The Last Moments Of Don Juan

April 4th to April 10th 1916

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MAYBE THIS WAS THE WEEK in which were laid the seeds of victory. Not, however, that one would have guessed it. Verdun hung in the balance and the Allies stood on the brink of the greatest danger since the Germans had advanced on the Marne in September 1914.

At 7am on Sunday 9 April, the Germans launched their heaviest bombardment since the start of the offensive on 21 February. Their commanders, the Crown Prince and the cavalry general Eugen von Falkenhayn (brother of the Commander-in-Chief) aimed to secure the Cote du Poivre ridge on the east bank and to capture Cote 304 and Le Mort Homme on the west.

The French faced an onslaught which consumed seventeen full trainloads of ammunition, and the German rapidly reached the top of Le Mort Homme. Capitain Auguste Cochin on Cote 304 judged the shelling to be the worst ordeal suffered so far: ‘Like the poor beggars in the Gospel, I pleaded not to die so senselessly, I and my poor biffins [rag-pickers], who were driven half-mad; round-eyed, no longer answering when I spoke to them.’

In the initial trauma, the French retreated — but a counter-attack saw them regain the crest. The Germans paid for their brief tenancy of Hill 295 with 2,200 casualties. Determined French defenders held Cote 304 and Cote du Poivre. On 10 April, Petain — normally so laconic — issued a jubilant Order of the Day:

April 9th was a glorious day for our armies. The furious attacks of the Crown Prince broke down everywhere. The infantry, artillery, sappers and aviators of the Second Army vied with each other in valour. Honour to all. No doubt the Germans will attack again. Let all work and watch that yesterday’s success be continued. Courage. On les aura!

At this moment, Petain’s greatest aggravations were probably those with his superiors. His noria system involved replacing his soldiers after around eight days at Verdun, and he was constantly harassing Joffre to send fresh troops. The Commander-in-Chief, however, seemed keen to remove him from the scene of his glory by promoting him. He also needed to mollify the British by preparing soldiers for the Somme offensive.

The previous week’s Battle of the St Eloi Craters had aimed, in Haig’s words, at “straightening out the line” by removing a small enemy salient. The latter was 600 yards wide, one hundred of which encroached into the British lines. The ground, three miles south of Ypres, had already been extensively mined by both sides and, while the attack of 27 March had been successful, some 1,000 men of the 9th Brigade who were relieved by the 8th and 76th Brigades had been sacrificed. The attack became etched into national memory, having been filmed by Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins — the first instance of a British attack being caught on camera.

Now the King’s Own Brigade (Royal Lancaster Regiment) were tasked with ejecting the Germans from their remaining foothold, the No.5 Crater. After a one-hour bombardment, the crater was attacked on 3 April when Captain ‘Billy’ La Touche Congreve won the DSO for capturing five German officers and seventy-seven men. He later described reaching the crater: “Imagine my surprise and horror when I saw a whole crowd of armed Boches! I stood there for a moment feeling a bit sort of shy, and then I levelled my revolver at the nearest Boche and shouted ‘Hands up, all the lot of you!’ A few went up at once, then a few more and then the lot; and then I felt the proudest fellow in the world as I cursed them.” The Germans counter-attacked on 6 April but failed to retake this important spot. The 2nd Canadian Division held onto the craters and the threat to British positions from the salient was removed.

Elsewhere the British faced despairing losses. More Allied shipping was sunk this week including the Clan Campbell, the Zent and the P&O liner Simla, torpedoed without warning by U-39 in the Mediterranean. Around sixty lives were lost. The fate of troops besieged at Kut-al-Amara also continued to deteriorate. Colonel Maule’s diary entry for 9 April recorded:

The General had us all out of bed at 5.30am this morning to watch the bombardment, and was quite stuffy with me because I didn’t agree that the shells were bursting nearer to us. It’s pretty sickening to know Gorringe is seventeen miles off and yet can’t get through.

What Maule and others could not have known were that the relief force had suffered huge loss as it mounted yet another attempt to relieve the garrison. It had taken Um-el-Hanna and Falahiya on the right bank of the Tigris on 5 April and then launched another attack on the well-defended Turkish positions at Sanna-i-Yat on 9 April, only to be repulsed having sustained some 2,800 casualties. Five Victoria Crosses were won in these actions — one for a chaplain, William Addison, and all for bravery in rescuing the wounded whilst under constant fire.

Rumours now spread that the Russians were advancing from near Kermanshah — too many miles away to rouse much cheer from hungry and desperate troops within the fortress, for whom starvation now loomed. On 10 April, the slaughter of riding horses began. Until now, only mules and draught horses had been sacrificed.

