in my own mind. I thought to myself, “We’re stealing away. We stole away from Blandford, stole away from Egypt and now we’re stealing away from Gallipoli”….I remembered Colonel Quilter, a great big chap, a ‘straight as a poker’ ex-Guards Officer. I remembered him leading the advance and going to his death armed with a huge walking stick. He told us when we were on the boat, just before we landed, that the eyes of the world would be upon us. Well, the eyes of the Turks certainly were, and so were their rifles, but the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten us.’

So — the Gallipoli campaign had ended. The decision had been made urgent by the scale of Allied losses, and by a reluctant understanding that it was unwinnable. The single consolation was that the influx of troops who had been now evacuated would allow the Entente to focus on the main theatres of war.This point held huge implications for the coming year. In the west, unknown to any but a handful of Germans, these would be experienced at Verdun and the Somme.

Both Allied and German commanders were preparing for spring offensives. Chief of Staff Falkenhayn had presented his Christmas Memorandum to the Kaiser (known to posterity only from Falkenhayn’s memoirs) in which he outlined his hopes of crushing France by launching a massive attritional attack at Verdun. Here, he believed, France would feel obliged to ‘throw in every man they have. If they do so, the French will bleed to death’.

It was a shrewd, if cynical, choice. Verdun occupied a highly strategic location: the city was located on the River Meuse, and hosted a vital railway junction, disgorging fresh supplies and troops. It had great historical resonance, not least since its fort had been the last to fall during the ill-starred Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Defeat the French here, Falkenhayn considered, and they would sue for peace, even of Britain did not. Then would come the opportunity for Germany to turn its full might on perfidious Albion.

Some Frenchman had already spotted that Verdun could be a weak-spot. Emile Driant, the popular author and Parliamentary deputy, warned it was dangerously under-manned and complained that extra defences were being built too slowly. Joffre, on the other hand, was apparently unconvinced, and even sent troops from the area to relieve other sectors. He was also preoccupied by the prospect of launching a great offensive during the year and had written to Sir Douglas Haig, suggesting the Somme might be an appropriate launching point. The latter, he suggested, enjoyed the advantage of being considered a ‘quiet sector’.

Whatever lay ahead, Joffre believed that the French needed more help from the British. At year’s opening, the latter had 38 (under-strength) divisions in France, with 51 divisions scattered in other places, including at home. The French, by contrast, had 95 divisions deployed on the Western Front alone. Joffre believed that France ‘now began to reach the limit of her resources in men, while the diminution which her effectives would suffer during the course of 1916 already stared her in the face’. Put more simply, fresh fighting would call for fresh blood.

Hearing that 651,160 unstarred single men had not offered themselves for military service, the Daily Sketch opined on 5 January:

If the 650,000 unstarred and unattested singe men had enlisted and been trained and equipped, it cannot be questioned that such a force could have:-
Saved Belgium,
Prevented the retreat from Mons,
Made it impossible for the Germans to undertake the invasion of Russia,
Preserved the freedom of Serbia,
Triumphantly stormed the Gallipoli Peninsula and advanced on Constantinople from other points.
If such a force were now available it would make an immediate offensive possible in the West. At any time during the campaign it could have acted with decisive effect; and in the critical year of 1916 it will be able, if ready, to decide the war.
But the 650,000 men will be too late again unless they are fetched at once.

The popular press perpetuated a world in which there were only heroes and villains. The heroes were the gallant men who had answered the nation’s call to arms, and the villains were those who had refused to do so. Lord Derby’s report on recruiting, published on 4 January, had apparently confirmed the failure of persuasion.

The post of the Military Service Bill in the House of Commons on 5 January was one of the landmark moments of the war, and it marked a dramatic, unprecedented, assertion of state power. Its explanation rests upon the grudging acknowledgement by the War Cabinet that the war could never be won without allies, and that conscription was the very least it would take to keep those allies on side. Public indignation levelled at those at home who had refused to Do Their Bit was just froth.

For many of the government’s critics, however, no degree of national emergency could justify such a contingency. The former Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, resigned immediately. The next day, 6 January, the Trades Union Congress opposed conscription by a majority of 1 million. For most union leaders, patriotism took second place to safeguarding their members’ livelihoods — the raison d’etre of unionism, after all. What guarantees would be made to conscripted men that they would be able to return to their old jobs when the war eventually ended? And — horror of horrors — what would happen to the closed shop? The new workers might not even belong to a trade union! Labour ministers, who had previously supported the Bill, now resigned. The Times newspaper, seldom in the vanguard of popular radicalism, denounced the corruption of socialists within the ranks of the TUC.

Thus did conscription threaten to reawaken the old fault lines of capital and labour, eclipsing the imperfect but impressive domestic consensus Britain had enjoyed for the past seventeen months.

If only that had been all. Its implications were at least as grave in Ireland. The Home Rule crisis had nearly propelled the country into civil war in 1914, until hostilities with Germany had diverted everyone’s attention. But, if His Majesty demanded the services of his loyal subjects on the mainland, why should those in Ireland be exempted? And (so wondered many in Ireland) for how long would they be? Sixty Irish nationalists voted against the Bill, even though the measure specifically excluded Ireland.

The Irish Times in its editorial on 6 January opined: ‘The Compulsion Bill is extremely moderate in its terms. It provides that if, after due opportunity of enquiry, it is found that there are single men of military age who have no ground whatever for exemption or excuse, they shall be deemed to have ‘attested’. This simple provision ingeniously avoids any necessity of prescribing penalties; for, when the men ‘deemed to have attested’ are called into the Army, they will thereby become subject to military law.’