As an NCO now went down the line of tethered, trembling horses and shot them, Captain Edward Mousley gathered fresh grass for his beloved black horse, Don Juan, kissed him on the cheeks and then walked away as his horse watched him. That evening his supper consisted of Don Juan’s heart and kidneys — parts traditionally reserved for the owner. Mousley noted in his diary: “I am sure he would have preferred that I, rather than another, should do so.” He was also given his horse’s black tail which he would keep for the rest of his life.

That was the best of British. It was not one which had been much in evidence in the eyes of many Irish, whose country now stood on the edge of civil war. Many were angered by the postponement of Home Rule, legislation for which had been passed before the war. Many more despised the prospect — interpreting it as a patronising consolation gift by an illegal occupying power and wanting only full independence. For them, “England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity”.

Many of those determined to seize the moment now came together, though not always easily. These included Thomas Clarke, a well-known campaigner for Irish independence who had spent fifteen year in British jails. He now organised members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) from his tobacconist’s shop in Dublin.

Clarke had already masterminded a propaganda coup for nationalists in August 1915 when he had brought home from America the dead body of the famous Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa for a grand funeral which he rightly calculated the British would not dare to ban. Attended by over 100,000, the crowd had been treated to an unforgettable and inspiring graveside oration from Padraig Pearse which had ended:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.
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Pearse, now a member of the Military Council set up to organise the rising, had enlisted socialist and trade union activist, James Connolly. He was revered for his defence of workers during the infamous Dublin Lockout of 1913 and had helped to create the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) to protect the workers from police brutality — a perennial for many Irish citizens — and Pearse wanted them on side.

In the planned uprising, the main soldiers would be the Irish Volunteers, a paramilitary group which had been formed in 1913 in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers. The latter were hell-bent on resisting Home Rule and in 1914 had been ready to take up arms against Britain to that end. Then the war had intervened and, further complicating the competing networks of loyalty, thousands of Irish Volunteers had joined the fight on the side of the British. They had been encouraged to do so by John Redmond in the belief that such support would accelerate the granting of Home Rule.

By no means all of them, however. 11,000 refused the claims of a country and monarch they did not consider to be their own. Indeed, one of the Council, the tubercular Joseph Plunkett had been sent to Germany the previous year to liaise with Sir Roger Casement, who was trying to secure German help with the Irish struggle. Plunkett was socially a cut above those identified with insurrection, having been educated at Stonyhurst in Lancashire where he had received a military grounding with the College’s Officer Training Corps. Casement’s involvement was also not yet suspected: he had been knighted in 1905 for his human rights work in Africa — clearly a sign of the trust espoused in him by the British.

Much had changed in the past eleven years. In 1914, he had organised a landing of around 900 Mauser rifles at Howth, and now hoped to obtain a German undertaking to send troops to land on the west coast of Ireland. He was forced to settle instead for 20,000 rifles, 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition, ten machine-guns and a quantity of explosives. The Germans also refused to supply military advisors, but the arms were loaded onto a merchant vessel SS Libau which set sail from Lubeck on 9 April, now disguised as the Norwegian vessel Aud.

Still ignorant of these machinations, the British Government was content for now to worry mainly about the Germans — and money. The Budget was introduced on 4 April, raising some £509 million by increasing income tax (though not for servicemen) and imposing new duties on railway tickets, entertainments, matches, table water and cider. It was described in a leader in the Daily Telegraph the following day: “A fiscal burden such as no other nation in the world could attempt to shoulder, and such as no man in his senses two short years ago dreamed of seeing laid upon the people of this country at this time.”

Asquith was not in the Commons to field any brickbats, being at the tail end of his Italian visit which he was enjoying unaffectedly. He met King Victor Emmanuel at his villa outside Udine where the Italian General Headquarters were based. Sir Maurice Hankey was much taken by the King’s asceticism: “His bedroom is furnished with two straw-seated chairs and a camp bed — no carpet nor pictures except photographs of his wife and children. He rises at 5.30 in summer and almost always lunched in the field.”

The British party also visited the Raccolano valley where Hankey was “much struck by the men, who were well set up, healthy, in first-rate spirits, and obviously had an excellent understanding with their officers.

On 4 April they toured the Isonzo front. Hanley recalled:

What impressed most was the admirable lines of defence in rear of the army — ten lines at least, concreted where they were in low-lying ground. (Memo. Why don’t our people concrete their trenches?) The Italians had built splendid roads everywhere, made partly by their Territorial troops (old stagers) and party by civilian labour, hired on three months’ contracts and employed in military formations. (Memo. Why not hire Italian labour on short engagement and in military formations to work on our docks, railways and mines? The Germans had three to five million Italians working for her when Italy went to war with Austria and won’t let them go. She gets more work out of the Italians than we do. Yet the economic state of Italy depends entirely on us!)

Although the return journey included a somewhat chilly douche — they met Prime Minister Briand in Paris, who, according to Hankey, “demanded a loan of £60,000,000” — Margot Asquith’s diary recorded jubilantly:

[Henry] wired every day. He returned from Rome at 4 am Thursday morning 6th April 1916, Charing Cross station, having had the time of his life — reception the greatest ever given to a British Prime Minister.

In addition to the budget fallout, Asquith arrived home hard on the heels of a highly successful government initiative. The previous day, the London Gazette had announced the creation of a new gallantry decoration, the Military Medal, specifically for Other Ranks. It was extended in June to include women as well. The new award chimed in comfortably with the social mores of the time. It also suggested sensitivity and pragmatism on the part of those who had discerned that this People’s War required People’s Medals.

That sense of a nation united was also uncommonly assisted by the publication on Monday 10 April of the official report into the dire state of a prisoner-of-war camp at Wittenberg. The Government Committee on the Treatment by the Enemy of British Prisoners-of-War had been taking evidence from repatriated prisoners-of-war about this camp, and about the typhus epidemic which had raged there in 1914–1915, but had delayed its publication until it could interview three surviving doctors all from the Royal Army Medical Corps, who had just been released from Germany.

The details were stark. The camp housed around 15,000 prisoners — 8,000 British, and French, Belgians and Russians. Crowded in unheated huts on a ten-acre site, the men endured a poor diet and inadequate clothing since, on capture, their overcoats had been taken away. Thus: “Their remaining clothes were often in rags … many with neither boots nor socks; many others had their feet wrapped in straw”. Brutal guards enforced discipline using savage dogs and flogging. The Germans insisted on housing all nationalities together, saying the British “should get to know their Allies better”.

Since the Russians, however, had been infested with lice, disease spread. In December 1914 typhus had broken out, at which all German personnel promptly departed. Guards passed food through chutes but no medical help was provided until February 1915 when four British POW doctors, without being told of the typhus, were sent to the camp. Three died, helped only by volunteers from the other prisoners.

As the Report recorded, surviving prisoners were “gaunt, of a peculiar grey pallor and verminous … Major Priestley saw delirious men waving arms brown to the elbow with faecal matter. The patients were alive with vermin; in the half-light he attempted to brush what he took to be an accumulation of dust from the folds of a patient’s clothes, and he discovered it to be a moving mess of lice.”

Herculean efforts by the British doctors had gradually controlled the outbreak though “for months the plague-stricken Camp was starved of the barest necessities of existence and of the simplest drugs, and was not even provided with surgical dressings for the patients’ wounds.” The German Medical Officer, Dr Aschenbach, responsible for the camp, came only once, “attired in a complete suit of protective clothing including a mask and rubber gloves. His inspection was brief and rapid.” Of the 250–300 cases of typhus amongst the British prisoners, over sixty died. As the makeshift cheap coffins bore the dead bodies away, locals stood and jeered.

The Report’s conclusions were devastating: despite evident availability of food and medical supplies the prisoners had been treated with “deliberate cruelty and neglect” and with an inexcusable refusal to nurse the sick as required by the Geneva Convention. In a subsequent article, The Spectator would condemn the wilful dereliction of professional duty by German doctors and insist ‘That is why we cannot help looking upon the Wittenberg affair as in its special significance — in all that it implies about the German character — the worst thing that has yet happened in the war.’ Others claimed that the refusal to assist typhus victims constituted a war crime.

Discussion of “the German character” rings uneasily in modern ears. By way of contrast and corrective, it is right to record also that news reached Germany this week of the death of another of its most talented artists. Franz Marc, co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter and leading Expressionist painter had been killed near Verdun on 4 March. He had been drafted into the cavalry in 1914 and, in common with others, had hoped war would be a revitalising force: ‘I dream of a new Europe, I see in this war the healing, if also gruesome, path to our goals; it will purify Europe and make it ready.’

The experience of war had, however, been sobering. Two days before he died he had written to his wife that, “For days I have seen nothing but the most awful scenes that the human mind can imagine”. Although unknown to them, the German government had identified him as among notable artists who should be withdrawn from combat for their own safety. He died before the orders for reassignment reached him.

Since February 1916 he had been employed in painting canvas covers to camouflage hiding artillery from aerial observation and had taken pleasure in this work and the variety of styles he could use. “Whoever strives for purity and knowledge” he had written with feeling, “to him death always comes as a saviour”.

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