In fact, for some time there had been oblique but determined efforts to win over hearts and minds in Ireland. These were undertaken less with a mind to see men enlist than to identify with Britain at war. At the end of December 1915, John Redmond, the moderate leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, published an account of his visit to the Front which had taken place in mid-November. His aim had been to visit every Irish regiment but he had also ‘met Irishmen everywhere in every regiment and in every branch of the service’. On 19 November, he visited the 2nd Army under General Plumer, including the Leinsters, and met Irish chaplains who ‘spoke in the highest praise of the extraordinary spirit of the men, their good behaviour and their devotion to their religious duties’. From Armentieres, he proceeded to Plug Street Wood, ‘now one mass of barbed wire entanglements’ and was struck by the continuous roar of guns and ‘hardly any cessation from rifle fire and from machine-gun fire of varying intensity’.

Whilst there, a stray bullet struck and killed a Waterford man nearby, one of Redmond’s own constituents. Redmond recorded that, ‘One of the most pathetic sights in this wood was the soldiers’ graveyard, which looked as if thousands of soldiers had been buried in it, each grave tastefully dressed, with a plain cross with the name of the man and the date of his death, most of them having wild flowers and bits of ribbon attached, and some of them with the poor fellow’s cap hanging on the top of the cross’. Soldiers told him that a valued present would be boxes of nightlights as they were permitted to burn these in their dug-outs. He met the Irish Rifles with men from the north and south of Ireland, ‘best of comrades and friends’.

On 20 November, he had seen a French Algerian battalion, ‘most picturesque figures. They made a brave show on their beautiful Arab ponies’. He then visited the most senior Irish regiment, the 18th Royal Irish, and conveyed Sir John French’s congratulations ‘for their gallantry in the field’. They claimed to have popularised the song, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. The following day he visited the Guards’ Division under Lord Cavan, ‘one of the heroes of this war…from my own observation I am certain that his men would follow him anywhere to the death’. He thought the Guards were ‘all giants with unusual uniformity of height’ and mentioned their deep grief at the death of their Jesuit chaplain, Fr Gwynn, who had died of wounds on 12 October.

Redmond was now introduced to the so-called ‘Madonnas of Pervyse’, Elsie Knocker and Mhairi Chisholme. ‘In Pervyse, in a half-ruined two-storey house in the middle of universal ruin, we found two English ladies were living’ he recalled. ‘…they have remained there all through the war, tending the wounded and succouring the starving children of the remnant population…It is not surprising that the Belgian people look upon them with a sort of supernatural and sacred love.’

His access to the great and the good — other new acquaintances included the Prince of Wales, Sir John French, Major Winston Churchill and King Albert of Belgium — was a consequence less of chance than of political calculation. Redmond knew what was expected of him. Soon after his return from France, he gave a speech to the London Irish Regiment extolling the way the Ulster Division from Belfast was side by side with the Dubliners, ‘like true comrades, risking their lives and spilling their blood together’. He felt the Irish deserved more mention in despatches including for the gallantry at Loos of the London Irish, first into the village of Loos.

Redmond had the spiritual sensitivity to embrace people both sides of the Irish Sea. He had been profoundly affected by seeing a crucifix still hanging on a pier in the shelled cathedral at Nieuport. ‘It looked like a new Calvary’ amidst ‘absolute desolation and solitude and wretchedness.’ His speech ended with an appeal for recruits, saying that Irish soldiers felt they were fighting ‘not just for historic principles of liberty and right’ but also ‘for the freedom and prosperity of their beloved island’. Redmond appealed for help in ‘repelling the greatest attack upon civilisation that has ever been made’. The suspicions of many of the Irish would not, however, be so easily allayed. Centuries of bilious ill-will divided them, and any war undertaken on this scale made the occupying power look more imperious, not less.

The British — government, press, people at large — had always been rather good at expressing high dudgeon and moral outrage. Much in the behaviour of the enemy during the previous year and a half of war had offered them ample opportunity in which to indulge in it. But allied morality also sometimes rested on extremely shaky ground. On 5 January, the British Government responded to enemy complaints following the alleged murder of the crew of a German submarine by the crew of a British auxiliary cruiser, the Baralong. This had happened on 19 August, the same day that the passenger ship the Arabic had been sunk. There were dark suspicions that the British had exploited the legal loophole under which it was legitimate to display a neutral flag until just before any military action occurred. Worse still, there came strong indications that the U-boat crew had been shot in cold blood after they had surrendered.

In the grip of war, however, The British government was not about to wring any bleeding liberal hearts in public. In its reply, it did little more than dismiss the complaints as unfounded, and reminded Germany of its own many breaches of international law. A hundred years later, this riposte reads very weakly indeed.

In other circumstances, Vera Brittain was one of the relatively rare civilians who might have been swift to see through this guff. When her leave ended on 3 January she returned to night-duty in Camberwell which she hated, feeling everyone’s eyes were on her as she mourned the death of her fiancé. Roland Leighton’s last moments had been described in letters to his parents. Apparently he had gone out alone to repair the wire and been shot by a sniper. He was conveyed to a Casualty Clearing Station at Louvencourt and operated on and Except for the time when He was actually under the operation, he was conscious from the time he was wounded up to the very last. She learned he died a Roman Catholic and had received the sacraments from the chaplain. Not unreasonably, this news moved her far less than the fact that he had apparently left no final message for her.